WA Classical Dressage






Karl Mikolka: Teaching the Old School

Cynthia F. Hodges, JD, LLM, MA

Riding with Karl Mikolka, former Oberbereiter of the Spanish Riding School and former coach of the Brazilian Olympic dressage team, is to have the combined knowledge of the Old School masters at your disposal. In my translation of Louis Seeger's Herr Baucher und seine Kuenste. Ein ernstes Wort an Deutschlands Reiter (1852), I have come across some of the Old School methodology and techniques that Karl teaches, some of which have become quite rare today. These include the Hankensprung, Aufrichten, stirrup-stepping, full pass, the "windmill," as well as the alternative means of straightening the shoulder-in by bringing the haunches in-line with the shoulders. Just as in days of old, Karl's teaching is aimed at improving the suppleness of the horse, making him instantly obedient to the rider's aids, and making him accept weight in the haunches, thereby improving the gaits and preserving his soundness through balanced movement.

The Aufrichten is the raising of the horse's head, which lets the horse stretch out his under neck. Most dressage riders focus only on stretching out the top line, over the neck and poll, and never realize that the underside must be stretched as well. Karl helps riders raise the horse's head in the beginning, but the horse is supposed to be so obedient to the reins that when the rider lifts his hands, the horse raises his head. When the rider lowers his hands, the horse should lower his head as well.

The full pass tests the horse's obedience to the rider's legs as well as improves the suppleness of the horse's haunches because he must bend in the joints of the hind legs in order to step over. This exercise also strengthens that hind leg because it pushes up when it straightens out. It is similar to a one-legged deep knee bend for humans. The horse should move to the side without hesitation, but his one hind leg should come in front of the other, not over and not next to it (to avoid injury). By trotting right, halting and then asking for a full-pass towards the right, the rider tests the horse's obedience to the outside (left) leg. The turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches are variations of the same basic idea. The horse should move away from the rider's legs while remaining obedient to the reins, and flex in his hind leg joints at the same time. In adding bend to the horse's body, the lateral flexion is also improved.

Stirrup-stepping belongs to the "secret" aids of the Old School. It is a collecting aid because the rider loads a specific hind leg of the horse, causing it to bend under the additional weight. For example, if the rider wants to put more weight onto the left hind leg, he will momentarily put pressure on the left stirrup. The extra weight is meant to force a flexion in the joints of the hind leg, whereby the horse pushes off of the ground with more spring due to the compression of the hock. Karl explained that the horse should "bounce" off of the ground like a ball. The more force used to bounce a ball, the higher it will bounce. This works on the hock in that it will push back with the same degree of force as was put on it, because the hock acts like a coiled spring. The rider can use this technique to produce a rocking-horse canter by stepping into the inner stirrup when the inside fore is on the ground, and then on the outside stirrup when the outside hind is on the ground. Collecting the horse is a matter of loading the hind legs with either stirrup-stepping, half-halts or both, because it shifts weight to the hind legs. It is best to weight on the hind leg while it is off the ground because otherwise it can stiffen and resist bending. One also has to be careful not to work any one leg too much in these exercises.

After the shoulder-in, most riders make use of straightening the horse by bringing the shoulders in-line with the haunches. However, it can be quite useful to bring the haunches in line with the shoulders as well. In the shoulder-in, the horse is placing more weight onto his inside hind leg, causing it to bend in the joints of that hind leg, especially in the stifle. When the rider brings the shoulders over, the horse is being obedient to the rein aids, while placing more weight on the forelegs briefly. If the rider brings the haunches in behind the forelegs, he obeys the rider's outside leg, while putting more weight momentarily onto the hind legs. Both techniques are useful, only the latter is much less frequently employed.

The "windmill" is a means of correcting a horse that is stiff and disobedient to the leg aids, and who refuses to move forward. For example, if the horse ignores the rider's right leg, the rider should turn the horse to the right (right hand at the knee, aimed at the right hind), with the horse's nose almost touching the rider's boot, and with the right leg, cause the horse to step slowly around his front legs, describing a larger circle with his hind legs (the haunches step to the left). The rider half-halts on the outside (left) rein, whereby most of the horse's weight is put onto the right hind leg. This exercise not only teaches the horse to obey the rider's right leg, it stretches out his left side, while forcing him to bend his right hind leg joints, and thereby strengthen that leg. When the horse is encouraged, he will gladly move forward off of the leg. If the horse is leaning on one leg, he should be turned toward that leg. This exercise, if done improperly, can cause injury to the horse so care must be taken to keep the horse slow.

The Hankensprung is a rudimentary school jump related to the courbette. It is a correction to be used on horses that are leaning very heavily on the forehand and is a means of obtaining more bend in the hind legs (especially in the stifle) than is possible from using the halt as a correction. The rider begins this exercise at a brisk trot, brings the horse quickly to a halt (preserving the straightness), uses the rein aids along with the driving aids to induce the horse to lift his forelegs momentarily up off of the ground. If the horse merely rears, then the rider uses the reins again along with the driving aids to cause the horse to actually hop with his hind legs at the moment when the forelegs are about to return to the ground. By lifting the forehand and jumping off of the hind legs, the horse must flex in the joints of the hind legs (hip, stifle, hock, and fetlock) and then push his and the rider's weight up off of the ground. This not only strengthens the hind legs, but it makes a strong impression on the horse. Karl seems to only use this technique in clinics when the horse - under a competent rider - is especially heavy on the forehand. It demands a lot of skill and tact, but the result is a significant improvement in the horse's carriage.
Dressage riders are sure to become more effective by introducing these classical techniques to their training repertoire. Karl Mikolka is one of the few instructors from which one can still learn Old School methodology, a system of training that has been been highly successful and has withstood the test of time.


Seeger, Louis. Herr Baucher und seine Kuenste. Ein ernstes Wort an Deutschlands Reiter. Verlag von Friedr. Aug. Herbig. Berlin, 1852. A translation with a foreword by Karl Mikolka is available. Please contact Cynthia for more information.

Translations on classical dressage:

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