Book Review: Klaus Balkenhol's Success With Sympathetic Hands

This book offers a detailed description from Klaus Balkenhol of how appropriate horse care, correct riding and patient training all lead to success.
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By Roland Blum, photographed by Jacques Toffi

208 pages. Published in 2009 by Roland Blum, as part of the Horses of the World series; available in English through blumfilm.de.

Reviewed by Mary Daniels

Before I opened the pages of this outstanding new book, I thought I knew something about Klaus Balkenhol--that he had a long partnership with a big chestnut horse named Goldstern, who was both a working police mount as well as a winner of Olympic Gold Medals and many German, European and World Championships. It was a partnership that made his rider the most famous policeman in Germany and certainly unique as a rider in uniform in the dressage world. That after his success in competition, Balkenhol went on to become a riding instructor, teacher and team trainer for the Germans and then for the U.S. Equestrian Federation team of Guenter Seidel, Steffen Peters, Debbie McDonald and Leslie Morse, the winners of a bronze medal in 2006 at Aachen--which some judge to be even tougher than the Olympics to win.

Yet there is so much more breadth and depth to this story of a life with horses unlike any other. As the legendary rider, trainer and horseman Paul Stecken says in his foreword to this book, "Klaus Balkenhol's life with horses could not be more interesting, full of experience and hence knowledge, nor more successful. This book gives a detailed description of how appropriate horse care, correct riding, patient training and producing without force all lead to very respectable successes."

I find no way to say it better. The book begins with fascinating biographical background--his birth in 1939 to a farming family and horses as a part of daily life, then his early training as a police officer that led to his application to mounted police work. I was not aware that Goldstern had a predecessor, Rabauke, another chestnut gelding who spent seven years in the Dusseldorf police quarters before competing in Grand Prix and ranking second in the German Championships. And but for the cancellation of the Moscow Olympics might have been another medal winner.

In a sequence of events that seems written by a screenplay writer rather than a journalist, one day Balkenhol, then an unknown rider from Dusseldorf, picked up the phone to ring up the German Federation in Warendorf, asking to be invited to a squad training session. While he was accepted more out of courtesy, team trainer Willi Schulteheis, normally not given to hyperbole, stated, "Klaus Balkenhol and Rabauke are one of the eight best combinations in Germany." And the rest, as they say, is dressage history.

Even more improbable is that Balkenhol, up to this point, was pretty much self-taught. He had trained his first police horse up to Grand Prix level "inspired by the correct literature on classical training. Balkenhol has achieved, quietly, something that was fairly inconceivable for the majority of riders and remains so to this day," writes author Blum, who has followed Balkenhol's career with an intense and admiring focus. "To train a horse up to Grand Prix level without the help of an established trainer is a pretty major achievement."

This achievement was further remarkable in that "his police horses Rabauke and Goldstern were good but normal horses. It was only through the art of training and education under the saddle that they became capable of such accomplishments," writes Blum.

But it makes sense, given Balkenhol's philosophy that "many sports horses today do not come out of their stables nearly enough. They are streamlined to perform but the workhorses of the past received far more exercise than the modern sport horses." It was his long hours in the saddle, patrolling parking lots at the Dusseldorf airport, quelling frantic football fans, hours spent on cobblestones and concrete streets, that gave Balkenhol the experience for his deep understanding of horses in which trust is essential.

There is too much richness in this book on what is essential classical training to be condensed into a short review. Suffice to say every page is a treasure trove of information for riders from novice to Grand Prix. No new method of training is re-invented, but you get all the nuances of Balkenhol's method.

As in the chapter on "Conditions for Good Riding" in which Balkenhol says, "In most cases a saddle and bridle are all one needs as far as basic equipment goes." No gadgets. But some horses with sensitive backs will have three saddles custom made for them.

The chapter on piaffe and passage reveals in photos and text the pre-conditions for and the most intricate details on how to ride these challenging upper level movements more aesthetically and correctly that I can ever recall having encountered.

Jacques Toffi as choice for the book's main photographer (there are hundreds of photos both by him and others to be studied at length in the book) was a superb choice. Somehow he has captured again and again those elusive moments of perfection in dressage riding--a half-pass by Seidel that is properly uphill and what Blum calls "a dream passage" by Steffen Peters. Throughout, a light contact and a dominant seat are shown to allow the horse to step under with its hindquarters and perform in an optimum way.

Not to be ignored, Blum has created an interesting perspective in complementing this book with a series of DVDs: "The Trilogy of Training," which includes "From Foal to Grand Prix Horse," "From Novice Horse to the Schooled Horse" and "Creating a Grand Prix Horse." While none, or very few of us, can train our horses from correct literature (of which this book joins the ranks) as Balkenhol once did, Blum's goal is that the combination of written description and the visual demonstrations in the DVDs, absorbed together, can make classical concepts of horse training more easily absorbed by the aspirant.

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