Thoughts on Training
and Snug Harbor Farm’s Role
from Oberbereiter Karl Mikolka
The Classical Way versus Competitive Riding Conundrum
“What is the difference between the Spanish Riding School and Competitive Dressage?“, I have been asked multiple times; the various explanations one can find in the books never touch the core of the matter.
Today we also often hear the question: “Is Dressage a Sport or is it an Art?” Some scholars like to compare Dressage to Ballet. Is ballet art or the highest form of physical fitness, suppleness and control over balance and body?
Anyone who has ever seriously practiced ballet will attest to the hard work and the many hours it takes to become proficient in this form of dance. Ballet. although refined and beautiful on stage, cannot be learned when the dancer in training is anxiously avoiding sweat.
Why should it be different when it comes to horses and Dressage? Here we are often led to believe that everything is light and soft and easy, and that it just “happens” as long as the rider doesn’t make a mistake. Sweat and physical exhaustion on the part of the rider, as he or she perfects the art, is never mentioned and the tremendous amount of TIME that it takes to perfect the art is also overlooked as horses are rushed up the “ competition levels”. The misconceptions that are spread around by some experts, unfortunately, are contrary to reality and manifest themselves in horses that are not completely worked through to a level the Old Masters envisioned.
In the past the Spanish Riding School was never compared to Competitive Dressage mainly because she was always considered to be the non plus ultra of horsemanship. The Spanish Riding School’s main goal was to develop the equine student mentally, physically and emotionally to the highest possible level. It is obvious that such development can’t be rushed or performed within a certain time frame. It takes time to reach those noble goals. The training in The School was viewed as being complete equine bodybuilding rather than being satisfied with a horse that could be ridden through movements up to Grand Prix for the purpose of winning ribbons..
Competitive Dressage, with its many competitions and the urge to win in order to enhance the horse’s value, does not lend itself to thorough equine body building which is extremely time consuming and therefore financially prohibitive. These are the main differences between Dressage as a Sport and Dressage as an Art, at least as I see them.
The Art of Teaching
Having lived and worked in the United States since 1972, I consider the preservation of Classical Values in horsemanship my most important responsibility, be it in the saddle or giving clinics or lessons throughout the Nation. Visits to Australia and Japan widened my horizon but they also revealed that my way of teaching sounded strange to most riders who were used to a certain genre of receiving instruction.
While the majority of instructors emphasized the importance of being light in hand, I attempted to show my students exactly how to teach their horses to be light in hand and that is quite a difference. Regardless of the fact that I produced easy to ride horses that were light in hand, dependable, balanced and a pleasure to ride, I was often regarded as being out of sync with all other instructors, perhaps because I have never deviated from the principles of The System which I was taught, the System which was handed down from The Old School.
The System and Snug Harbor Farm
My travels as an ambassador of Classical Horsemanship brought me to the state of Tennessee; there, Cherie Beatty built Snug Harbor Farm. This place has become, over time, a cradle of Classical Thinking, a stronghold practicing and defending the Classical Principles of training while educating horses of all breeds and levels. This place also provides homes for retired horses or those rescued from the slaughter house. Snug Harbor provides the best environment where otherwise lost principles are cherished and kept alive.
At Snug Harbor the System I learned in Vienna is embraced with enthusiasm and forms the base on which all training is conducted. Although I have devoted adherents to teaching the pure System in other states, Anita Adams in Wisconsin, Don Paulhus and Shannon Peters, both in California, and Mary Werning in South Carolina, as well as many other followers who have used variations of the System in the their own training programs, in the United States, Snug Harbor Farm has emerged as the physical home of The System that was started by Chief Rider Max Ritter von Weyrother (1844) and expanded by Chief Rider Meixner, Polak, and my teacher, Alfred Cerha, who handed me the torch that I have been carrying since my arrival in the USA in 1972.