A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Finally, I desire my horses to work happily, gaily, with pleasure and with zest. If we manage, throughout our training, to preserve both the gentleness and the gaiety of our horse we shall not, in the end, go very far amiss. Horses really are sensitive to atmosphere. If we enjoy working with them and do so in a cheery frame of mind, in the spirit of learning and doing something together, they will respond generously. (p. 36)
The thing about books on riding is that, unless you’re reading for wish fulfilment, the way you experience them is always bound up with the horses in your life. I grew up with a Wynmalen horse: Tanya, a beautiful and sensitive Arab x Welsh mare, raised and trained by my mother with the aid of a copy of the revised edition of Dressage. That copy went the way of all flesh and, earlier this year, when Mum and I colluded in buying a young Highland mare called Chanter, a new second-hand copy was acquired. I promptly stole it (sorry, Mum).
I don’t wish to go all Proust’s madeleine on you, but holding that book in my hands had an instant and powerful effect. It was exactly the same as the old copy, with the salmon-pink spine and the picture of Reiner Klimke* on the front. Somewhere between losing my nerve after Tanya’s retirement in my teens and returning to horses last year, when I could no longer bear to be without them, I had forgotten about Wynmalen. But there must have been a time, perhaps even before I was really able to understand it, that I knew this book inside out: the look and the feel and the heft of it.
Starting to read, or perhaps to re-read, I quickly realised that it was not just a significant object. Page after page, I came across sentences—very Wynmalen sentences, dry and conversational and with an edge of wit—that summed up things I’d always thought to be self-evident, but had never really considered. It goes without saying that any book written in 1953, even a revised edition, is outmoded in some respects. Our understanding of equine physiology has moved on, and Wynmalen’s own seat looks archaic now. But Dressage is largely a book about principles, and these principles, or Wynmalen’s formulation of them, lie at the heart of everything I do, think and feel, consciously or unconsciously, around horses. They inform my aims as a rider: what I would like from my horse, what I want from myself. To ride and train with minimal equipment and the lightest possible aids; to look for a natural outline and clean, self-carrying movement; to relate to the horse as a partner, not as a subject, and certainly not as a suspect. And yes, it is all perfectly good sense. But with horsemanship now up there with parenting and dog training in terms of the sheer amount of systems peddled, brands flogged and flame wars conducted, perfectly good sense cannot be oversold.
Above all, Dressage reminds us of the thing that’s too often lost when the conversation turns to technique: the sheer joy of working together with a horse, and finding that the horse chooses, freely and joyfully in his turn, to work with you. There’s nothing like it. No matter the school, no matter the teacher, that’s why we do it; or, at least, that’s why we should. The reminder is always salient.
A&C Black, 1984, 308 pp. ISBN: 0-7316-2370-5
* Dressage rider, trainer, outstanding human being. All hail Reiner Klimke.