The ART of Academic Riding

Jackie Alexander – Bent Branderup Clinic – Shropshire February 2019

“The Academic Art of Riding means to bring the Historical Art of Riding from the past back to life again. The horse must be trained according to its abilities, concerning both body and mind. Thoughtful gymnastic exercises will keep horses healthy and long living. The academic riders see riding as an art form, an art of movement like ballet. The basis for this kind of riding, however, is good basic training, like the training of a working equitation horse.
The horse must be ridden in one hand, do all side movements, the half pirouette and the change of hand in all three gaits and must be able to show beginning of collections in the half steps. From here the art begins…

Bent Branderup & the Knighthood of the Academic Art of Riding

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I knew nothing about the Danish trainer, Bent Branderup, but fortunately other Icey owners did know of his work , not only in ‘the academic art of riding’, but also of his experience in Iceland, riding Icelandics, so I was lucky to be able to join a group of 5 Icelandic owners at this 2 day clinic.

Bent Branderup had his first adult experiences on Icelandic horses Source: Bent Branderup Biography

The clinic was held in a beautiful indoor school at a lovely equestrian centre in rural Shropshire and we were made very welcome (lots of coffee and cake being freely on offer!).

Bent Branderup was very much the star of the show, along with some beautiful horses ( largely Warmblood  or Iberian). Bent looks like the personification of an old riding master, with his twirled moustache, cloaked coat and large hat, but he is softly spoken and reeks of experience with horses. He told the audience he hadn’t been to Britain since the 1970s but he has students and trainers of his work in the UK eg’ Student of the Horse’ at Dudmaston Stud near Bridgnorth, Shropshire.

“Its the process of finding out who I am in his eyes. He has see me as his human before I can call him my horse.”

He insists that , ‘without the theory the practice is empty’ and therefore gave three lengthy and extremely informative theory sessions before teaching people, who had brought their horses for both ridden and in hand sessions with him.

Much of the theory considered the conformation of the horse and the importance of straightness, enabling the horse not only to place its hind foot directly into the pattern of the front foot, but to be able to use its back correctly and develop, over a considerable period of time, the ability to bring its weight onto its hindquarters, where the horse’s engine is situated. Bent considers himself an ‘academic’ riding teacher and he made plenty of references to the influence of great riders and writers on horsemanship e.g Xenophon and Pluvinel.

A large part of his teaching on the first day considered the importance of the halt and he broke the halt into three stages, insisting that the halt should be a ‘forwards down’ not a ‘backwards down’. He stated that the feeling of a good halt should be ‘the absence of any kind of resistance’. He spoke at length about the importance of the seat in the rider and stressed that a rider should  be in control of his/her own body and not ride against the movement which he felt many people did.

Bent said the rider needed to (a) stay up there – ie be balanced (b) follow the horse and its movements ( in the riding lessons he told the riders to practise saying when the horse’s back foot was in the air, as it walked forward) and (c) give suggestions  so that the horse follows you.

He emphasised that the weight of a rider should be on the upper leg (thigh) not onto the stirrups and that riders need to develop their muscles so that they can ride more effectively and offer more comfort to the horse, as well as more opportunity for it to use its back correctly. ‘Use  a soft lower leg’ he said,’ otherwise the muscles around your seatbones will become stiff’, and uncomfy for you and the horse.

He spoke at some length about the importance of getting a saddle which fits the rider as well as the horse, pointing out that the average distance between a male’s seat bones is 8 cm, whereas the distance between a female’s seatbones is 12 cm, so  one saddle doesn’t fit all.

Bent insisted that a rider must ride with his/her seat, NOT with his/her hands. He explained that only the chest of the horse can lift the shoulder blades to lighten the forehand. The neck cannot do this, so there is no point in using your hands to lift the head and neck of the horse, as this does not allow the horse to bring his hind leg underneath him. At this point he actually referred to ‘banana tolt’ in Icelandics and said, ‘you can’t use this kind of tolt on anything but a perfectly flat road……’ He expressed sadness that ‘Icelandics were going this way.’, stressing that if you used the hand to lift the head and neck and also to compress the horse’s body, there was ‘no way you would get lightness in the shoulder’. In a further condemnation of Icelandic riding he said that most riders of Icelandics rode so much tölt that they  couldn’t ride a trot properly!

There was a lot of time spent on the use of shoulder in, with Bent showing to the handlers that the bend should be minimal, not allowing the outside shoulder to fall out but enabling the hind foot to be brought correctly under the body and developing tendons and ligaments.  He repeated many times that to develop a horse’s athletic ability and ability to carry a rider correctly, it wasn’t just about developing muscles, but more about the development of tendons and ligaments, which took far longer than most horse riders/ trainers were prepared to give their horses. As an example, he said that his stallion which he has trained since the horse was young, is now 24 and Bent said,’ stronger and more able to carry himself beautifully, than he has ever been.’

Bent felt it was a pity that riders weren’t allowed to use their voices in training horses – ‘ a bad inheritance from the army,’ he said. He emphasised that, ‘ A good trainer must have loads of patience.’ ‘The limitations of a horses are most often because of you.’

Other Bent  Branderup words of wisdom included :

‘You need to keep the joy in learning for you and the horse.’

‘The talented person is often lazy’ because they don’t have to work hard to do something,’ but less talented people have to work harder and can thus learn better.’

‘The first step in the journey is often the most difficult….’

‘You should aim to gain independence from your teacher’.

‘People without knowledge  are so sure; those with knowledge are more unsure – they know there are things they still don’t know – and are prepared to learn .

Good riders are very empathetic. The art of riding is when you can integrate emotion into  the riding’.

The clinic with Bent was  certainly extremely informative. Many people attending referred to him as ‘inspirational’.  He’s definitely very persuasive and I have since purchased one of his books, which I am enjoying reading. I suspect his teaching is going to influence the way in which I use in-hand work with my Icelandics.

Jackie Alexander (March 2019)


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