Charles Harris - A Personal Memoir
Charles Harris was the first and only
Englishman to complete the full three-year graduation course
at The Spanish Riding
School in Vienna. He spent a lifetime practising, teaching
and studying what was for him “the most fascinating of
all recreational activities, one which exercises mind and body
in a way which has no equal---horse riding”. I quote
from the cover of his brilliant book, Fundamentals of Riding,
(published by J. A. Allen & Co. in 1985). He was a great
equestrian scholar, and he defined equestrian scholarship as “to
possess the knowledge and skills successfully to carry out
the desired requirements with the minimum of force and effort.” He
was also a great teacher and a friend, generous with his time
and wisdom, to all who cared for horses, professionals and
I first met him in the Paddock in Kensington Gardens in 1978.It was, for me, an unforgettable occasion. I was then a member of the Civil Service Riding Club and some of us were there, practising for a Prix Caprilli Competition. Charles was watching from a deckchair. He was not dressed for riding, but wearing grey flannel slacks and ordinary shoes. (It transpired that he had just previously fallen down a flight of stairs at Baker Street Station and was badly cut and bruised.)
One of our girls was riding a little cob that was being very naughty, napping, and thoroughly disobedient. She could do nothing with him. After a few minutes, Charles told her to dismount and, heaving himself out of the deckchair, climbed aboard himself. I remember that he sat very quiet and still and upright as he took up the reins. He then proceeded to pay them out, longer and longer; and as he did so, the little horse took the bit and lengthened and lengthened its neck. Presently it quietly took a few steps forward and then obediently reined back. It was now alert and all attention, and ready to do whatever he asked. Charles rode forward again and then performed a few steps of lateral movement. Finally, he dismounted and told the girl to get up again.
I had never seen a performance like it. He had appeared to do nothing except to sit still and upright and to give the reins. Yet, in a few moments, the little cob was transformed. It was an unforgettable experience, and I can still see it in my mind’s eye.
Afterwards, Margaret Clayton, then the Club Chairman, introduced me to him. and explained that I was a pupil of his friend Danny Pevsner. Danny had also been a student at the Spanish Riding School, although for a much shorter time. He had also trained with me at The Constructive Teaching Centre as a teacher of The F. Matthias Alexander Technique, a technique of psycho-physical re-education particularly concerned with human postural balance and therefore of particular interest to horse riders. At that time he was living at Letchmore Farm in Hertfordshire where he had stables and an indoor and outdoor riding school. He taught classical equitation and trained and schooled horses; of course, .he also gave Alexander lessons.
This was, for me, the beginning of a wonderfully happy friendship. Charles did not drive a car and so, as I got to know him, I was soon driving him out to Danny’s most weekends. I would ride my horse, Badger, and he would sit and watch us and all the work that was going on in the school. Frequently he would offer help and criticism. Latterly he would sometimes ride himself, and even give a demonstration of work on the longe, performing the classical exercises with his arms outstretched or above his head, or with hands holding his hips or elbows clasped behind his back, all at walk trot and canter. Everybody was fascinated by his performance, especially bearing in mind that he was now 87. Usually afterwards there would be some good talk and discussion on the finer points of riding and teaching and he would demonstrate, for instance, the proper weight of contact on the reins. I had many lessons from him myself and I owe so much to his help and encouragement.
Later, when I had come to know him very well, he told me a lot about his early life and particularly the story of how he became a student of the Spanish Riding School. It was in August 1948 that the Olympic Games were held in England at the White City; but the main Equestrian events, including the Dressage, took place in Aldershot. Charles was there, in the stables, in charge of the British horses.
One day the Daily Mirror published a remarkable centre-page spread, of a horse and rider from the Spanish Riding School performing a capriole, (a leap into the air). Charles was so fascinated that he determined, there and then, that he must go to Vienna. He knew that Col. Podhajski, the Commandant of the School was competing in the Olympic Dressage. He also knew where his horses were stabled. So he decided to approach him and ask whether he could be accepted as a pupil at the school.
His loitering around the stables early in the morning aroused suspicion, and twice he was taken to the local police station to explain himself. But, finally he managed to meet Podhajski and make his request. The Colonel seemed to take it in good part and simply replied that if he could obtain a letter from some reputable person certifying that he could ride, his application could be considered.
Now it so happened that Charles had just obtained his Fellowship of the Institute of the Horse from Col. V.D.S. Williams, so he went straight to see him and told him what had occurred. Colonel Williams was very interested because he had long wished that some English rider might go to Vienna and come back and teach in accordance with true classical principles. His wife at that time was a leading British Dressage competitor, and she could obviously benefit from such an arrangement. So the necessary letter was forthcoming and Charles settled down to wait
It was now the beginning of September and shortly a letter arrived with a Vienna postmark. For three or four days he could not bring himself to open it: it just sat on his mantelpiece. He was convinced that it would contain a rejection. Eventually, however, with his mother’s persuasion, he tore it open. It was in German and he was not able to read it. However, it seemed to mention a date, the 28th of the month, and that looked significant. It suggested that he had no more than three week in which to prepare to report to the School.
He immediately went back to Col. Williams who told him to go at once to Bernard Weatherill’s and order three of their best riding outfits to be made straight away. Wetherill said at first that this was quite impossible at such short notice, but after a talk with the Colonel his people set to work and the order was completed in time.
Colonel Williams then asked Charles whether he had any money for his fare and, when he replied in the negative, gave him £200. Charles had never been out of England before, but he booked a 3 rd Class ticket to Austria and with his kit all packed in an officer’s tin trunk, purchased from the Army & Navy Stores, he set out on his great adventure.
The School in those days was still in the old dragoon barracks in Wels where it had been since the end of the war and it was to this small station, in northern Austria, near Vienna, that Charles eventually came. As he waited with his luggage on the platform, he heard a call on the tannoy that sounded something like “ ’arris ”, and, sure enough, there was a carriage with two Lipizzaners that had come to collect him.
He found lodgings in the town, but of course he had very little money so he was forced to live as frugally as possible and to subsist on black bread, hard-boiled eggs and coffee. Later he was invited to live in the schloss with the Podhajskis on the understanding that in exchange for his training he would teach the Colonel English. At that time food in Austrian was rationed and scarce and Mrs. Podhajski would often give Charles’s share of the meat to her husband, saying that since he was training as a rider, he did not want to gain weight and become too fat.
On the first morning after his arrival, he had to report to the School at 6.30 am in his new riding kit. This was to be his first lesson on the longe. He was mounted on one of the Lipizzaner stallion in a large, flat saddle, with neither reins nor stirrups. His instructor, one of the School Riding Masters, controlled the horse with a longe-rein and whip. They worked, first at walk and then at trot and canter. Charles had to try and follow the commands given in German because his instructor spoke no English. The problem was how maintain his seat and for all his previous riding experience he found himself stiffening every part of his body. Any attempt to grip with his knees merely squeezed him out of the saddle. The lesson lasted half an hour and afterwards he was completely exhausted and convinced that he knew nothing about riding.
The same routine was followed every morning for the first year and at any time Charles would gladly have given up and returned to England if it had not been for the shame and disgrace. Eventually summer came and he was given some leave. The Colonel said to him, “First we break you down, and now we build you up.”
On vacation to London he found himself one day in Oxford Circus. He noticed the Spirella Corset shop on the corner and had a brilliant idea. H e boldly marched in and ordered a pair of corsets. His appearance was greeted with some surprise. They were used to making corsets for ladies rather than for middle-aged men. But on his insistence they eventually agreed to take his measurements and complied.
Charles returned to Vienna with his new corsets and first thing the following morning he put them on and reported to the School for his lesson. Mounting was rather difficult with his new rigid stance but two of the riders quickly lifted him up without ceremony, placed him in the saddle, and the lesson began. Walk was awkward, but trot and canter were quite excruciatingly painful. He felt as though so many knives were being plunged into him. When the time came to dismount he was quite unable to do so, He had to be lifted down, and then on the ground he could scarcely walk. He found that his breeches were soaked in blood, and when he was able to undress and take the corset off he saw that the whalebone stiffeners had worked loose and were cutting into his body like so many stilettos.
That was the end of the corset experiment but the stiffness and soreness after his morning lesson on the longe continued for a long while. Often when he first woke up he could scarcely get out of bed and only managed to do so by rolling over on to the floor and then struggling on to his knees and feet. Gradually, however, he overcame these problems and his stiffness and discomfort was a thing of the past. After completing his three years training, he qualified as a Rider and took his part in the School Quadrille. He was the only Englishman ever to have done so.
Shortly afterwards, the School paid its first foreign visit after the war. It gave a number of performances in Zurich, Switzerland, and he went with them and took part and rode in the Quadrille.
The Colonel must have formed a high opinion of him because often at night, after Charles had gone to bed, he would come up to his room with his notes for the book that he was writing. (This was eventually published as The Complete Training of Horse and Rider.) He would sit on a corner of Charles’s bed and explain his ideas and discuss how they could best be translated into English. No doubt he felt that here was somebody that he could talk to and trust, as not being an Austrian and an ordinary member of the School.
When the time came to return to England, Charles broke his journey at Saumur in France to visit the famous French Cavalry School, the Cadre Noir. There he was welcomed as a professional colleague and they invited him to take part in one of their cross-country rides. Now Charles had not ridden out of the riding school since he went to Vienna. He wondered a little apprehensively how he would manage with the rough going and the ups and downs in and out of follows and ditches. However, he gave his horse its head and found that he was just sitting as he had learnt to do, poised, free and in balance. He felt perfectly secure and that the horse could do what it liked.
This was Charles’s story and therein lies the explanation of what I witnessed that day in the Paddock in 1978.
Before we met each other, I do not think that Charles knew
anything about the Alexander Technique but he soon became fascinated.
In his years in Vienna he had learnt a great deal about posture
and balance. Learning how to sit comes before
learning how to ride and the classical seat depends on correct balance in the saddle. When I showed him what was involved in a practical way and he started to read Alexander’s books he quickly made the connection with what he already knew and proceeded to put it into practice for himself. In later years he visited our school, The Constructive Teaching Centre, and he was very popular with the students. On several occasions he gave a lecture on the Fundamentals of Riding, illustrated with his collection of carefully chosen slides. He always delighted the audience with his humour and clarity of exposition. He would draw attention to the close connection between the principles of classical equitation and the Alexander Technique and suggest how Alexander lessons could help riders to master the problems of balance and to acquire the skills concerned. He had come to see balance as a fundamental requirement in all human activities..
Many of our students were so fascinated by his talks that they started to take a keen interest in horsemanship and they found this an invaluable opportunity to put what they had learnt into practice in an unfamiliar field. Charles had promised to give another of these talks and also to attend a day of riding demonstration at Danny’s during our Summer term. Sadly he passed away on the 8th August 2002. He is greatly missed.
© October 2002 Walter Carrington