Desiree du Pisanie: achieving weightless riding
By Izak Hofmeyr
It is not so much what you DO on the horse. It is much more about what you ARE on your horse. Achieving weightlessness is about a state of being...
Whether you see her alongside an arena giving lessons or standing on a bench applying bodywork therapy to a horse, you need not be in her comapny for long to realise that Desiree du Pisanie is not just another horsewoman. There is something about her...
Seeing her interact with her own horses, ride her own horses, and then, if you talk to her students, both in Europe and Southern Africa, it becomes even clearer: Des is making a difference. In fact, one could go as far as saying that she is an instrument in a quiet revolution. This revolution has been going on for a while: the revolution towards lightness and softness in riding.
Thing is, Des has taken lightness to the extreme: she has achieved weightlessness.
It all started for her while at university in Pretoria, South Africa, during the early 1980’s. Horse mad from a young age, she at the time had a sensitive Arabian gedling called Isfahan. Although Isfahan was attentive and responsive from the ground, there seemed to be a total breakdown in communication when she was on his back.
“I was struggling with this enigma when I was told by my riding instructor at the time that my legs were simply not strong enough. Although that made no sense, for I was a ballet dancer and extremely active and fit, I started to wonder if she wasn’t correct – that I was indeed not strong enough to be a good rider. But something did not add up for me. It made no sense to me, having a horse that is very ligth and sensitive from the ground, but the total opposite under saddle. So, I started looking for answers. And that became a journey that has dominated my life ever since.”
This journey led her to a remarkable man, a lecturer in human movement studies called Prof Hans Loots. As a hobby, he also taught riding on two ancient horses. An old Lipizzaner mare called Miranda was to be Des’s teacher. Miranda, recalls Des, was a total eye opener for her.
“Miranda ran away with me in a collected canter! So slow that Prof Loots was able to walk next to me. But I had no controll over her. I tried everything that I knew but she ignored me and kept on running away in her collected canter. When at last I asked Prof Loots to help, things started to get better!”
Prof Loots told her to breathe. To put weight on the outside buttock. Miranda stopped so quickly, says Des, that she nearly pitched forward over her head!
“From that moment, I was hooked. I felt that if riding could be like this, I am in! And, I wanted to know how it worked.”
The journey had begun.
Des started to take her Arabian Isfahan for lessons. Isfahan, she recalls, was fairly uptight at that stage. Now, in retrospect, she understands that he was just begging for clarity.
“Although I tried to be a good, responsible rider, I know now that I basically shouted at him with my aids, and that I totally flooded hom with contratictory demands. With Prof Loots, I started to explore alternatives, especially based on breathing, which is part of the Alexander Technique.”
During this period Des also met Lourens Badenhorst, the owner of a remarkable SA Boerperd stallion called Langkarel Echo. She started to compete on Echo.
“After about a year with Prof Loots, Echo and I started to win basically everything that we entered. Echo was an amazing horse, and Prof Loots’s teachings into softness enabled him to really shine under me, to be himself.”
After university (Des studied Animal Science in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Pretoria) she travelled to Europe to start work for a veterinarian in Germany.
“This vet, dr Hermann Enz, who still lives in Bavaria, had a huge knee operation just when I arrived there, so I was thrown in at the deep end. In the mornings I had to ride his horses, in the day I had to drive him to his various appointments and then doubled as his assistant, holding pigs or sheep and vaccinating or treating farm animals.”
Des grew up in rural South Africa, in the northern Bushveld region of the Limpopo province. Her father had a farm near the village of Alldays, so working with farm animals was not strange to her.
“When I arrived in Europe in 1994, South Africa was just coming out of isolation, so we had very little exposure to high level equitation. I was in total awe with the equestrian scene. Very soon after my arrival I went to watch a display by the Saumur team in Munich. Now, I have seen pictures of these displays before, but from far away South Africa I never thought what they did with their horses was achievable for normal people like me. I discovered that the equestrian culture in Europe was totally different to what I was used to. But more than that, I knew that I was looking for something, but I had no idea what that was.”
While with Dr Enz, Des was introduced to Herr Weiss, who was a longtime student of Egon von Neindorff. As a birthday present one year from a friend, Des had lessons with Herr Von Neindorf. It was here that she realised that what she had considered to be advanced riding before, was actually normal and attainable for her.
From Germany Des migrated to Italy, in Tuscany, where she got a job in the Agri-tourism industry. She was responsible for the horses on a farm that catered for tourism and presented, amongst others, outrides for their guests.
This exposure posed unique challenges to her, for the landlord was also a race horse owner. Those horses that did not make it on the track came to the riding school. Imagine a bunch of Throughbreds on an outride with guests of varying skill and experience on their backs!
“The five years I spent on that farm was largely the start of my career as riding instructor. Apart from outrides I also started to give lessons to guests, and I based it on the Alexander Technique and especially the breathing techniques that Prof Loots used to teach me. I noticed that people came back again and again. The horses were easy to ride, and they found that they enjoyed the experience tremendously.
After five years in this job, Des again packed up and moved to England to study Equine Bodywork. She also did APM – Anatomy, Physiology and Massage – for humans, and then specialised in sports massage.
“At that point I was looking for stimulation for my mind. As nice as the Italian stint was, I did not plan on being a riding school instructor for the rest of my life. Bodywork proved to be an extremely satisfying endeavour in that you can really help horses improve their quality of life. You can be pro-active and help them before serious problems develop. That ability, to this day, gives me a tremendous kick.”
She studied for four years while supporting herself by working for a dentist. On graduation, she moved back to Germany to start her own Bodyworks practice.
It was while in Germany that she met Goncalo Oliveira, grandson of Nuno Oliveira, the riding master from Portugal. A new world opened up for her. She was introduced to the world of classical riding. Between Goncalo, whom she also married, and a Lusitano horse called Xairel, Master Oliveira’s last school horse, she really started to learn about the art of riding.
“Xairel was schooled to High School level and had been a school master for 20 years by that time. What made him invaluable to me as a school master was that he gave willingly what you asked, on condition that you asked correctly. If you used your aids correctly, it was the easiest thing in the world to ride him, even in the advanced movements.”
She rode Xairel for ten years, and together with her exposure to Goncalo’s instruction, she started to get an understanding of what the master, Nuno Oliveira, was really about. (Des has just recently completed the translation from Portuguese to English of the Master’s last writings. (The book, called Classical Principles of Equestrian Art, should be available in book shops soon.)
“The more I was exposed to the Oliveira way, the more I realised that this was what I had been searching for my whole life.”
Des is convinced that the riding masters around which the classical art of riding developed, used a logic that had the natural aptitude of the horse as basis. It is this logic that fascinates her.
“There is always a very good reason why things are done in a certain way and why aids are used in a certain way to obtain a certain effect. Those reasons, I feel, should be the target of one’s study of the art or riding.”
She relates how, in converstations with her current riding instructor, Paulo Sergio Perdigao, who also is a well-known long rein master, he often corrects her when she refers to something Master Oliveira said about the application of a certain aid. Paulo would point out that yes, he said that, but in reference to a specific horse. Each horse requires a specific and unique approach.
This has become a cornerstone of Des’s approach to riding and training: every horse has its own beauty, which should not be compared to the next horse’s beauty. The focus should be in bringing out each individual horse’s own beaty.
Des teaches what she calls Weightless Riding. It is based on that feeling of total balance and harmony when a horse moves correctly and easily, in stark contrast to when it moves crookedly or out of balance, when everything seems hard and uncomfortable.
“I feel that I was able to combine my knowledge of both human and equine anatomy and biomechanics, together with my knowledge of the fine art of riding and my knowledge of the Alexander Technique to form a unique set of principles according to which I teach. Based on the success of my students, I am convinced that Weightless Riding offers the basis for long term sustainable riding.”
Although she has no moral issue with competition, she does worry that the thirst for success can sometimes overshadow the well being of the horse.
“For me it is about the health and well-being of the horse, and that the horse will stay sound under saddle for a very long time. Riding should remain fun for both horse and rider, and that I think is the acid test. Riding is, after all, a hobby for most riders, whether they focus on competition or not. And if your hobby is a grind for your partner, surely it cannot be fulfilling!”
In Weightless Riding, you take away so much pressure from both yourself and your horse that the end result is that you seem to communicate with your horse through thoughts only. “You breathe and the horse feels the subtle differences in your body tension. That is enough indication for him to understand what you want.” This, she says, gives a feeling of utter freedom, of weightlesness.
“Don’t misunderstand: of course I use all the aids, they have been developed over many centuries by the masters, but I do believe that they should be used lightly and delicately, and above all sparingly, for it is then that the horse starts to concentrate more. We communicate in a whisper, not a shout. And as the communication becomes increasingly subtle, the rider has to use the aids less and less until I may achieve the correct movement through a simple and subtle change of the position of a body part, or the slight shift in weight, or even a thought. In the process the horse knows exactly what is expected, and you allow him to express himself. In Weightless Riding you feel as if you are not doing anything. You are just sitting on your horse. But the effect in terms of what you achieve together seems gravity defying.”
In order, however, to achieve Weightless Riding, warns Des, you have to be totally open for new ideas. You have to be prepared to find the fault with yourself and not your horse, that yóú are the weak link.
“I teach my riders to interpret the communication they receive back from their horses and to correct the mistakes the horses are making them aware of. Only when you are certain that your seat is perfect may you accept that the fault lies with the horse and correct the horse!”
The horse’s so-called faults are nine times out of ten a reflection of your own faults, says Des. If your horse, for eample, falls over his shoulder, you should monitor quickly what you are doing with your own shoulder. Chances are that if you pick up your shoulder, the horse will correct himself as well.
Weightless Riding, in the first place, is about sitting correctly, she emphasises. This is why it is an inter-disciplinary approach. Regardless of the discipline you want to compete in, you have to sit correctly, for you will only be able to help your horse if you sit correctly. And from this correct position the horse is able to carry you better, you are able to communicate with increasing softness with your horse and it ends in that magic place that so few riders have ever achieved in their lifes – weightless riding.
“Every person has his own unique correct position, just as every horse is beautiful in its own right. Comparisons are futile, except for a comparison with yourself. It is not about ‘I am not as beautiful as you’. It is instead about ‘I am as beautiful as me’.”
Des also practices side saddle equitation, for this discipline, she believes, provides an excellent test in subtle riding - it is impossible to depend on squeezing legs and one has to depend totally on one’s own balance. Achieving a balanced seat in a side saddle, making it look easy, takes you a long way towards achieving Weightless Riding, she believes.
“Weightless riding happens the moment when all the individual parts – correct use of upper body weight, subtle use of the lower back, balanced seat bone contact, relaxed leg position and subtle use of the hands all come together in a whole that is much more than the sum of the individual parts. When the mechanics of riding are transcended and a higher state is achieved. A state where it feels as if gravity has lost its hold on you and your horse.”
Christine Hamscha-Trouboukis, Germany
I have been exposed to the German way of riding all my life. This dictated that you have the reins in your hands, you sit in the saddle and you press your legs to the horse and then it has to do what you want it to do. It involves pressure, more pressure or less pressure, but pressure nevertheless.
This is where Desireé’s concept of Weightless Riding differs fundametally from anything that I have been exposed to before: you do not put pressure on the horse. We rather invite our horse do something, and it works. The horse is given the opportunity to understand what we want from him and we do this through our body language.
Using body language allows for a different kind of communication to take place. Because body and mind can be so closely linked, the end result is that one only thinks of something and the horse understands what is expected.
Replacing the normal approach of domination and obedience with this contract of communication and understanding is for many horses a huge relief. I personally was very lucky in that my horse, whom I got when she was 3, was ridden only by me, and we started having lessons with Desireé when she had just turned 4. She knows no other way of riding, and this is an amazing gift. She knows no other way than Weigthless Riding and the contract between us involves an effort from her and from me to understand the other and to co-operate to the best of our ability.
An important aspect is that Weightless Riding is presice and minimalistic. Every minute shift in weight means something. Therefore, the horse and rider pay absolute attention to one another.
Another very important aspect is that Weightless Riding recognises the horse as a sentient being. It is much more than a means to an end. It therefore allows for the fact that some days the horse might not feel as perky as the day before and we take this into consideration. Our horses are, after all, our friends, and we want to treat them with respect.
This basic attitude also allows for us to be lenient in our approach to training. If our horse does not do something well in the beginning, that is ok. We allow it time to learn to understand what we want, and also the time to practice what we want so they can improve their skills. Above all we allow enough time until the horse is physically ready to achieve what we want them to do.
All this leads to a fundamental factor, and that is that the horse achieves a feeling of success. This is a crucial ingredient in Weightless Riding, for there is no stronger motivation to try even harder than this feeling of success.
Desiree has a deep understanding of the interrelationship between classical equitation and the anatomy of the horse. This comes from her classical background as well as her in-depth knowledge of the anatomy of the horse, being a trained equine therapist. Weightless Riding developed out of this understanding.
But there is a third ingredient: Desiree gives a lot of herself in her lessons. She considers herself a third partner in the relationship with your horse. She enters this partnership respectfully and creates a team of three persons – you, your horse and her. The result is Weightless Riding.