2024 Burgtagung: "Everything Was Better in the Past, Wasn’t It?"

Fri, 02/16/2024 - 10:01
Dr. Britta Schöffmann's raised forefinger served as a reminder that good and bad equitation know no time :: Photo © Silke Rottermann

this article is a continuation of Today for Tomorrow - A Weekend Dedicated to Good Equestrian Sport at the 2024 Burgtagung
-- Text and Photos © Silke Rottermann for Eurodressage

The Agony of Choice

With 20 short seminars on Saturday and 10 on Sunday, running from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, one had the agony of choice which ones to attend on both days. With the dressage orientated readership of Eurodressage in the back of my mind, I tried to choose wisely and picked those seminars which touched upon this discipline and I was lucky that there was almost no overlapping time.

On Sunday morning, already feeling a bit tired from the past two days with lots of input and little sleep, I was happy that it was a mere 50 meters from my youth hostel room to go to the seminar room, where Dr. Britta Schöffmann managed a demanding topic that seems very current these days.

Dr. Britta Schöffmann: Everything Was Better In The Past, Wasn’t it?"

Dr. Britta Schöffmann is a well-known name in Germany. Having successfully competed up to Grand Prix, she had been the chief editor of the big Reiter Revue magazine for several years and has written a bunch of training books as well as produced training videos. Clearly stamped by classical trainers such as the late Fritz Tempelmann, the late Willi Schultheis and Harry Boldt, Schöffmann has garnered undisputed expertise and has been sought after by the German Federation when the guidelines were revised.

One of the photos Schöffmann showed: Otto Lörke
and the thoroughbred Chronist xx who was
known for disadvantageous conformation
With her background and being over 60 now, the sympathetic Schöffmann was certainly the right person to lecture on the maxim of "Everything was better in the past, wasn’t it?"

One couldn’t evade the feeling the past years that proportional to the trouble international dressage faces for a long time, exactly this topic is growing, overall on social media. Having occupied myself extensively for many years with the history of dressage, I am well aware that certain problems are existent for as long as dressage sport is alive, while other issues are more recent and probably have its foundation in the commercialisation of the discipline as well as the significant improvement of dressage horse breeding.

I was curious to find out how Dr. Schöffmann would tackle this wide field.

Disconnected Diagonals

"We see many bad pictures which appear repeatedly on the internet and they are the reason that there is this thesis 'in the past all was better.' Let us follow the question if this thesis is actually accurate," Schöffmann began her lecture. She took about 20 auditors right into the topic by showing several photos of the so-called "old masters," a term she would elaborate on a bit later. There were some appealing and some strikingly ugly copper engravings and photos to be seen, among them one of Otto Lörke riding the Vornholz thoroughbred stallion Chronist xx. Now on this photo the horse was clearly showing the disconnected diagonals that 70 years later epitomise modern dressage, for which it has become infamous.

One of Schöffmann’s PowerPoint pages, showing
the Englishman James Fillis and Germinal xx, approx 1890
Schöffmann admitted that we have to take these old photos as they are because film material from those far gone times is rare and difficult to access.  "People talk about the so-called old master in an almost glorified manner. Behind it is certainly the wish to be guided by photographic moments in time," Schöffmann stated.  She played a short clip showing the German old master Oscar Maria Stensbeck riding his double Olympic team champion (1928 and 1936), the Trakehner gelding Gimpel (by Wandersmann xx), an already very refined horse for his time, in high school movements, allowing the auditors to take these impressions in.  It did not go unnoticed by them that this horse moved significantly different from today’s naturally elastic sky divers, for better and worse.

Schöffmann doubted that there had ever been Old Masters in this sense "because the representatives of the different schools were always in unison," instead she wished the term to be understood as "a longstanding amassing of experiences which is nowadays the fundament of modern equitation that are the classical principles."

Comparing Past and Present

The speaker on one of her PowerPoint pages
which served the cognitive process of the auditors
(Photo © Barbara Schnell)
After her introduction Schöffmann headed to the core of her lecture, a whole series of Power Point pages first showing a drawing, then the corresponding photo after which she had drawn the sketches herself. Schöffmann instructed her audience to look at the sketches under two aspects: Could it show something from the past or nowadays? What is good, what is bad or striking in general?

It was obvious that these drawings were  "moments in time" so the audience would judge them on what Plewa called "formalistic viewpoints," in his opening lecture on Friday. It was clearly not  Schöffmann’s aim to initiate a kind of judges’ seminar for the auditors, but with this process she aimed to raise awareness that good and bad equitation is timeless. It was quite interesting to observe this process Schöffmann got going.

First the majority of attendants assumed the „good old times“ when a movement looked good or „the doubtable modern times“ as soon as a movement was rather bad. Formalities such as a sagging back, a short neck or the poll not being the highest point were first matched to a silhouette in sport nowadays, whereas the opposites were at the beginning often matched to the past. Personally I liked to play the game as well, but it soon became obvious that Schöffmann wanted to make us aware that we should rather look for the quality of the movement than the times in which it was ridden. So from my viewpoint I looked at the seat and position of the rider more than the horse. Here we could more often recognize the time in which the corresponding photo had been taken.

Schöffmann animated her auditors to discuss
the quality of dressage now and then
At the end of the series of sketches and photos Schöffmann draw a foreseeable and totally correct conclusion: "If we judge a photo we should have an ideal in front of our inner eye. It is important to differentiate the good from the bad and for that we have to free ourselves from names and times and instead look closely. In the past not all was better. It were attempts to find out how to train a horse. When it comes to rollkur it should finally become generally accepted that this is not okay and detrimental to the horse."

Soon coming about Burgtagung conference:
2024 Burgtagung: Anja Beran - "Schooling The Eye"
2024 Burgtagung: Fair and Delightful Dressage Training with Uta Gräf and Anja Beran
2024 Burgtagung: Uta Gräf and Anja Beran: "If the Basis is Correct, It's Easy for the Horse"

Related Link
Today for Tomorrow - A Weekend Dedicated to Good Equestrian Sport at the 2024 Burgtagung