De Knuffy in Austin...at Last!
Story & Photos by Ingrid Edisen

Say the name “de Kunffy” in dressage circles and you’ve spoken of a god. Charles de Kunffy’s reputation is huge. There is no other way to put it. Every Central Texas dressage queen worth her salt in sweat was present at the clinic organized by Cean Embrey, program chair of the Central Texas Dressage Society on Oct. 2nd and 3rd. The Dressage Foundation helped underwrite the costs with a Violet Hopkins dressage educational grant.

De Kunffy said it’s been twenty years since he’d visited Austin although he’s been to Texas six times this year already. He is a world traveler, constantly on the go between continents serving as an international dressage judge and clinician. He’s also authored at least six books on the subject of dressage and produced several training videos. After auditing his clinic, I understand why he’s so much in demand.

Born to Hungarian nobility and trained under the best riding masters of Europe since he was a child, de Kunffy seems at first very formal but his dry wit and even-handed and disciplined approach to teaching classical methods wins one over. His eyes missed nothing as the riders coursed the ring in front of him. If you allowed your fingers to grow lax and didn’t keep a closed hand, he called you on it; should your toes waver in the stirrups, he gently reminded you to reposition your foot. He ran the clinic like clockwork. Each half-day riding segment was begun with a thirty-minute lecture on various aspects of dressage theory. Then as the clinic participants entered the ring, the rider had to first check in with him so he could inspect tack and instruct that person on the finer points of seat and position. He did not stray into over-sentimentalizing the participants; rather, he called the shots as he saw them in a neutral way.

“Riding is like a science,” he explained in one lecture. “It is a lifelong process.” He recounted the necessary steps to becoming a good rider and explained that the top five percent of riders are “good” and (from what I gathered) the rest of us have to work at it. First you need good posture, he said. Muscle memory can be good or bad and it’s far better to reinforce the good muscle memory rather than the bad. After thirty-five years of riding and training, he is in excellent physical shape himself and says he’s never had pain from riding because he’s always focused on riding correctly. After learning correct posture, then one can begin to apply an aiding system and reinforce good muscle memory. After that one’s growth as a rider grows geometrically.

The next thing a rider needs is an educated mind–to know how the horse works in conjunction with a rider’s aids, for instance, and to maintain emotional control. Only then, he said, can you be “launched as a rider.” He said at that stage you are much like a newly trained doctor just getting out of med school.

He decried riders who ride “out of the shoulders” rather than riding out of an authoritative seat. And it’s “seat to trot,” not “bump to trot,” he said. “Everywhere I see too much holding in the front,” he told the audience and reminded us that we don’t want our mounts to be struggling against the bit. “Contact is made by the horse, not the rider. Keep the hand static and the horse for awhile may hammer against the bit and then eventually step through and yield. When this happens properly, he explained, you will feel a slight emptiness in your hand, but this is good as it means the horse is stepping through. “The horse contacts the bit with his hocks,” de Kunffy told us, “not the mouth. If a rider insists on making the horse use the wrong muscles, eventually the horse is broken down. A correct topline means all the other muscles are working correctly.” Bracing and an inverted neck shows resistance and fighting. A rider is looking for a “draped neck,” he said.

Some consistent corrections he made of most of the participants are that he shortened stirrup leathers one or two holes for almost everybody. “You have to earn the holes,” he said. And he constantly reminded riders to allow their upper arms to come back so they could keep their elbows under their shoulders. He also loosened the jowl straps on most horses’ bridles warning riders that no one wanted to block the horses’ windpipes. Another comment he made was that he did not want to see any open knees. He advised riders to give their horses room in the reins as they made downward transitions between gaits.

As is the desire in any dressage training session, the horse should look more beautiful at the end and I saw de Kunffy repeat this process over and over again with the pairs he worked with. Many of the animals started off with a slight unevenness in their back legs and de Kunffy pointed out that this probably came from rein lameness which is caused by incorrect riding and training. Yet, after a session with his tutelage, all the horses were striding correctly and evenly in back. For head tossers, he advised the rider to maintain a neutral rein length with the outside rein and grip the pommel with the outside hand and lean back whenever the horse exhibited this habit and not to make a big fuss about it. He taught many riders to do a “torso roll” by moving the torso right, then left, then right in rhythm with the horse’s striding and soften with the left rein to encourage the horses to lower their heads and necks. Why the left rein? Because most horses are not as supple on that side and not as willing to step through with the left hind leg. “They are not ambidextrous,” he said. This seemed to work like a charm in the walking and trotting work I witnessed. He explained that it reminded the horse of the authority of the seat.

When riders performed the shoulder in, he told them that it is the inside leg that keeps the horse coming and not the outside rein. Many times he asked riders to relax the outside rein somewhat when doing this movement to free up the horse.

De Kunffy is based in California these days. His website at www.charlesdekunffy.com offers more information about his books and videos. Many of his books can be ordered via Amazon.


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