With the death of Herr Egon von Neindorff at the age of 80, on May 19, 2004, the riding world lost one of its major “pillars of guidance,” truly an irreplaceable equestrian genius who will be very sorely missed. Von Neindorff was in the truest sense of the word a horseman to the very core of his being, one who sacrificed his personal comfort and dedicated his life and energies singularly to the act of classical riding. He lived and breathed its every aspect to the smallest detail each moment of each day. His passing surely marks the end of an era in which such an extremely talented, capable individual chose to remain modest and unwaveringly true to the horses’ needs, rather than the tendency of “serving personal gain” in all of its various forms and manifestations.
As we bid farewell to this Master, this is surely an excellent opportunity for us present day riders to rededicate ourselves to the true principles of horsemanship and to redouble our resolve to take on ever more seriously our responsibilities toward the horse and his needs, doing so by striving to carry on the legacy that Egon von Neindorff had propagated throughout his life.
With this in mind, I would like to share with the readers of Dressage Today Egon von Neindorff’s own words about horsemanship from an interview he granted me in the mid 1990s, which originally appeared in de Hoefslag magazine in Holland.
Erik Herbermann:Mr. Von Neindorff, what inspired you to abandon competition riding so early on and to start setting up your riding school?
Egon von Neindorff: It was a combination of things that lead me to this decision. I was quite successful in top competitions shortly after the war. Due to the circumstances of my equestrian education, both in Saxony (Germany), and later after [WWII] under [Ludwig] Zeiner and [Richard] Watjen, I already had the definite leaning toward the finer elements of high-school riding. It was clear to me that I wanted to be a part of preserving and propagating this beautiful form of horsemanship. That which further brought me to the decision was the fact that some of the top competitive riders of the day used to send me their pupils for training over extended periods of time. This ultimately encouraged me to set up a permanent school, and as the saying goes, the rest is now history. Such things cannot be designed, but grow out of opportunities that we are able to utilize.
EH:Clearly, it is a considerable task to manage a large private school such as yours [Reitinstitut in Karlsruhe, Germany] and to maintain it over the span of so many years. What do you feel was the main impetus, which helped you to preserve through the inevitable difficulties and challenges?
EvN: I would say it was an enduring belief in something deeply beautiful that has kept the school going over the years. This beauty rests on the nature of the horse, and the harmony between horse and rider for which we constantly strive.
EH:What in your opinion would be the most important physical or technical consideration in riding?
EvN: Riding requires of us the physical discipline of gaining control over our bodies and acquiring a good position. But that which is often overlooked, or possibly not taken quite as seriously as it should, is the considerable physical task of caring for the horse, which should be taken as one of our greatest personal responsibilities–just to care for the horse, and that first of all!
EH:And what is the most important philosophical consideration for the rider?
EvN: Modesty and wanting to serve, putting ego aside. The desire to listen to the horse, which must come from one’s heart, and then must be filled in practice through the feeling of the rider. The study also entails all those things that go toward nature oriented riding. The ability to co-relate and unify the feelings from the saddle with the philosophy in which we believe. We must be fully aware of the fact that a lifetime isn’t long enough to come to know all about horsemanship. Accordingly, it is essential that we stand on the shoulders of the past Masters in order to fully utilize and profit from the experiences. And only because of the past can we now enjoy that harmony. A harmony that the horse understands because the training is founded on its nature. It is only the true gymnastic school that makes beauty possible. These are things that are beyond subjective opinion, they are deeply rooted in the laws of nature. And it is this that keeps the horses sound and healthy to a ripe old age. The knowledgeable horseman sees this in and through the horses, both in the way they go, and in the build of the muscle structure. That is what distinguishes the real high-school riding from pretender to the throne.
EH:It is very clear, judging by the great variety of horses in your stables, that you gladly work with most breeds. However, do you have any personal favorites?
EvN: No, unequivocally. For me the art of riding lies in the possibility to work with every kind of horse. That the horses in their very being come in a great variety of conformation and temperament, we understand that. But for the good rider, all of the variations are immaterial. And those who love the horse especially enjoy working with the wonderful diversity; it adds spice to the work under saddle. What is most important is that the rider understands the qualities of the breed with which he works and knows how to cultivate, direct and utilize those attributes in a constructive way. That is what gives one real joy, and not to get stuck on one particular breed.
EH:By which signs in particular do you recognize that a horse is going well?
EvN: The purity of the gaits. The horse’s facial expression, tail carriage quiet. The horses go well if we keep to the guidelines that have now been well established, recognized and accepted. Our work must be in harmony with that. We must not wander from those solidly proven principles; Takt [rhythm], Losgelassenheit [relaxation], Anlehnung [contact], Geraderichtung [straightness], Schwung [impulsion], Versammlung [collection].” All these are built on Schub [forward thrust] from the hindquarter. From this we achieve honest erection of the forehand and self-carriage, so that the horse is in front of the rider and begins to bend in the hindquarters. Durchl?ssigkeit [throughness], means that the horse has accepted the aids, and its riding fate. Though there are definitely some pertinent technicalities we can use as basic guidelines, we should avoid getting too reliant on dead descriptions. It is only through genuine understanding of how to implement the principles I have just mentioned above in one’s daily riding, that it becomes clearer to us when horses of all breed types (breed, conformation and temperament) are going correctly.
EH:By which signs do you recognize that a horse is going poorly?
EvN: When the horses are more or less withholding, then they are not carrying from behind. That shows how the forward pushing is failing. It is not converted into a carrying of the rider and a true self-carriage. The back “brakes” (bremmst) the movement, the shoulders are therefore not freed, the neck is too short, constricted, the horse is behind the rider … the honest gaits are not to be found. They have instead become a caricature, and are therefore not beautiful at all.
EH:Surely you must be pleased to hear that the “forward and down” stretching exercise is now a required part of some dressage tests, at least in the USA. Are there any other exercises that you feel would be useful to add in order to assist and guide the equestrian community to a higher standard and to a greater awareness for the need to find harmony with the horse’s nature?
EvN: Any exercises that will support working the horse honestly…for example, “walk on buckle” at various points during a test, and then putting it back on the aids again. Clear lengthenings and shortenings of the horse’s frame-up to and including “chew the reins out of the hands,” back and forth. And to show “forward and down” stretching possibly several times during any one test, even in the higher levels. Grand Prix on a snaffle as well as on a double bridle. Reins in one hand for the flying changes.
EH:Could you explain why it is so critical that the horse be ridden with its face in front of the vertical at all times, even when doing the forward and down stretching exercise?
EvN: The whole horse must belong to the rider. This can only exist without compromise when the energy from the hindquarters, traveling through both the supple horse and rider, are the cause of the weight in the hand (as opposed to originating from an unbalanced leaning, or tension). Unless the horse always follows the giving hand in a “forward and outward” manner, it is a sign that it is not really in the hand from behind. This is particularly so when the horse rolls up in the neck or at the poll; then the horse is not really in front of the rider. On the other hand, however, the horse must also be properly yielded in the jaw and poll, because any stiffness in these areas would also be against a true connection from the hind foot to the hand.
EH:What things give you the greatest joy in your life with the horses?
EvN: That I have succeeded in experiencing true harmony with the horses, irrespective of the exercise, that the horse and I were merged together. That is something most joyful! However, even a good rider experiences this absolute harmony only seldomly. To achieve this, one must be able to cause the horse to come to the correctness of one’s position and seat, and not only to be given to the horse softly, which is also harmony, but doesn’t actually influence the horse to begin to carry itself. One must know when to hold in the seat and when to follow freely. Those who read this will likely want to experience it, but we must always make sure to do things that are within our own capacities. Furthermore, it is of course essential to have a spiritual contact with the horse, without which it isn’t possible to have the real physical harmony. Real harmony is only possible when we let the horses determine the speed with which we proceed in the training. There is no space for any forcing. And certainly the harmony I have just described cannot come through force.
EH:What is your view of horsemanship today, and what is your wish for the future?
EvN: It is a complex and difficult question for us all-the horse owner, the trainer and the judges-to come to a solid recognition of true work, and therefore also to be able to propagate this for the future. An honest way of working requires understanding from all concerned. How can a trainer work conscientiously and well when the owner doesn’t understand that things simply take time and shouldn’t be forced? How can a competitor possibly be guided to a high quality of horsemanship when our judging seems to give preference to ways of going that are actually, at times, more or less contrary to well established and acknowledged literature on the subject. So we need to work together to come to a greater understanding.
EH:With your many years of experience, what would your last, parting words of advice be to an eager young student of horsemanship, whom you would not be seeing possibly for many years?
EvN: I would say, “Let the love for the feeling of responsibility toward the horse rule all your decisions and actions.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Dressage Today magazine. To order back issues, call 301-977-3900.