The Drama of Dressage: DVD from Germany Peels the Paint You Watched Dry All Those Years

by Fran Jurga | 14 April 2009 | The Jurga Report

This subtitled trailer is a bit outdated; the new English soundtrack version was launched in the United States this month, but you’ll glimpse some of this DVD’s lavish effects and drama.

If you’re like me, you have often heard people (especially men) make jokes about going to a dressage show being as boring as “watching paint dry”. Well, now we have something to wake those people up and get them to pay attention. In fact, we can now roll up our sleeves and have a good argument because German veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann has set the stage for the rollkur/overflexion debate of recent years to continue. With this DVD, the classical vs modern dressage discussion rolls out of the lecture halls and academia and into the streets; everyone is sure to have an opinion after watching this DVD.

Heuschmann comes at the competition/sport side of dressage–trainers, judges, riders, owners, breeders–with charges of “foul!” and uses the sacred texts and artifacts and even icons like the chief rider of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna to help him make his case.

But is this passionate young German a modern-day Don Quixote, tilting at judging box windmills astride a perfectly collected horse? Book buyers who made his Tug of War hardcover book an equestrian bestseller–it is now sold in four languages–certainly thought he had something worthy of their attention and purchasing power.

Heuschmann’s best ally in his plea for un-tense, free-moving dressage horses is his producer, Isabella Sonntag. Sonntag spared no expense in creating powerful graphics and very high-tech 3-D computer animation. She also hired a masterful sound editor whose dramatic soundtrack, as evidenced on the trailer, makes you feel that grand prix dressage may be as big a risk to a horse’s health and safety as navigating a four-star event course.

This DVD is not without its flaws. It is a one-sided argument: the mainstream “sport” dressage community does not have a chance to defend itself, nor does Heuschmann give us the background of existing biomechanical research on the horse’s back and neck, conducted at the University of Utrecht, France’s CIRALE, Sweden’s Uppsala center or our own McPhail Center at Michigan State University.

In many ways, Heuschmann is debating an enemy who didn’t show for the battle. For those who have decided that an about-face return to classical dressage is the answer to dressage’s problems and that massive reform is needed in the sport, this DVD will be the flagship to show and share with others. For those who want to learn what rollkur/overflexion is (and isn’t), this video will certainly give you a very strong opinion of why the practice has been discouraged by the FEI. Some people from outside the sport will nod their heads all the way through, and embrace Heuschmann for saving horses from a sport they didn’t even know could be so perilous, and that is certainly his intended mission.

For all his persuasiveness and all the DVD’s drama, the subject is part of a much larger picture of equine biomechanics that is unfolding within the relatively new field of equestrian sport science. Over the next few years, science may well prove that Heuschmann and the Old Masters were right all along, Ms. Sonntag’s money was well-spent, and the DVD’s high-stakes drama is reality, after all.

This graphic is a still capture from one of the DVD’s many anatomy animations.

Yet it is not enough to feel betrayed that a sport’s leaders and stars are damaging horses and shortening their careers with rushed training and harsh methods. The public needs to know what to do: where’s Heuschmann’s plan to reform dressage? I’m sure there is one, perhaps rooted in the great mind of the esteemed Xenophon Society in Europe–great minds that include Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s.

Don’t miss this DVD, and the chance to form your own opinion. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though the anatomical/biomechanical detail may be more in-depth than some people are seeking (that’s why the remote has that fast-forward button) and we never did find out exactly why that horse in the promo trailer was having surgery on its leg and how it was connected to improper dressage training. But it certainly was dramatic!

Specifics: ? 75 minute DVD format in English ? USA DVD format (may not play on Euro systems) ? “Starring” Dr. Gerd Heuschmann with commentary by Chief Rider Johann Riegler of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Professor Heinz Meyer, Peter Kreinberg, and David de Wispelaere, with introduction and epilogue by equestrian historian Hans-Heinrich Isenbart. ? Special effects and animation by Pixomondo ? Produced by Isabella Sonntag and Wu-Wei Verlag ? Released April 2009 by Trafalgar Square Books




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