Nevzorov's exclusive interview for the Amazone magazine (August-September 2006)
From Russia woth love
In the historical arena moves a horse. In a perfect passage, with the hind legs bending under his body mass and the neck and head set on the bit. But without bit. This rider trains his thoroughbreds only with a neckrope, but still sees the collection and airs above the ground of the Haute Ecole of classical dressage as his aim. And reaches it effortless. The first interview ever with Alexander Nevzorov, who has only one guideline in his dressage: respect for the horse. From Russia with love.
The man who's known as an inside tip in world the natural horsemanship and classical dressage, is a Russian. A man who fights for his principles with that typical Russian bezieling en fire, whether it is about national politics or the wellbeing of horses. But how do you reach man who mainly speaks Russian, who despises people who work with a bit and refuses every contact with sportsmen? Easy. Through his heart for horses. And his wife Lidia.
'Horses are extremely intelligent and perceptive. Their strength and singularity lies in the way in which they can scan your spirit at first sight. And unlike any technical appliances, tests and extrasensory individual horses do it with unerring precision. One of the most striking feelings in working with horses is realizing that this creature knows all about you. Not the model of you cell-phone, of course, a horse doesn't pay attention to such trivia. When I say 'all', I mean all the traits of you character, your energy, your ability to behave nobly or meanly, your complexes and the extent of you courage. Every shyness, dread, caution and fear is seen by a horse at once. This gives it an opportunity not to trouble itself with excessive attention and respect for you. Roughly speaking a horse can see all your existential parameters. A man is an absolutely transparent foe to a horse. Certainly, I mean a free horse, a horse that is not humiliated and hobbled with bits and halters, that is not turned into a sport apparatus or an accessory for trail riding.
For a long time I was hiding for my past and disowned it, because of an overwhelming feeling of shame. Only now I can look back and see what an important role it played in my destiny. If it were not for that feeling of horror and disgust that I felt seeing my own actions and those of other horsemen, I would never have come to an idea of training the horse in freedom only, abandoning any violence. I could never have done what I'm doing now. The only thing that excuses me is that I was always looking for the tiniest possibilities of another kind of training horses and seeking for a way out of this system in which I had been educated for all those years.
As everybody in the former Soviet Union I started my first riding lessons at a riding school when I was seven years old. The trainers over there practiced terrible and cruel methods to control the horses and were in that just as ignorant as most modern Russian horsemen still are. The term 'cruelty' towards horses didn't even exist as beating and torturing was considered as a norm. Children were taught to do the same. If a child, shocked and terrified by this violence asked a question about it, the only answer was: 'There's no other way to cope with horses'. So I learned to handle horses in this way, and out of that developed myself as a stuntman for movies. My specialization was amongst other dragging, when a falling man leaves one leg in a stirrup and a horse drags him along at a full gallop. But even though it were mainly the riders, including me, who got injured, the horses were still trained with the same harsh, traditional methods. At one point I was so disgusted by those methods that I decided to quit this job, even though it was very prestigious and well paid'
'My longing for learning a better way to handle horses led me all over the world. I've had many teachers. On my book of Mario Luraschi for example is written the message 'To my best pupil'. I studied everywhere I could find something new and necessary that would help me reach my goal. My wife Lidia played a huge role in this process, because she understood that it's impossible to love horses correctly without a proper European education and a knowledge of hippology. She finished a college in England on horses and thermography and gained invaluable knowledge on the behavior and biomechanics of the horse. However, science never attracted me in the same way, my main interest was the horse itself: the horse as a sentient, very intellectual, suffering and spiritual being that was so humiliated by humans. For a long time I sought the truth about horses in the classical dressage, the Haute Ecole as it was practiced in Spain, Portugal and France. But that turned out to be based on the same means of torture as the sport riding in Russia. The cruelty of their methods equaled that in sport and stunt work and sometimes even exceeded it. Just a little more embroideries, another form of stirrups, spurs and hats, but the same cruelty, stupidity and an outstanding inability to see what a horse is feeling and thinking underneath all that. The more I learned about the usage and history of the bit and its mechanics, the more I began to detest it. If I hadn't gained all this knowledge about the metal, if I hadn't seen how terribly it affects a horse, the nerves of its head and the lower jaw, I wouldn't understand that it's simply inadmissible to use it ever again. That it only worsens the relationship between horse and man. You may look upon this as just my own problem. But I physically cannot place metal in the horses' mouth anymore. Neither in the beginning of training, nor in the middle, nor at the end.'
'Only people who have seen all the sides of violence, can hate it violently. I've been a soldier during many military operations and wars and have been wounded quite a few times. Three times I've been a volunteer hostage, in which I offered terrorists to take me and release women who were held as hostages, after which I tried to act my way out of this situation. War teaches you not to attach great importance to the fact of your own existence. It destroys everything what seems so important in our modern world, that worshipping of all that is physical complete, smooth and immaculate. I don't want to say anything good about war in general, but it really teaches you to hate cruelty, baseness, injustice and violence. That's crucial in working with horses at liberty. You can only hate violence towards horses if you hate violence towards men. My choice was simple: quit working with horses completely, or find a way to work with them without bits, halters and headstalls. I had no choice.
That was eight or ten years ago. My great teacher appeared to be my own horse, Perst, a Russian warmblood-cross between a Don mare and Arabian stallion. His resistance to any violence, any metal in his mouth, any spurs and other rubbish was so extraordinary that one day I had no other choice than to release him, throw away every thing that I knew and had used, and just trust him. I didn't know that a horse's behavior would change so dramatically when you stop hurting him. It caused a revolution in my head, and Lidia and Perst turned out to be my most important teachers. Working with horses this way turned out to be a complete success. First I believed that it was all evidence of my extraordinary talent with horses. I didn't understand that it was not my talent that really mattered, but my approach and feeling I had to develop now I could no longer hide behind tools. I forgot everything sports people and stuntmen had taught me and followed the feeling I felt for horses. A feeling of endless love and respect for the horse, and with that the greatest instrument of all.
My other love though still was the Haute Ecole, the high school dressage with its jumps and collection. I was convinced that I could never reach that now I couldn't force my horse with reins and bits anymore. Because now there only was one road left for us, the road of the free will of the horse. My main personal discovery turned out to be collection at liberty. It's the thing I teach a horse first of all. It's this free collection - the true collection - without which most of the elements cannot even be tried at all. I teach my horses to perform this natural and live collection to my horses without any strap, headstalls or halters. According to most trainers this is impossible. What they should say is 'we can't do it', instead of that it's impossible. For example: do you speak Japanese? No, but that doesn't mean that Japanese doesn't exist or that it's impossible to speak or write Japanese. You can teach a free horse with a cordeo, neckrope, to bend his neck to left or right and every other movement without any problem. The cordeo isn't a controlling device. It's just a possibility to hold something in your hands. A rider looks a kind of stupid with his hands hanging down or behind his back or in his belt. You can't cause pain or discomfort to a horse with a cordeo, not even the slightest. All our horses are scanned with a thermograph on a regular basis in the chest and lower neck area, where the cordeo lies. If during one of these surveys the thermograph would show even the slightest damage I would have taken off the cordeo without any protest and work without it.
What people do with horses is most of the time not related to the feeling and passion that led them to this beautiful creature originally. This very sincere and pleasing feeling's name is the love for horses. But the moment when they approach a horse, immediately some 'specialists' appear and begin to explain that the horse must be pushed around, beaten and that you need to lock it up with reins that are connected to a metal instrument in his mouth. A system that's built on those ideas excludes any kind of love, and especially the love for the horse. If you look at how sportsmen, stuntmen and the classical school representatives treat their horses, it would appear as if they don't act out of love, but out of hatred against the horse.'
Working with horses without bit nowadays is counted as one of the most important findings of the natural horsemanship methods. Alexander though feels that these and his own method have nothing in common.
'I've never been a follower of natural horsemanship methods, trainers like Pat Parelli were absolutely unknown here in Russia. Also their methods and motives aren't entirely clear to me. The rope halter of Parelli - the main instrument of the natural horsemanship movement - is considered as mild and sparing for the horse. But the pressure of those two thin ropes and knots on the nose and in the neck forms a painful constraint. And to top that, further in the method the halter is replaced again by a headstall with bit. I cannot comprehend that. If you use pain or force to position the head in any certain stance or direction, you disturb the natural and balanced movements of the horse. It's as if you want to try to teach a dolphin how to swim by binding his fins and tail. The halter as a paralyzing instrument denies the horse the possibility of natural collection.
Also the goal of natural horsemanship and my method have nothing in common. My horses are School horses; they performHaute Ecole elements and movements. All this requires a huge amount of energy, inspiration, complete relaxation of movements and behavior and at the same time even some mischief. All these qualities are removed and killed in the natural horsemanship systems, the main purpose of which is to make a horse very docile, convenient and safe. If I see someone who needs a calm, comfortable and quiet relationship with his horse and that the Haute Ecole with all its energy, power and freedom isn't - or isn't yet - a suitable thing for him, I will send him 'to Parelli'. The start of Parelli's method is perfect for such people.'
'Collection is a wonderful thing! Collect your horse, mobilize him, make him feel his power and might, let him feel that his power and energy grow a hundred times by laying the most of the part of the effort on the mighty hips and croup, by raising his back toughness. Collection is an absolutely right and logical objective. The wish of classically schooled riders and sportsmen is clear, and caused by the best intentions. They want their horse to show their best side, the side we see with horses in a natural environment, while fighting, feeling angry and flirting.
This is where dressage gets interesting. What we see in sport and classical dressage is physical collection - just the shortening of its frame. The neck is bent at the poll through pain in the mouth, and the hind legs are stepping further in under the body through a painful effect of spurs. The length of the horse is shortened. But these two ingredients are barely connected to each other. It's not a single whole. There's a pain factor in front, a pain factor behind. Multiplied pain, which blinds and cripples the horse as long as the rider wishes. Outwardly the picture looks as a collection. But as every trainer knows, as soon as you remove the bit out of the mouth, the collection disappears and not a trace is to be found of it. Almost everybody experiences this problem. As soon as the horse gets any possibility not to collect - due to a different bit, a weak rider or a lesser length of the branches' lever - the horse leans forward and falls apart. That essential mechanism that gives him energy, power and attitude - is turned off. Mysterious… The horse has been taught how it feels to be ten times stronger and knows that this position with underplaced hinds, relaxed poll and softly strained back can make him overcome any obstacle. But as soon as the spurs and the bit are gone, collection falls away. The collection, which, seemingly he is quite familiar to. Which is natural even to the wild horse and which is present in every horse. More than that, the horse has been schooled for a long time in the classical dressage that helped him collect with special tools. It turns out that is has been a false collection. And I will say more: a horse that was taught this false collection will hate this position of his neck, poll and legs for the rest of its days. Perst for example has a lot of difficulties with collection, much more than Tashunko, Kaogi and Lipisina, my red mare. Teaching him true, live collection at liberty was so difficult not because he' a badly built horse or because he has a bad stance, but because of pain that the muscles of his body remembered in this position.'
'I've been thinking about this for a long time. Why does the horse throw away all the advantages of collection as soon as bit and spurs disappear? Then I remembered that exactly the same thing had happened in my own life. When I was very young and stupid, I turned on the ironing device that stood in my bathroom. It was an old-style Soviet iron that needed a long time to warm up, so I decided to take a bath. When I realized it was time to iron, I didn't want to leave my bath. As I knew physics badly, I decided to iron with an electrical iron whale while taking a bath and grabbed the iron-hilt… I kept shaking for a very long time. Everybody who's been in such an accident, knows that you can't let go of the electricity source. Even now, years later, when I grab an iron-hilt I start to shake a little. My muscles and nerves remember everything. Slighter a thousand more times than that first time, but enough for me to avoid ironing in any possible way. Seemingly the same thing happens to the horse. Once experienced the forced collection, he gets such an intense shock of such duration, that he simply cannot return to this position anymore.
It's very simple. How is collection reached? By causing pain in the jaws, neck and back. How is it maintained? By causing pain in exactly the same places. If we take away all the hypocrisy, emotions and ceremonial words, this is the answer we get. When you look at the deformed neck-bones that a pathological study on horses has showed us, you have to acknowledge that the pain must have been of such an unbearable nature that the horse must have remembered it. No sane horse will ever want to return to this position. The veterinary world keeps silent, or explains that 'this question hasn't been researched yet'. But the humane medicine has found the answer. A long time ago already they researched post-traumatic reflection. The ability of muscles and nerves to 'remember' pain when put back in the situation which caused the pain in the first place. In that case the organism will try everything to escape from that situation. Now we can imagine what a horrible pain is caused by forced collection, the degree and duration of which aren't in control of the horse itself, but of the human and his devices. There's no difference in the tools that are used - bit, bosal, rope halter or anything else. As a practitioner I can state: no pair of hands in this world can measure correctly the duration and intensity of collection during any gait or exercise.'
'Another question is what this collection should look like in the first place. If all the experts like Fillis, Boshe, Gerningier, the Spanish Riding School and the FEI force all their exercises and movements with pain, should the dressage excercises look like they think it should? Everything we see in their dressage is the result of the powerful pain effect with which the human controls the movements and behavior of the horse. Because of that there's no way that you can still speak of natural, honest and free movements of the horse. More than that - pain is the chisel with which this deformed figure is carved out of the bio-mechanics of the horse, a figure that man has decided is beautiful and natural. And his perception of this changes with every epoch, every art tendency, national tradition and fashion. The Spanish Riding School has other ideas than the Cadre Noir, Mario Luraschi or the Olympic Games. Why does nobody ask the horse what he thinks an exercise should look like? Because originally every - or in any case almost every - Haute Ecole movement is based on the natural behavior of horses, as is visible when they play, flirt and fight. The capriole, passage and piaffe aren't human inventions. Man only corrected these movements by deforming them with pain until they started to look like his ideal of beauty. Some people think this is normal. I think it's disgusting. I'm not interested in the standards and rules of the classical dressage and I don't care that the piaffes and terre-a-terres of my horses don't always fit in the classical canon.
The escalation of pain is a big problem in the modern sport dressage. The scandals involving the famous dressage riders are only the beginning. The Olympic method of getting total effect of the bit on the jaw and neck by using the so called 'roll kur' and the new standards and records that are reached with it, is only one of the signs of these disgusting tendencies. But it's no coincidence. Slowly people begin to realize that the relationship that's supposed to exist between horse and rider in the dressage is pure fantasy. There's no union, no like-mindedness. There's only a bunch of devices, polished by centuries of being used, with which the trainer inflicts pain and causes damage to the mouth, the poll and the neck in order to be able to control the horse, its behavior and movements. The pain-component obscures both the natural bio-mechanics of the horse and the art of teaching horses. The truth about the primitive and sadistic character of the classical and sport dressage is harder and harder to hide. But no matter how far this pain-component will be taken, it's a deadlocked road. I shall not go this way and neither do I have the right to cause pain to horses. Teaching horses piaffe, passage, capriole, gambado and other exercises without using any tools and levers like bits, halters and spurs, that's my idea of the Haute Ecole, the highest art of horse training.'
In the dvd 'The Horse Encyclopedia' with English subtitles that idea is given a spectacular shape. The two hour documentary that was crowned with a Special Jury Award by the Houston Independent Film Festival, has two chapter of which the first mainly shows the shocking abuse and neglect in the Russian and international horseworld. The second chapter covers amongst others Parelli Natural Horsemanship, Mario Luraschi and Alexanders while training his own horses. The Russian book on this method has been offered to international publishers and an international forum has been erected for the people who want to learn to train their horses with Alexanders method. The question is: is this enough to learn this collection at liberty with your own horse?
'Partly it is possible. It's possible to find the correct way and follow it. The secret is in our spirit and intelligence. Even when I'm teaching, I only teach the person. I never touch the horse of the pupil. Everything he does, he does by himself. I can advise and explain only. My pupils are phenomenally successful and sometime they will leave me far behind. Also all movements of the High School are derived from the movements of a free horse playing or being angry, and with that is nothing less than the natural plasticity of the horses' feelings. Therefore the horse of any breed is able to carry out these movements. If the way in which they are shown with is more or less aesthetically is only in the eye of the beholder. I'm not going to convince anyone of my ideas. That would be senseless. It's like the legend of the twin brothers who were separated at birth and found each other back years later because they both had a half of the same coin hanging on a chain. This is the same situation, you recognize the other half of the coin immediately. In the first moment already you can see where the love and passion of a person lie: in the horse, or in the feelings he can reach with the horse. I only teach people who love the horse. Those people can't be found amongst the equestrian sports lovers.
A sane human, familiar to the anatomy, biomechanics and psychology of the horse can see absolutely clear the amount of pain he inflicts, and will feel deeply ashamed of it. Some people are still trying to hide from this simple knowledge and simple understandings, but they can't hide forever. Scandals, trials, journalists fact-finding in Holland and Germany, they are just the first slight shocks of the upcoming big earthquake, which will totally flip over the horseworld. The human who thought that he had a 'friendship' with the horse, will realize that this friendship was based on no more than the knowledge how to use pain to control this breath-taking being. A creature that's capable of real love and true friendship. The human thinks… And it has happened. There's no way back. Even the slightest knowledge of the world history shows that the result of such thoughts is always a kind of world turning.'
The human thought, the horse is watching…
Text: Miriam Nieuwe Weme, Photography: Lidia Nevzorova