To begin, dressage was a system of equitation which evolved in Europe from the 16th Century to the present day. Its original intent was to make a horse useful, supple, happy, obedient, safe, graceful and healthy for riding, either on the field of war, or in the Carrousels and horsemanship exhibitions of Court life. It was, and is, about athleticism, ease, beauty, and lightness of communication, whether for simple pleasure, for art, or for any of the myriad things a rider might undertake with a horse. It is a certain type of training proven to achieve these goals, and it evolved over a period of centuries when horses were the only means of transportation, an essential tool of war, and a character-forming educational occupation of European aristocracy. Classical training, as it grew and changed in response to the increasing enlightenment of society after the Renaissance, came to be based on logic, keen observation: a robust understanding and love of the horse balancing the ever- present and intensely practical necessity for dependability in the face of danger.
What was Classical Dressage at its apex in the 18th Century? This is something we can only glimpse through the writings and engravings of the time, and the teachings preserved at the great European riding schools. Today the move to re-discover dressage’s classical roots reflects the efforts of modern riders to examine and preserve them through the lens of tradition and through our modern perspective. In future blogs we will explore the origins of dressage through the writings of the past masters such as the Duke of Newcastle, Antoine Pluvinel, and Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere. We’ll attempt to understand how training techniques evolved as the European view of God, Sin, human and animal nature, and man’s place in Creation changed, and we will try to discover what commonalities we share with the riding masters of the past.
There are significant differences between modern dressage sport and the classical riding schools that still exist in the world. Sadly, these differences seem to be widening over the last 30 years, and hence the need to clarify what is indeed “classical.” It can be very instructional to look to the great Classical halls in Austria, Spain, Portugal and France to see what common threads exist.
First, and most obviously, all these schools preserve a very energetic type of equitation characterized by collection and by spectacular leaps, or “airs above the ground.”
Second, the horses used are light, agile, medium sized, with bloodlines based on the Iberian horse, and strong aptitudes for collection, rather than extension.
Third, they utilize saddles based on a 17th century model, which protect and support the horse’s back and can be ridden in all day, as opposed to the modern dressage saddle which cannot be ridden in for more than an hour or two without the horse’s back suffering damage. Head control systems are based on the caveson and the proper use of the curb bit and double bridle, as opposed to the exclusive use of the snaffle.
Fourth, the riders trained at these schools spend a very long time perfecting their positions on the horse before being allowed to take the reins, so that their balance is solid, their hands are gentle, and their seat, leg and rein aids are precise. These riders are then trained on schoolmasters before ever learning to train a young horse. This reflects an abiding respect for the equine partner and an understanding that until the rider can exercise self control, the horse’s education will be deeply flawed.
Last, exhibitions of classical equitation are characterized by the joyful partnership evident between human and equine, by lightness, ease, and amazing displays of athleticism that awe the observer.
Contrast this with modern dressage sport, which, for the vast majority of riders, rarely goes beyond the beginnings of collection (horses being placed resolutely on the forehand), gives preference to huge-moving horses bred more for flashy extended trot than for collected gaits, uses saddles which are designed to hold in a rider whose balance on that huge-gaIted animal is iffy at best, (rather than with enough weight-carrying area to protect the horse’s back) and whose death grip on a snaffle is glossed over as “contact,’ rather than the horse abuse it often is. Most modern dressage riders spend little or no time perfecting their position and balance on the lunge line, seeming to lack understanding of how profoundly their own imbalance can impact a horse’s performance, and most instructors focus on “fixing” the horse, not the rider. Watching lower level competition is often painful or like watching paint dry, especially for the “uninitiated.” Watching upper level competition frequently leaves the casual observer mystified as to how the one leads to the other, so great is the disconnect. Finally, the airs above the ground, once considered the trademark of a fully trained horse, are even expressly forbidden in modern competition!
These are only the most glaring and superficial differences, but they underscore the huge rift between the two schools of horsemanship. The philosophical schism is even more impressive. Future blogs will attempt to explore those differences in greater depth and further elucidate the training methods that are still called Classical.