Klaus Balkenhol – The pioneer of classic dressage

«We need to give ourselves more time with the horse»,  says the German trainer and Olympic winner Klaus Balkenhol, who ones trained two police horses to Grand Prix level.

By Therese Alhaug. Photo Therese Alhaug & Malene Nilssen

– Things take as long as they take» says the renowned trainer and dressage veteran who argued that impatience is a threat to classical training principles when training today´s horses. However, it is not only in relation to horses that Balkenhol sees haste as a challenge. – Lack of patience is a serious problem in today´s society in general, he says. – Haste challenges all aspects of life where modern man resorts to easy and quick solutions. We lack focus and we want to achieve quick results. The result is a loss of quality in what we do, in what we produce, in ourselves and in the lives we choose to live, Balkenhol says.

Balkenhol himself is the author of several dressage books and has been a successful national coach for both the German and the U.S. Olympic team, as well as he has been coaching several international riders.

He is also considered as one of the foremost champions of safeguarding classic dressage and defines the concept of classic dressage as the doctrine of the optimal education system that strives to safeguard the horse´s strength and well-being in line with its physical and mental capacities.

– Liberation, harmony, balance and trust to the rider during training, can only be achieved by mild and sensitive trainers and without force, says Balkenhol. He believes that classic principles in combination with proper horsemanship ensure a happy and trusting horse.

The classic principles that Balkenhol refers to are taken from centuries-old well-kept writings from the old dressage masters, who in turn point to riding art´s oldest preserved source: Xenophon’s writings (425.355 BC). Current classic dressage is still built on these teachings.

 

 

“Riding must be understood as an art, and as in all art, riding is based on an increased degree of emotion and empathy on the part of the rider.”

 

Modern training

During the last years, Balkenhol has witnessed what he calls a newer and more modern riding; where we see horses ridden with more pressure, often with the nose behind the vertical plane, and where spectacular movements have characterized parts of the dressage. The cultivation of these spectacular movements has been criticized the world over, as these movements can be at the expense of the horses’ anatomy and natural patterns of movement. By spectacular movements is meant unnaturally high knee lifts and exaggerated stretching of the foreleg during the extended trot, resulting in little engagement of the horse´s ´back and hind legs. Balkenol argues that the cultivation of such movements can in their ultimate consequence compromise classic principles. Therefore, he works purposefully and hard at cultivating riders that can demonstrate classic riding where harmony and balance are given first priority, and where the horses demonstrate good posture, flexibility, and swing in the back.

Balkenhol attributes the lack of patience as being complicit in the cultivation of newer forms of training, where the purpose is to achieve a good result faster during competitions than what is deemed to be ideal with regard to the horse’s education and health.

 

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So, what attributes should be applauded in dressage? This has been the most relevant question in the area of dressage lately. The debate has raged all over the world. As the basis for dressage and as the basis for judging are founded in classic training principles. The questions to be answered is whether these principles are being followed. Still, it seems like Balkenhol´s long fight to safeguard classic principles and to defend the importance of harmony in riding appear finally to have won. Many argue that judges today have a tendency to award exactly factors like harmony and classical riding more than they did some years ago.

“I want to promote the importance of softness, harmony and rhythm, and by so doing so, I hope judges in the future will be better educated in seeing whether the movement emanates from a relaxed horse versus a tense horse.”

A self-taught legend

Clearly, Balkenhols understanding of the importance of patience and classical training can be explained by his own background. Since Klaus Balkenhol´s breakthrough with the legendary police horse Rebuke, his international merits have been many. Today he can look back on coveted World Championship and Olympic Game medals. However, the road to success has been far from easy. Balkenhol grew up as a farmhand, where he at an early age showed an interest in this father´s working horses. As a kid,  he spent hours behind the plough, where he early dreamt about becoming a top international rider. This way, he quickly learned to observe horse language. Balkenhol realised he had to become friends with the large working horses if they were to cooperate with him, and so it was, that the four-legged animals became his master tutors. Balkenhol also had to learn the art of riding without the use of a saddle and with a muddy field as his training course. Personally, he claims that the hard way has made him humble and patient to the world at large.

– Riding is about listening to the horse and have compassion with it, something any horse can teach you. It is all about being at one with the horse. Harmony and interaction with the horse is an art you never can learn fully, he says.

As a young man, Balkenhol chose a career in the riding police. In his spare time, he would practise dressage, and it didn´t take long before he got the opportunity to ride the police horses in competitions. The head of the riding police corps, Otto Harwitch, was impressed with his results and offered Balkenhol private training sessions.

– Otto taught me the importance of listening to the horse to be able to help it to do its best, says Balkenhol.

 

 

The legendary Rabauke

Balkenhol achieved his breakthrough when he got the responsibility to train Rabauke, one of the police stall´s young service horses. This meeting turned out to be the beginning of the legend about a police rider and his service horse who won gold at the Olympic Games. Balkenhol trained Rabauke in the training hall every morning before patrol duty. The media showed a keen interest in the story of a policeman who unexpectedly made his way in the otherwise so prominent world of dressage with his personally trained patrol horse Rabauke. The story about Balkenhol, who had learned the most about horse riding from his own experience and accumulated literature, spread across the country. The fact that a plain service rider and a police horse could match themselves with costly dressage horses evoked both praise and envy. Newspapers, magazines, and TV wanted their piece of this success story. Rabauke who had cost the police corps the small sum of 2 000 euros, was named the most successful dressage horse in the world.

– Rabauke was my best horse and the apple of my eye. He possessed an enormous heart!

Rabauke reached the respectable age of 30 years.

 

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“Riding is an art that requires times and patience, says the man that believes riding in itself is a test of patience, and «hurry slowly» is a phrase that describes his philosophy.”

After Rabaukes career ebbed out, Balkenhol started training of a new young police horse, Goldstern. When Goldstern turned 10 they won their first Grand Prix event, and in 1992 the brought home the gold medal of teams and a bronze medal for individual performance in the Olympic Games. An average horse costing the symbolic sum of 4 000 euros had again reached the top of the podium under Balkenhols systematic training.

Balkenhol became highly respected in the world of dressage, and later took on the role as trainer for Germany´s national team. With Balkenhol as the union trainer, Germany secured two gold medals in the European Championships, gold in the World Championships, and gold in the Olympic Games. On the other hand at the time increased commercialization of the sport tended to split the dressage world in Europe, and Balkenhol chose to withdraw from the role of national trainer.

-I simply disliked the increased pressure for quick results in the competitive arena.

Balkenhol changed course and took the role as a national trainer for the US, that resulted in a bronze medal for the American team in the World Championships and several individual victories for Steffen Peters, who later became world champion in Las Vegas.

 

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An active retirement

Today Balkenhol is retired and concentrates on training his own horses and teaching students. But the fight for the classic principles is not over. He still believes that dressage can find its way back to its basic principles if today´s riders give themselves enough time and have the patience to seek out the right communication with the horses. He hopes to see less and less the use of force and tough riders aids.

– I want to promote the importance of softness, harmony and rhythm, and by so doing so, I hope judges in the future will be better educated in seeing whether the movement emanates from a relaxed horse versus a tense horse.

– Riding is an art that requires times and patience, says the man that believes riding in itself is a test of patience, and «hurry slowly» is a phrase that describes his philosophy.

Balkenhol himself adheres to a deliberately planned training scale that often demands more time than many feel they are willing to invest in each horse.

 

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– Quick fixes to educate dressage horses are grounded in the lack of knowledge on the part of the instructors, he explains. – Riding must be understood as an art, and as in all art, riding is based on an increased degree of emotion and empathy on the part of the rider.

– There are many good trainers, but few of them are willing to withstand the pressure from students and horse owners to reach quick results, he says. – Quick results are not achieved through long term and correct development of horse and rider. At the same time, most people want a classically trained horse because they are much more comfortable to ride, but few masters the method themselves.

Balkenhol argues that some tend to misinterpret a tense horse as impressive and positive, as a tense horse tends to carry his head and legs higher.

– This is a complete misunderstanding, as a tense horse cannot work with a soft back and therefore it will consequently lead to the locking of the back and hind parts, which can hamper its natural movement forward. The horse hast to be able to carry itself and gain balance, rhythm and straightness. This, as well as riding in harmony with the horse, must aspire before the horse is encouraged to perform the higher exercises, he points out.

 

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Anyway, the dressage veteran is positive to the younger riders that are more in search of knowledge. Also since they travel more than before. He hopes tomorrow´s students will focus more on rideability and harmony. – Young riders dare to demand more of their instructors, and are not afraid to change trainers if they believe the training is not in accordance with their expectations, he says. Also, Balkenhol believes that the increased interest in animal welfare is in part the reason that today´s riders are more conscious of their horse keeping and their training philosophy.

Balkenhol himself never forgets the joy of creating a friendship with the horse;

– I use a lot of time in my stables and always make an evening round before bedtime to look to the horses. The contact I then get with them is magic. It does not depend on words and actions, just being there is enough. I could not be without it, he says.

His message concerns all aspects of life.

-We have to find back to the calm and focus on what we do. We must dare to use time and invest our energies on what we believe i. Only then can we truly feel the quality of life. he closes.

EQUILIFE’s editor during the visit at home with Balkenhol.
Therese Stub Alhaug
Therese Stub Alhaug

Editor

Therese is the editor of Equilife, and is truly dedicated to equestrian sports and horses. She started riding as a little girl, and enjoys her free time with her two horses back home. Portrait interview is her favorite topic, as it has the gift to inspire others through peoples stories, knowledge, training and general life-philosophy, and certainly, their lives with horses.

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