Reiner Klimke and Linda Tellington-Jones' "Working Magic with Dressage Horses" - Dressage Today

Reiner Klimke and Linda Tellington-Jones' "Working Magic with Dressage Horses"

When Reiner Klimke collaborated with Linda Tellington-Jones at a California symposium, dressage horses from First Level to Grand Prix were transformed.
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When seven-time German Olympian Dr. Reiner Klimke first heard of Linda Tellington-Jones and her unique hands-on method to improve horses' well-being and performance, he wondered "whether it was hocus-pocus or not. So I read her book and tried to understand the theory [of the movements known as TTouch] so I could learn as much as possible" before sharing an arena with her during a four-day symposium in late February 1999 at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center (LAEC).

Reiner Klimke rides Ahlerich at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. | Photo courtesy of Kit Houghton Photography

Reiner Klimke rides Ahlerich at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. | Photo courtesy of Kit Houghton Photography

From the outset, no one knew exactly how the two clinicians' systems would mesh. But more than 100 riders applied to fill the dozen available slots, and more than 1,200 spectators gathered from as far away as New Zealand to witness the magic that the dressage community has come to expect from Klimke's U.S. Symposiums. No one was disappointed.

The primary goal shared by both Klimke and Tellington-Jones was to enhance the dressage horses' performance by first instilling trust and building confidence. Whether a horse was undergoing TTouch prior to a work session or being asked by Klimke to perform a particular movement in the arena, the horse's response spoke volumes to the experts, who know that nothing is ever accomplished in an atmosphere of fear. As soon as a horse experienced discomfort and seemed ready to say "no," both Klimke and Tellington-Jones would back off. But then they would return and in a nonthreatening manner again ask the horse for a little more trust. Spectators and riders alike were constantly reminded that the word "aid" means "help."

"Klimke has a way of dealing with fear that is inspirational," says Tellington-Jones after watching horses from First Level to Grand Prix perform before the master. "When the horse is in a situation where he can't do something, there is no force," she continued. "When horses resist and say 'I can't do it,' Klimke backs off," returning to the lesson at a more opportune moment so that the horse can successfully respond to the request.

Indeed, those curious TTouch manipulations that 10 practitioners trained in The Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Method (TTEAM) were performing before and after the riding sessions seemed to establish a similar foundation of trust with the horse.

"TTEAM work is not deep massage," explained Tellington-Jones of the physical manipulations that are the heart and soul of her method. "TTEAM is a system of body-awareness techniques designed to take the horse beyond instinct and teach him how to think. It brings out the freedom in the horse. As we work, we will go to a sensitive place, but never so deeply that the horse flinches away. The TTouches invite your horse to come to you instead of going away from you. We wait until the horse puffs out and gets bigger form the work. The TTouch brings a trust to the body that fills out into the hand.

"It's such a pleasure to see Klimke work and make these horses so happy," Tellington-Jones continued. "Riding [according to his philosophy] is very important. If the riders were to get after their horses, the horses would lose confidence," she said as she watched the results of her work become magnified through Klimke's instruction.

Wenzel's Imagine: Changed by TTEAM
"When I was accepted [to ride in the symposium], I told them he was young and inexperienced," said Carol Robertson of her 5-year-old Hanoverian, Wenzel's Imagine. "But I was told that this clinic would be good for a horse like him. Regardless, I thought Imagine would be challenged in this atmosphere." He had been in the country for only a few months and had certainly never seen the likes of the Equidome. As a result, Robertson was a bit nervous about riding him there under Klimke's watchful eye and in front of some 1,200 people.

She also was skeptical that Tellington-Jones' "touch that teaches" would make much of a difference with Imagine because he is sensitive and hot. Nevertheless, she and Imagine met Tellington-Jones in the Equidome on Thursday for their first TTEAM work session, and they returned on Friday for about 40 minutes of TTouch before their first ride with Klimke.

As Tellington-Jones took stock of Imagine on Thursday, she noticed that he had a tendency to be tense and to come high in the neck, which stopped his hind end. She worked with him to help lower his head and neck and increase his awareness of his entire body. A series of connecting circular TTouches made on the horses's body visibly improved his posture and helped him to move with integrity. Ground exercises, such as walking through the labyrinth--a maze of poles laid on the ground--were employed to improve Imagine's self-confidence, self-image, self-carriage and self-control.

"When we take something that the horse is afraid of and overcome that fear without the saddle and bridle, then the horse will deal with the fear when he's under saddle by thinking about it instead of escaping it," said Tellington-Jones. "We override the flight reflex by teaching the horse to stop and think when he's afraid." For example, she explained, when Imagine first entered the Equidome on Thursday, he was frightened and started circling around at the end of the lead line. Tellington-Jones put him between two people who stroked him with wands (four-foot dressage whips) under the neck to get him to think instead of react.

"Because of the work on Thursday with the poles and the labyrinth, we were successful in getting Imagine to lengthen his neck, and he was more relaxed in the work," Tellington-Jones said. Then on Friday before their first ride, Imagine surprised Robertson. "My horse remembered working with Linda and her team on Thursday and he relaxed as soon as he walked into the Equidome. He was really in tune to my aids, and I was very impressed. I'm looking forward to trying this on my Grand Prix horse, Bas, who can be a bit on the hot side."

Hallmarks of Harmony

Rhythm and relaxation were the hallmarks of Klimke's three days of teaching, and they were evident from the beginning of each session to the end. The horses--two at a time at the lower levels--walked quietly on the outside of the arena before even entering. Their strides became longer, freer and quieter as the minutes ticked by. Normally, riders might have been briskly trotting after 10 minutes of walking, but Klimke wanted to take his time.

"When the horse comes out of the stable, he needs to relax in his new surroundings," Klimke began. "I hate it when horses have to start in the 20-by-60 arena with figures." And so the horses continued to walk while Klimke revealed the plan that would become the structure for every ride: First, there was the all-important warm-up, then the work session followed by a cooling-out period to finish the hour. In essence, the strategy wasn't surprising; it is the same plan followed by most every rider. There was, however, a vast difference in the results Klimke obtained. From the beginning, he worked magic that was evident to the spectators as they watched the horses' strides become looser and freer. This peaceful swinging that they developed early on needed to last through the middle of the work session and be confirmed in the end. All in all, the hour would capitalize on the horse's natural generosity and maximize his trust in the rider.

"Give the rein completely, even if you don't believe it will work," Klimke instructed the riders as they proceeded with the warm-up. "Your horse normally needs 10 to 15 minutes to make his muscles warm and loose."

As the first pair continued to walk in the clock-like rhythm around the outside of the arena, one of the horses--Imagine--spooked at something in the corner of the Equidome. It turned out that a tarp that closed one of the short sides as sometimes blowing, and the sun was behind the audience so the people appeared as silhouettes. In addition, the seats made strange noises as people moved about, and the combination of factors was challenging for the young horse.

"Even if he spooks, keep the reins long," Klimke reassured Robertson. "Why shouldn't he be able to look? Let him walk freely. Why would we take a risk against the nature of the horse? He must get accustomed to his," Klimke continued. "Then he will become more centered. If you don't start like this, you ruin the movements and the harmony. You need to give the horse a chance to look around and relax [in order] to get him accustomed to walking freely. The horse must learn to be able to do this in his new surroundings."

Finally, Klimke asked the riders to take a little contact, post to the trot and go through the cavallettis in a light working pace. "Make his back loose. Can you see how he uses his whole body now?" he said with delight as both horses were swinging happily. "Be nice to him, and then you have the right to ask him to work later." Now Robertson's horse, Imagine, looked a bit too relaxed, and Klimke saw it immediately. "He should not be so happy that he sleeps now. Ask for a little more pace, Carol, so he uses his whole body."

An Offer He Can't Refuse

Klimke wants the riders to give the horses a chance to stretch, and his system for achieving this is clear. The oft-repeated watchword for the weekend was "Make your horse an offer." By this, Klimke meant that he wanted the riders to keep the outside rein but to touch the horse's neck with the inside hand. The resulting loop in the inner rein invited the horse to stretch. Repeatedly Klimke directed the riders to "Give him an offer. Give him another offer."

"This is half an offer," Klimke emphasized with Robertson. "It's nothing. Encourage him. Give the reins. He won't run. If he does run, use the outside rein. Give the inside rein and think long and deep." Now Robertson patter her horse's neck, and he really stretched. "That is what I like to see," Klimke noted with pleasure. "Now he uses his body. Touch the neck so that he knows he's right. This is our language. Go large and then try the same thing."

This work was difficult for Robertson because Imagine often quickened, which made her not want to release the reins---an action that caused her horse to suck back in the neck and become even faster. "I was hesitant to give," she later commented, "because I thought Imagine would just get quicker. Klimke told me to give--to let go and out my legs on. When I did, Imagine started to stretch down and out to the bit and to relax, which gave me more confidence. Then I could go straight and bring the horse back a little bit."

But as Robertson directed her horse to go straight, he whinnied exuberantly. "If he wants to talk, I don't mind because he is a living animal," said Klimke. "When he spooks, bend him and make his another offer. Always take the opportunity to ride with the inside leg to a contact on the outside rein."

Next the warm-up progressed to canter. "Sit and feel the jump," Klimke instructed. "The canter is a jumping movement. Let him move. Don't bring him back, but wait and make him an offer. I like him deeper," he said at a moment when Imagine's frame flattened a bit. As Robertson responded, Imagine bucked and ran off. "Be careful with your whip," Klimke warned too late. But the disobedience didn't really matter to him, and Imagine returned to his clock-like rhythm. "Make him an offer," Klimke repeated. From Robertson's clear release, Imagine now gave readily in the neck and came through his back more freely. "That is what I like to see!" Klimke exclaimed. "Now walk, no reins and relax. Let your horses come back to nature."

Getting Down to Work

During the work session, Klimke concentrated his focus and effort on improving the quality of the horses' gaits. The goal was to make the trot and canter more impressive. "The flying change doesn't count," said Klimke. "It is how the horse does it that matters. That is what people pay to see in Germany--gymnastic training that makes the horse more beautiful and expressive."

As the work session evolved, Klimke directed the riders to "take a little contact and do a slight leg yield in walk. Keep your hands light and absolutely quiet, and now go to the posting trot."

The horses, who were being ridden one in front of the other, looked a little bit too peaceful and sometimes had trouble keeping the correct distance. "If it's good, don't be too satisfied," Klimke counseled. "Ask for more engagement so he really uses his talent." But then the fluid, clock-like rhythm would sometimes be threatened by speed. "Feel the rhythm of the horse now," Klimke advised. "If he wants to run, take a little more contact on the outside, make yourself heavy for a moment and then be quiet again. The idea is to have a self-going horse."

Klimke was strict about the horses and riders keeping the correct distance. Robertson had never ridden Imagine in tandem and found it difficult. Imagine occasionally got upset because he wanted to be in front. "It was an excellent exercise in precision and discipline to stay behind," she said later. "Imagine had to accept the pace and the cadence and the commands."

"Come in a circle," Klimke said to Robertson at a moment when Imagine became quick. "Make yourself heavy for a moment. Use the outside rein and your inside leg, but don't lose the bend. Keep the contact. He must step to it. Be nice to him, but don't give the contact away in the transitions. Soften the reins while he is in the trot, not during the transition."

Next, the riders did trot-walk-trot transitions, and Klimke emphasized the importance of discipline. "And walk nnnnow," he would say calmly. Riders and spectators alike quickly learned that when Klimke said "nnnnow," he meant it. If the horse wasn't walking by the timeKlimke uttered the ".ow," the rider heard about it. "When I ask you to walk, something must happen!" Klimke reprimanded. "Don't hesitate to take the contact on the outside rein if he doesn't walk. Tell him what you want and then leave him alone."

Next, the riders did transitions to halt. "And halt nnnnow," Klimke insisted. "The horse must stop in two seconds or it is of no value." Then he explained: "The horse takes the weight [on the hind legs during the downward transition] and this helps the hind legs to go forward." The transitions needed to be prompt but never rough, never pulling.

Then the riders were asked to lengthen the stride riding without giving the reins away. Robertson was encouraged to ask more, but when she and Imagine were following the other horse and rider pair it was easier because Imagine felt compelled to catch up to the other horse.

"You must ride the figures correctly from point to point. Don't cheat," Klimke insisted when one of the riders was inaccurate.

While they still were posting, the riders next asked their horses for a long and deep frame. "The moment he does it, touch the neck, be nice," Klimke said. "Then take the rein again and make him another offer." The horses continued to maintain their loose, clock-like rhythm. Finally, Klimke instructed them to walk on a long rein in complete relaxation. "If you stay in one position for a long time, you get pain, and it's the same with the horse. We must give him variety."

To prepare for the canter work, the riders walked on a 20-meter circle around Klimke, doing slight leg yield in order to put the horse on the outside rein. Then they picked up the rein contact without disturbing the walk and asked for an active trot and then canter. "I would like to see the canter jump. Canter is a jumping movement," Klimke reminded. "Just sit and let it happen--let him jump!"

Klimke frequently asked the riders to use the centerline, and now he asked them to canter in tandem own the centerline. "Come on!" he encouraged them. "Don't lose the tempo . keep the distance. I want to educate your horses very early to go on a straight line. And trot nnnnow . and canter nnnow." He said it quietly and deliberately, but the riders knew by now that an element of urgency was involved in their response.

Next, he asked the horses to stretch in canter without contact. They both were successful and Klimke simply said, "I am happy." Then the more than 1,200 exuberant spectators applauded, and both horses blew up. Yes this was a not a problem for Klimke. "This is what the horses have to learn," he said with a shrug, as the horses once again walked on a long rein to relax outside the arena.

Soon Klimke would begin to work his magic with upper-level horses.

What is TTEAM?
Linda Tellington-Jones' Equine Awareness Method is a system if training and healing that brings horses into physical, mental and emotional balance. Its three pillars include TTouch body work, ground exercises and riding with awareness.

The circular TTouches are the foundation of TTEAM, and Tellington-Jones descries their effect as "turning on the electricity" by activating neural pathways and "connecting the dots" throughout the entire body. The TTouches bring new awareness on a cellular level to every part of the body--literally waking up cells and releasing fear so the horse can be aware of his whole body. Then he is freer to feel a rider's aids and do what is asked. A horse who is already relaxed from a TTEAM session prior to work under saddle usually requires a shorter warm-up.

Try it Yourself

The most basic of all TTouches is called the Clouded Leopard, and its name describes how your hand rests on your horse's body--as lightly as a cloud. Begin with a light contact with your fingertips slightly curved. Use the pads of your fingertips to push (not rub) the skin a full revolution and a quarter. Start your circles at 6 o'clock (at the bottom of the clock). Move the skin in a clockwise direction in a complete, round circle, and continue right on past where you started to 8 o'clock. There, pause briefly and then gently release. At the completion of each circle, move on to another location, either sliding your hand a few inches away or lifting your hand to move to a completely random spot. (Resist making two or three consecutive circles in one place; you'll simply irritate your horse.)

Keep your wrists and joints soft and breathe into the circles as you work. Breathing in rhythm with the circles will help you maintain a softness in your fingers, hand, arm and shoulder. As with all TTouches, keep the contact complete by keeping both hands on your horse. If you are doing circles with your right hand, for example, lightly rest your left hand on the horse to complete the connection.

The Clouded Leopard TTouch can be done over the horse's entire body, including the tail, hindquarters, legs and hooves. Stay away from the most sensitive spots.

While Klimke's sessions with the lower-level horses at the LAEC was truly remarkable, it is but a small sample of his knowledge and talent. Riding for Germany, Klimke won six gold and two bronze medals in dressage at the Summer Olympics--a record for equestrian events.

This article first appeared in the May 1999 issue of Dressage Today. Klimke died in 1999. For copies of articles, email Dressage.Today@EquiNetwork.com.