Physiotherapist Saskia Heijkants meets up with Maarten van Stek
Article by Dutch journalist Tessa van Daalen- de Graaff from Dutch magazine Dressuur Magazine
Pictures: Miriam Voorwinde
Translation: Liz Barclay
‘LESS IS MORE’
Physiotherapist Saskia Heykants is always looking for improvement. Hence the reason for her to ask Maarten van Stek whether she could possibly pay him a visit. ‘It intrigued me how he manages with his one arm to train a horse into the Grand Prix. That is unusual to say the least. I think we can all learn from that.’
Saskia is fascinated by rider position and seat. How, as a rider, can you become more efficient with your aids through your seat, that is what she is after all the time. She thought Maarten a brave man to want to cooperate. ‘Maarten is extraordinarily clever. You ought to give it a try, ride with one hand and make something as difficult as a pirouette. He has to be able to ride straight as well as bent. How on earth does he manage that? And how does this work as far as connection, submission -you name it-, how do you do all that and, at the same time, send your horse into the direction you want it to go with that one hand?’
Before meeting Maarten, Saskia assumed Maarten was mainly riding by shifting his weight in combination with unusually quick follow-up aids. This was only partly the case. ‘Of course, we should all be riding like that, the horse can’t do anything with a load of aids at the same time. In Maarten’s case this is a necessity. His coordination is extremely well-developed; he has enormous control over his body. I think he was probably clever in that way by nature, but through circumstances developed this to an extreme level because he needed it to ride in a far subtler manner. We can pull with two hands and push with one leg. That doesn’t necessarily make it better, but at least it looks like something. He is not able to do that.’
First Saskia put Maarten on the flex-chair. It was clear from the start that he is super at finding his centre of gravity. ‘He has developed an extreme sense of finding the exact middle with his weight. Because of this he is, as a rider, ‘with’ his horse always. He has to be, otherwise his horse would continuously want to turn left or right, because Maarten can not compensate with a strong one-sided rein aid.’
Saskia wanted to know how Maarten trains his horse, whether it is similar to what she sees around her or how she does it herself. ‘It does match for the greatest part. Only, he rides into a movement with very little rein pressure. This makes it much clearer for his horse what he wants for when he does use pressure. It makes a lot of sense, we should all be working on that. When you always ride with pressure, how can the horse feel when you want it different? Maarten himself says that he let’s go, ‘allows’ his horse. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t maintain a connection. Also, he does occasionally also use the reins; when he wants to slow down and nothing happens. But it is about the very moment you give the horse the information for a movement. That you don’t ‘hang on’ at that moment, so the aid you give has a chance to be digested by the horse.’
A resisiting hand
Even with two hands riding with a resisting hand is difficult to fully grasp. Saskia explains it as ‘making a horse wait’. ‘It is a difficult concept to explain in words. When a horse pulls on the reins, you do not go with it. You stay where you are, without pulling back and work backwards. Maarten instigated that it is not his cup of tea. I do also think we have to work to ride towards a more relaxed contact and less with the resisting hand. Too many riders are riding with too much contact and maintain that throughout. You must keep a connection without that extreme pressure. You could really see it in Maarten’s riding style how he does that; connection without that tightness. The moment your horse accelerates you have to brake, so, yes, you do interfere. Only, do not hold on for ever. Also, not to pull him towards his hindleg, which happens so often. A horse will not relax its jaw when you ride with a lot of pressure or the bit is shifting constantly from one side to the other.’
These days, many horses are so used to that pressure, that they respond negatively when released. By going faster or even becoming confused. For the riders this is the reason to increase the pressure again. ‘Practice and more practice’ is Saskia’s opinion.
Because Maarten keeps the connection with one hand only, the bit lies very stable and quiet in the mouth. Or rather bits, because Maarten rides in a double bridle. So, all four reins are held with one hand. How does he adjust his reins? ‘That is so unbelievably clever, in one very quick movement he lets all of them go and picks the whole lot up again. Praising was another thing. He simply drops everything, gives his horse a pet, picks everything back up again and continues as if it is the simplest thing in the world. I tried it; of course, my horse and I are nowhere near as far in our training. Impossible, I’d been around the school four times before I had myself organized. That is again all down to Maarten’s coordination.’
Changing direction Maarten does by moving his reins sideways. ‘You could compare it somewhat to Western riding, but in a very mild form so that it barely shows.’ Maarten’s position between exercises is according to Saskia neutral. ‘He sits in the middle with his shoulders over his pelvis. And that so incredibly relaxed, that he follows his horse to its maximum and never is restricting it. He is neither forward or leans back, also not to the left or the right. So, he does not push his horse with his weight through one shoulder, which I do by accident because I’m a bit stronger on the right. I know I do it, but it still happens. I make up for it with my outside rein. He cannot do that, it would show, so there is no other option but to sit where he sits.’
As far as the theory and technique there is no difference. We all want to ride our horse from back to front and that in combination with a beautiful light contact. But, in real life this is very different. According to Saskia most riders know how it is meant to be, but do not practice it. Compensating with the reins, whether as an aid or as unfair pressure, is more or less standard. Maarten is simply not capable of doing that. What does Maarten do which we ought to take to heart and get better at? Saskia thinks this a very relevant question, because of the image problem dressage is undergoing at this very moment. ‘Riding lighter and friendlier; we will have to accept that this is the way forward so that we can avoid for outsiders to look at us as cruel and possibly for the sport to even be prohibited. This sounds a bit over the top, but I think that we should not close our eyes for the foreseeable. So, look at people who approach things differently, try to take the good from that. Less is more. Think about that for a minute. And go out there and keep trying.’
‘It is all in the preparation’
‘Is what Saskia observed correct? Maarten has to think about this. It happens unconsciously. ‘I am predominantly busy with where to go next. Through being very clear to your horse about this, it is easier to ‘stay together’ and less corrections are necessary.’
Maarten thinks what he does seems easy, because he is always so focussed on where to go, in which tempo and which position. ‘It is all in the preparation. The horse itself wants to go somewhere and seeks a tempo that makes him feel ‘safe’. Safety is all he cares about. If I can beat the horse to it, by being super clear about our direction, then it will do that. Horses are herd animals so it is in their make-up to follow. I am pleased it looks easy, but of course it is not. It is a long road to get to that point. However, it is not any more difficult with one hand. If that would be the aim, anyone could do it.’
If your message is not clear, the horse will choose its own direction, tempo and position. That is why Maarten never uses the term ‘running through the outside shoulder’. ‘It is not a bad thing when a horse is escaping, as long as it is not its own escape. When you think that it is running through the shoulder or a circle is too big or too small, it is you who did not make the direction sufficiently clear. The horse is absolutely not interested in a too small or too big a circle.’
The advantage of a decent preparation is that Maarten does not have to correct anything. ‘When you change direction, or start a movement out of the blue, the horse will inevitably start to make it up by itself as it goes along. Imagine changing the rein across the diagonal, the diagonal being line zero. Without clear aids it is ever so easy to be one or two metres on either side. With a correction the chances are you overshoot the mark by another meter, which makes it minus three. That is never going to be tidy, to say the least. You cannot change the past, so put your efforts into the future, be ahead of the game. Only then you will get the chance to sit still and light, because nothing much has to change. When the picture in your head becomes the picture in the school, you are able to relax.’
Maarten does think that he has more rein pressure than Saskia imagined when watching him. ‘Yes, the connection is soft, but not non-existent. My right arm is pretty much permanently overstretched, because it has had to work so very hard for so many years. So, it simply hurts when I use too much power. At such a moment it flashes through my brain that I can’t afford to lose that one too. Through all the years I’ve trained with Alex van Silfhout, he has hammered on keeping it light. I always thought that a few seconds more pressure was okay. But an endless amount times a couple of seconds is a lot, when you are trying to save your one and only arm. So, it works both ways: I want to be light for my horse, but also for my own body. It does mean the road to the top takes a bit longer, but I don’t mind that.’
No pussy footing
Maarten emphasises that he is not holier than the pope. ‘There are certainly moments that I am a bit tougher and tell my horse clearly what it actually is I want. That is not always ‘pretty’. But just look how a mare treats her foal, no pussy footing around there either. Only, she doesn’t keep moaning about it. Which is what people do. I also use the resisting hand occasionally, but only as a very quick correction. When a horse learns to use the hands as a fifth leg, it is up to you to change its mind. At that moment it might help to maintain a temporary unpleasant pressure for the horse to want to get rid of it by itself. But you must then immediately lessen the pressure. When the pressure continues, not every rider understands where it is coming from. At the moment it releases its jaw, the horse must use its body in such a way that it can maintain this softness, this suppleness. Which means, the hindquarters will now have to step under and the horse carry itself. That is often the moment it goes wrong. When the horse releases but does not move sufficiently forward from behind, it ends up on the forehand and it will meet that bit again. The more the horse goes on the forehand the more the pressure on the bit continues. When you as a rider answer that with a resisting hand, you give it the option to lean on you and the horse will go even more on the forehand. It cannot go soft because it is literally falling forward and there is that bit again. When you let go and give leg, you teach it how to carry itself, without using you as a ‘coat rack’. Learn to understand where the pressure of leaning on the bit comes from and then teach yourself how to solve that. At that moment it doesn’t really matter how many hands you’ve got.’
In theory most of us can follow this. But, why oh why, do we see so many riders pulling with horses on the forehand? Maarten believes this is because many do not really spend enough time and energy on learning to understand what they are actually sitting on. ‘More often than not, riders do not understand why a horse does not carry itself from behind. So, that is what their task is. Six hundred kilos of moving meat which wants to go forward and downward. And achieving that with your body which isn’t even one tenth of that weight. The horse wants to move on its front, that is its build, its nature. It doesn’t matter whether you are on a Shetland pony or Valegro or anything in between, this principle is the same for all. You must teach your horse with patience and in a relaxed way so that it can also carry itself with its hind legs. Then it will try for you. So long as it feels safe. When it does not understand or gets tense for any other reason, it will try to get back on the forehand. To make it easier for itself. At that moment the horse does not realize anymore that we want it to use its hindlegs for self-carriage. Riders often think their horse ought to understand all this. But it is not like that. When the frustration kicks in because the horse does not understand, that is the moment when assertive behaviour from the rider becomes counterproductive.’ However, dressage or any form of riding is too difficult to be negative when it doesn’t look quite so pretty for a minute. On the other hand, Maarten is pleased there is a reshuffle going on as far as lightness and harmonious riding. ‘At the Europeans the two tests which moved me to tears were those of Sonke and Cathrin, which gives me hope for the future.’
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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