Linda Kaye Hollingsworth-Jones: An American EdL Instructor in Europe
My first trip to Europe. So much anticipation. Such big expectations. An experience of a lifetime!
The seeds of this trip began in the summer of 2013 when I began the Ecole de Légèreté teacher’s course with Master Instructor Bertrand Ravoux. I didn’t know much about Lêgèreté yet, but I was eager to learn. By summer 2017 I had earned the Foundation certificate as a Licensed Instructor of the school and in 2018 I had advanced to Level 1 all with the guidance and support of Mr Ravoux, my family, my students and my friends.
One evening during a clinic I asked Mr Ravoux innocently enough, “What more can I do to advance my education?” He was clear and to the point, “Come to Europe. Watch Philippe ride at home. Watch him teach. Meet other instructors of the school.” A pretty big order for a small town farm girl who had never been to Europe before. Plans were made and tickets purchased. I was going to France for a week to watch Monsieur Karl ride at his home barn and teach his working students. I would then travel to Switzerland to watch two courses taught by M Karl. I literally had no idea what this trip was going to be like, what I was going to experience and what I was going to learn. I felt as though I was walking into terra incognita both intellectually and practically.
On July 23, I was taken by my husband to the airport in Boise, Idaho. From there I would not stop traveling until I reached Lyon, France. I was more than a little apprehensive about this long trip alone but I boarded the plane to continue the quest for greater knowledge and deeper understanding. I was looking forward to spending time with Mr Ravoux on his home turf and meeting the extraordinary Monsieur Karl.
After about 20 hours of traveling I arrived after dark at the bed and breakfast in Puy Saint-Martin, Drôme, France. My first chance to see the area I would be staying in was the greeting of sunrise with a breathtaking vista out my bedroom window. The village below, the valley beyond and the mountains in the background were simply unbelievable. After a week’s stay in the region of Drôme, I could safely say that their slogan for tourism should be, “Are you kidding me?” Everywhere I turned in villages or on drives around the area, I was surprised by something even more beautiful. No more fitting place for a master to live and work than a place of such splendor, elegance, allure, and antiquity.
Early the first morning I arrived with Mr Ravoux at the barn where Monsieur Karl and his wife keep their horses. The current working students, Anna and Charly were lunging Ben and High Noon respectively. This was the beginning of my trip through the looking glass into the genuinely surreal. There was High Noon, Philippe Karl’s personal horse with his vast education. Then I saw Ben, the pony known around the world as Bea’s great partner and the spunky pony who hammed it up in Monsieur Karl’s video lecture! Right there. In the arena. It’s probably a good thing Monsieur Karl hadn’t arrived yet or I might have fainted. I’m a pretty bold gal but this was something else entirely. I had already poured 6 years of my life learning as much of the vast knowledge of this man as I possibly could and now I would actually meet him! It wasn’t like meeting a celebrity. It was a feeling of deepest respect and highest regard for all he has done for horses and riders.
My first surprise was seeing him drive up in a Jeep. Somehow I had pictured him in a classic Bentley or something like that. My second surprise as Mr Ravoux introduced me to Monsieur Karl was that I couldn’t think of a thing to say! I was shaking M Karl’s hand in stunned silence. If you know me at all, you know this is unusual to an extreme. After meeting him and still unable to speak, I focused instead on petting his adorable dog, Peach. I spent the next two mornings watching him ride and teach in wide-eyed silence. I couldn’t help but admire the man who had, through education and experience, constructed this method that I had the privilege to learn, apply, and teach. This admiration and my mute response prompted more than a little teasing from a puzzled Mr Ravoux, who had yet to witness speechlessness from me. But don’t think for a minute that I wasn’t watching every detail with intense interest!
When you decide to follow a method, a school, an idea, in essence you are following the creation of a person or persons. For me, the integrity and authenticity of the person is critical. It is especially essential if I am investing such a great deal of my professional life into following their example and teaching what they represent. Becoming licensed by this person means I am ascending to their ideals and techniques with my greatest understanding. On the flip side, I came to realize that M Karl, in personally licensing instructors, is giving them his own hard-earned business card. His approval rests upon their work and so he takes a risk in the affiliation too. In my time studying with Mr Ravoux, I had come to have great confidence and trust in his teaching leadership and integrity. Would I see the same in Monsieur Karl?
The short answer is, “Absolutely.” From the time Monsieur Karl set his eyes on High Noon, his attention was completely focused on the horse’s well being. He checked and double checked his bits and his tack for comfort not taking for granted that yesterday’s settings would suffice for today. He had the ever present carrots at the ready for reward. Noon had been warmed up on the lunge per M Karl’s preferences. The familiarity of the warm up work under saddle under M Karl’s guidance was elevated to an exact purpose and design. There was zero “going through the motions” but instead a seeking of a very specific outcome with each request. Monsieur Karl exhibited the epitome of “position before action” by taking ample time to adjust Noon’s neck position, contact and mobility of the jaw before walking forward from the first halt. If, at any moment, clarity or balance was lost, M Karl would quietly, easily address the issue. In the beginning of every ride, he guided Noon through flexions, lateral movements in walk or school walk and then in trot. The thick atmosphere of concentration was lightened considerably by Monsieur Karl’s cheerful whistling that danced winsomely through the arena and made me smile every time i heard it. A rare combination I hadn’t yet seen of playfulness with complete focus.
After the warm up in walk and trot, Monsieur Karl would, depending on the day, continue with lead changes. Sometimes quite forward, other times fairly collected. Single changes, tempi changes, maddeningly straight, no change in rhythm, stride length or Noon’s workmanlike demeanor. Single tempi changes could be easily followed by a long rein at a very relaxed canter, proof positive that Noonie was entirely non plussed by the effort. Shockingly, on jump days, tempi changes might be easily followed by a set of jumps! I began to become less and less surprised by the complete access Monsieur Karl had to adjustments of any kind in his horse. I became less surprised but much more humbled.
Other days Monsieur Karl would work on transitions between collected gaits and very forward gaits. Canter pirouette followed by a hand gallop back to canter pirouette. Piaffe to extended trot and back to piaffe. The quality of the work could be ascertained by the reverent silence in the manege of any who were fortunate enough to witness this exactitude. Elastic, available, mobile in the extreme. “Calme, en avant, droit,” L’Hotte. Calm, forward, straight. Every good attempt from Noon is quickly followed by words of praise and a rest. He clearly perceives every positive reflex that his horse offers and rewards him in kind. I have never seen a horse of this level in such a trusting, congenial interaction and a relationship of mutual appreciation. This riding is worth striving for.
Watching Monsieur Karl ride has a definitive element of a clever child playing his favorite game. Joy, immersion, curiosity, enthusiasm. This air only leaves him if he is dissatisfied with the results of his work. Even then he showed no frustration with his horse, just a keen desire to find the very best solution for even the smallest detail. If Noon made a mistake, all you would hear is the soft murmur from Monsieur Karl of, “No, no, no.” He would then quietly stop and explain whatever detail had gone amiss. Monsieur Karl would, from time to time, stop and reflect on the work with Mr Ravoux. Their mutual respect was obvious as was M Karl’s unquenchable pursuit of what is best for the horse. “This is the method of no pride,” I was once told by Mr Ravoux. I can see it in full measure, right in front of me.
All eight mornings I went to the barn to watch him ride. All eight mornings I went to watch him ride. There is as great a significance in that statement as there is in the experience itself. In my equine background, which is quite long and varied, “trainers” can’t hide their true nature, their darker methodology for more than an hour before hiding away “behind the barn” to “correct” the horse. This was eight straight mornings with Monsieur Karl focusing on different emphasis each day. There was no secrecy. There was no magic elixir. There was no restraint or complicated formulae for the richly, deliciously effortless agility seen in High Noon with Monsieur Karl aboard! What is the secret to his success? The simple fact that THERE IS NO SECRET! He has taught us and told us
himself and through his instructors, the exact steps he takes with horses to guide them to their greatest capacity with clarity, fairness, focus and steps that build cathedrals of equestrian art in each animal. What does he do every day? He does exactly what he tells us to do only with more experience, more knowledge and more aptitude. What does he do with his working students every day? Exactly the same thing.
I met working students Charly Bauer, from France and Anna Vezzoni from Italy on the first day and saw them in their lessons with M Karl every day I was there. I must say, these are charming, bright and quality people in their own right and horsemanship journey and it was a pleasure to meet them and watch them ride.
Charly was riding a Spanish mare that was fairly hot, a bit reactive and quite athletic. I was told when my jaw dropped off of my face when she extended her trot on a diagonal that the mare had come to him with a lot of tension and very short, choppy strides. Really? What happened to that horse because this horse was open and powerful in her gaits. Charly’s work involved all the lateral movements walk and trot using them to their greatest benefit for the development of the quality of the gaits, shoulder in from walk to canter to straighten and begin collecting the canter, jambette, Spanish walk, piaffe and schooling passage and flying changes. A very nice program and ridden with complete aplomb. How many words for quiet are in the thesaurus because I might need all of them before I’m done.
Anna had two horses she was riding with Monsieur Karl, an Arabian and a Warmblood, both geldings. The program for the two horses was similar in scope with differences addressing each horse’s particular needs. Again, both horses had all lateral movements walk and trot, beginning collection of the canter, jambette, Spanish walk, piaffe, beginning passage and flying changes. These two geldings were a bit lazy and Anna worked on the leg/whip lesson with them as needed for the energy they needed for more collected work. The only “unquiet” moment was in a lead change where one of the horses actually exerted himself and performed his change with a little kick out for flair. We were giggling in surprise that he went to the effort! But again, here were two nice but modest horses that are working in a very complete program with no tricks, no gadgets, nothing but deeply intelligent riding under Monsieur Karl’s daily guidance. Impressive
program for two riders and horses in less than a year.
What could be the conclusion? Outside of the Ecole de Légèreté I have not seen this phenomenon in my lifetime with horses. From the founder of the school through his Master Instructors, Licensed Instructors, teachers in training and working students, the method is the same. The technique is the same. It may have differing details for the needs of the horse in question, but there is absolutely no secret handshake to learn to gain access to this vast repository of knowledge. Just study and hard work. Really! I’ve been in the program for 6 years and ridden 7 horses with Mr Ravoux, 2 of them over long periods of time. I’ve now been to Europe to watch Monsieur Karl ride and teach. It is frankly shocking how effective, progressive and kind a truly good and authentic method is. Now comes the challenging part: studying and working hard enough to master it.
Through the teachers’ course I had grown to embrace and utilize the techniques as well as the ethos of the Ecole de Légèreté and found it, over and over again, to be elegant in its clarity and applicable to all horses and riders. I found the very same only more so at the barn of its founder, Monsieur Philippe Karl. My hat is off to you Monsieur, avec tout mon respect.
Linda Kaye Hollingsworth-Jones