The Training the Teachers of Tomorrow Trust is now part of Britain’s dressage heritage. It offered under one roof both in-depth exploration of the theory behind the correct training of the horse as well as developing practical training skills. The TTT was in advance of its time and its formula and ethos remain unique.
Training the Teachers of Tomorrow Trust closed its doors at the end of 2017. Over 30-plus years it has been dedicated to passing on the art of classical training to new generations of rider trainers and riders. TTT was run as a charity, established and sustained by the passion, generosity and hard work of the Sewell family: Tom and Jennifer Sewell and their daughter Alex Cookson.
Looking back from 2018, with Olympic gold having been won by our top dressage riders, it is easy to forget that in the early 1980s dressage in Britain was in its infancy. To the majority of riders, dressage was “flatwork” as opposed to cross-country or show jumping, and its refinement at higher levels was a minority interest and largely a European art. British trainers able to train both horses and riders to perform at higher dressage levels here were hard to find. Would-be dressage recruits attracted by the beauty of trained dressage horses were frequently frustrated and confused by conflicting and erroneous messages.
In the early 1980s Alex or ‘Ali ’ Sewell, was in her late teens, and had achieved her BHSII qualification and was competing in horse trials up to advanced level. Alex recollects: “I was a skilful rider, or I thought I was, and eventing was my passion. A friend of mine Andrew Day said to me one day, ‘you must come and have a lesson with this amazing man, Charles De Kunffy — you will never have heard anything like it’.
“I decided to take one of my event horses. It was quite handy because it was en route to Windsor Great Park where I was going to do some affiliated show-jumping. I’d thought I’d stop off, have a quick dressage lesson, then go on and do the ‘serious stuff’! My lesson was unbelievable. After my horse bucked me off in front of Charles, he said, ‘now Alex, get back on and I’ll teach you to ride’. He began to teach me how I could develop my seat and opened my eyes to what training was all about.
“I had been through the BHS system — which gave me a good basic grounding, you can’t fault that — but what Charles revealed to me was another dimension.
“I hadn’t been to university so I hadn’t thought about training horses at an intellectual level. He made it make sense. As opposed to just being ‘told’ what to do, he explained the reasons ‘why’ behind it, its importance and then the ‘how’ to do it.”
“The principles he instilled made you realise that the horse is paramount and that your whole job in training and riding was to promote their well-being and health and to develop horses so that they reached their potential and stayed fit and healthy, and as sound as possible.”
Charles de Kunffy, a member of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, was as a youth educated by some of the top masters at the highest levels of classical equitation from Austria, Hungary, Germany and Italy. When he was a young man, in the mid-1950s, his family emigrated from Hungary to America. There, as well as lecturing in Philosophy and Psychology, Charles remained committed to classical dressage education. This was both as an FEI judge and by teaching clinics that over the course of his long career expanded to include venues in Australia, Africa and Canada as well as Europe and the United States.
After her first lesson, Alex instantly wanted to pack her bags and go to America to train with Charles but, he explained to her, as he had no teaching base that would not have been feasible. However, Charles agreed to hold a six-day clinic the following year at the family’s East Whipley Farm, near Guildford. Alex and her mother Jennifer drummed up all the friends they could think of to take part. That first clinic led to twice-yearly visits by the trainer over the next two or three years.
Charles stayed as a guest at the Sewell family home and their growing friendship and appreciation of his cultural crusade on behalf of correct training evolved into idea of The Training the Teachers of Tomorrow Trust. Alex recalled: “In talking over dinner in the evenings you realised how phenomenal Charles was. His depth of knowledge is second to none and as a lecturer in Psychology and Philosophy his way of imparting knowledge was like being with a brilliant university lecturer.
“At his clinics Charles gave you so much information and it was structured so as to be incredibly easy to understand. Because it all made sense, it was also easy to pass on to other people. My parents, both keen horsemen, and I thought, ‘this has to be expanded to reach more people, not just the dozen or so friends and colleagues who had been attending our informal clinics’.
The Trust would probably never have become such a vital institution without the drive and energy of Jennifer Sewell. She has been described as woman of great intelligence and forthright views. Her kindness to the people who came within her orbit is also legendary — Emma Roche one of the many students who trained for their BHS qualifications at East Whipley bears witness to this. Mrs Sewell had ‘picked her up’ after she had had a bad fall out hacking and promised to teach her to ride. Hinda Inglis, who came from Wales also as a teenager to train for her BHS qualifications, describes her as her ‘Surrey mum’. Hinda, three decades on, remembers: “She was a lady who spoke her mind but under the steel was a very compassionate person and a very good woman.”
The Trust was a huge initiative for a private family to launch and to accommodate. The original Charles de Kunffy clinics took place in a then much smaller indoor school and spectators sat on straw bales in the corner. After the Trust was established the school was extended and provided with viewing galleries. East Whipley farm buildings were also converted to provide a ‘campus’ that included administrative offices, overnight student accommodation and a club room.
Alex continued: “We thought of the Trust as providing an informal degree course in equitation: we never wanted to make it a qualification with a certificate at the end. My parents always described it as an adjunct to training available elsewhere. It was never the intention that it should compete with any other equestrian organisation. It was for people already working in the horse industry.
“I remember once asking Charles who else I could train with [between his visits] and he told me,
‘When you have sufficient knowledge and a solid foundation you can train with anybody, because you will know what is right and what is wrong, and you will be able to take from it the right bits’
“After four years or so, Charles said, ‘okay, now you’re ready to expand your knowledge and he gave me an introduction to Arthur Kottas and I spent four months training with Arthur in Vienna. I watched the riders at the Spanish Riding School in the morning, then drove out to Arthur’s private yard and worked with him in the afternoon.” Through the TTT many other riders were given similar opportunities.
When the Sewells took Charles’ advice on the other trainers who might be invited to give clinics at TTT they naturally included Arthur Kottas. One of the first clinics, however, was given by Baron Von Blixen Finecke. He was famous in British eyes at that time as the trainer of eventer Chris Bartle and his sister, dressage rider Jane Bartle of Yorkshire Riding Centre fame. Other top visiting trainers over the years were to include Kalman de Jurenak and Klaus Balkenhol. However, Charles De Kunffy, Arthur Kottas, Stephen Clarke and Herwig Radnetter became mainstays of the international faculty.
Alex’s first love of eventing, in which she continued to participate until her mid-to-late 20s, was not forgotten and led to the inclusion of Mark Phillips. East Whipley ran affiliated Horse Trials for a number of years and once had an advanced cross-country track and hosted European Team trials. Alex explained: “Mark Phillips designed some fences here and he shared my mother’s great passion for teaching and training so he came to give jumping clinics.” He continued to support Trust until it closed at the end of 2017. TTT member Hinda Inglis also remembers ‘masses’ of clinics given by Pat Burgess who used to train the British horse trials team.
Alex commented: “All the trainers we’ve had have stayed loyal to the Trust because they love the whole ethos of what we do and they love the continuity of training to which we’ve been committed.”
Workshops, Trainers’ days and Senior Instructors’ Clinics formed the backbone of the Trust’s yearly programme of events and the majority of these comprised both lectures on theory in the classroom and relevant practical ridden lecture-demonstrations. Alex describes the international trainers clinics as “the icing on the cake”. Participation in them was by invitation and for members who regularly trained with the trust and who would benefit from more advanced tuition.
Alex said: “If riders wanted to participate in any of the TTT clinics they had to understand that their training would be in public. They were intended as a learning experience for the audience as much as for the riders. Clinic riders didn’t just come for their lesson and go away, but stayed to watch and learn from others’ training sessions.”
Alex emphasised: “The trust was set up to make top-level training available to people who would not be able to afford it at its full cost. The audience was part of the deal: spectator tickets helped to subsidise the cost of the trainer”
Alex adds: “The spectrum of people who have come to train here has ranged from riding school teachers to competition riders. They might be riding anything from an ex-racehorse, to little cob or a nice warmblood. After all, that’s what our trainers go out and teach every day. Classical training methods are all written up in the books but what is usually missing is the appreciation of what it takes to help any horse reach its potential through correct training. Unless you have the understanding and a depth of knowledge, you can’t teach the subject and you can’t coach it. You can quote things but if you don’t understand them you can’t teach them to someone else.”
TTT member Louise Nice commented: “The senior instructors were the cement between the bricks of international trainers. The mortar they provided made it all make sense and prepared you so well for those top trainers: none of them ever said anything that came from a different hymn sheet. It was all so consistent and an endorsement of the quality of the regular senior instructors.
“My horse was nudging advanced the first time I went and sat in the gallery. It made me realise that there were big gaps in my knowledge. Someone mentioned ‘an open stifle’ What was that? We might say hocks trailing, but I’d never looked at the stifle joint and considered that aspect. The trust gave me the opportunity to train my eye. I have heard lectures on the same subjects over and over, but the knowledge imparted was like layers of an onion. You listened to the information the first time and understood it on one level, then the next time you would find yourself understanding on a deeper level — and so on.
Louise Nice: “Every time I came away having taken on board a different way of looking at something or explaining it, or something I hadn’t thought about before.”
TTT Senior Instructor Andrew Murphy confirmed: “The theoretical back up was what differentiated the Trust for me when I first got to know it in 1987. It was a revelation to find this ‘academic’ aspect to training. And no matter who was delivering the training you could ask a question and they would answer it, instead of being expected ‘to just get on with it’. I found it very satisfying that someone would explore my question and give me an answer. I then realised what people had been trying to tell me in the past — I understood ‘why’.
“The demonstrations that accompanied theory sessions weren’t necessarily to show off the end result but to show the means to the end. My favourite expression was getting the mise en place right: all the ingredients prepared and available before you create the dish. You can’t do this without this, so let’s work back to where real issue lies — whether it is in the horse’s way of going or rider’s understanding or position — and build up to the problem as it was initially presented in, say, riding a half-pass. You would often find the half-pass was not the problem but something deeper. We looked at root causes of problems whereas a lot of training deals with the symptoms of a bad transition or half-pass or whatever.”
Andrew continues: “We also had something called Basic workshops. ‘Basics’ was an opportunity to re-examine fundamentals. In the morning. we might do the rider’s position, which we called ‘sculpting the rider’, then a session on the horse’s carriage and deportment — how the horse holds itself and what can be observed in the horse’s muscles when it is working correctly. Then in the afternoon you brought the criteria for the horse and rider together: how the rider applies the aids and how the horse achieves a state of being on the aids.”
Andrew Murphy: “I was quite an experienced competition rider and a BHSII when I got together with a friend to find places to train and came across the Trust. You felt that you’d come home. The whole environment that Mrs Sewell created could be challenging when your work wasn’t up to scratch but always supportive and anybody who showed interest was welcomed with open arms.”
“Mr and Mrs Sewell were awesome hosts and it was fantastic being among a group of dedicated and intelligent people and spending evenings around the dinner table talking about the philosophy of training into the early hours. Charles has always said that riding is a living art and it depends on its practitioners and you have to ride as correctly and kindly and ethically as you can and show by example that there is a way to build a dressage horse that is happy and confident in both mind and body. That applies absolutely to the competition world but also to what comes before the competition: what the horse has to be able to understand and do; and what the rider needs to understand and is appropriate for them to demand at a certain point.”
Alex adds: “We’ve always had a totally open-door policy; anyone could come along and see if they liked what we offered but the Trust has remained small and retained an intimacy between the spectators and the trainers. Because you felt you were in the same room as these top people, not sitting among 1,000 people at a convention, you were never afraid to ask questions and the trainers have always included their audience.”
The inclusivity of the shared quest for knowledge, the mutual support in adversity rather than ‘schadenfreude’ among the Trust community of students — as well as the social dimension to Trust events — is rarely to be found on the British dressage scene where so many riders operate in isolated bubbles. Because training is usually ‘private’, social encounters are mostly in a competitive environment and often extend only to the duration of a few tests. Riders contrast this with the camaraderie that exists in the horse trials community and also in dressage in many European countries where riders both use and support shared facilities provided by riding clubs.
The word ‘sad’ that so many people have used when commenting on the closure of the Trust seems wholly appropriate. But as Andrew Day concludes, “although its name may soon be forgotten, its influence will continue to be felt for years to come through the very good trainers it has produced. The TTT has done a huge job.”
© Celia Cadwallader, January 2018