Stick With the System: A Conversation with Victor Hugo-Vidal

by Pam Whitfield
(This article appeared in Riding Highlights.)

For AHSA “R” judge Victor Hugo-Vidal, the forward riding system is indispensable. “I work more now with professionals so they can take and give to their students what I give to them,” he explains. “First and foremost, they need a system. And following the forward riding system will work with the majority of horses.”

Hugo-Vidal sees too many trainers and instructors cutting corners with their pupils, both equine and human. “With the forward riding system you have a plan from the beginning to the finished product,” he states. “You don’t have to shortchange training in terms of horse or rider.”

Adjudicating at this year’s ANRC Nationals, Hugo-Vidal saw the system at work. “There were some very lovely rides, and you could really see which horses were trained that way and which ones weren’t,” he recalls. “It showed up in the horses being tense, nervous, unhappy, pulled together instead of being self-carried. Dacia [Funkhouser, who also judged] and I went to dinner and said that 70 percent of the competitors were true to the method and 30 percent should go read Captain Littauer.”

Hugo-Vidal, a top hunter rider in the 1950’s and 60’s, was fortunate enough to study under both Littauer and Gordon Wright. “My training involves both of their teachings-culling the best and adapting it to the demands of today’s show ring and today’s clients.”

Being with Littauer gave Hugo-Vidal a sense of the history of horsemanship and the continuity of the sport. He laments that for some horse professionals, “Littauer is a century away,” when in fact his principles of horsemanship were developed in response to the advent of public riding instruction in this country. A man ahead of his sport, Littauer’s system still makes it possible for riders to ride safely and effectively in a sport  which is increasingly geared toward the amateur horseman and recreational riding, whether that means weekend shows, trailrides or even foxhunting.

“He made it possible for those with a good foundation who were well-mounted-not necessarily on expensive horses-to go out and ride well and have fun,” adds his student. “The basics of good training will do the job, no matter which discipline you pursue.”

According to Hugo-Vidal, an “S” licensed judge in dressage, the forward riding system lends itself to dressage. He relied on Littauer’s method to help his first wife and their Thoroughbred stallion earn a berth at the 1956  Olympics. “It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but at the highest levels of dressage, you want to achieve the same goals: self-carriage, expression, and willing obedience, instead of drilled submission,” he explains.

“The forward riding system worked for me as well in the hunter-jumper world,” he adds. “The question is always the same: here’s a nice horse. How do you get it from green horse A to finished product Z?” The Dana Point, CA trainer also believes that Littauer’s theory carries over to eventing. “It’s still about letting the horse do it himself, with the rider not being dominant.” Hugo-Vidal cites top rider Bernie Traurig as a perfect example. “He was one of Littauer’s last well-known pupils. Bernie is the only rider to compete on all three USET squads, and he rode in three-day immediately after leaving the equitation ranks.”

Hugo-Vidal finds that the courses used at many of today’s hunter shows discourage forward riding. “Course designers should create courses that ask the rider to ride out of a rhythm and use their eye,” he explains. “You can’t have pace if the course is set up to reward mediocrity” through a strict adherence to a calculated number of strides between fences.

The AHSA judge recently addressed this issue in The Chronicle of the Horse. He has successfully adapted his training and teaching to the modern show world, yet it saddens him to see classes like field hunters and hunt  teams-once cornerstones of hunter competitions and showcases for the sport-marginalized at the top shows.

“I hate the demise of the outside course, which is partly because of time constraints (it takes longer to ride, so it’s less financially rewarding for show management). It taught students to ride off their eye and to find a spot  out of rhythm,” he states.

Hunt team competition also has its roots in forward riding: “You don’t need the fanciest horse, you need precision, and you need to know timing and distance. Hunt team riding teaches discipline and to think about someone besides yourself,” Hugo-Vidal concludes. His Cedar Lodge Farm retired the hunt team trophies at both the National Horse Show (in New York) and Devon.

Hugo-Vidal thinks that the “ANRC is one of the horse world’s best kept secrets. There were a plethora of lovely horses at the Nationals this year. And that other 30 percent-they were probably from schools that don’t teach the forward riding system, but that’s up to the coaches,” states the judge.

“I wish we had 70 percent good entries at USET Medal classes; it’s too often the reverse.”

For this trainer, being well-mounted means not only riding a well-schooled horse, but exhibiting a foundation of riding theory. Regardless of trends in the horse industry, Hugo-Vidal believes that “good riding is good riding, and neither can be accomplished by short-cutting the system.”