In the past few years, the term “Classical Dressage” has come to imply the use of methods that are very positive for the horse, while exuberantly excluding types of training deemed inhumane and forceful. When we think of classical riding we picture lovely horses in self-carriage, ridden with loose reins and no “gadgety” equipment that maintains the horse in a certain posture. This illustration can easily be found in historical literature and art, and on the pages of current day classical practitioners. But lately there is a trend that suggests that classical methods are less difficult for the horse, and, as a result, are evoked to leave riders with a clearer conscious. This is concerning because I believe it moves the sport away from the intrinsic nature of the art.
It is widely believed that dressage got it’s start in the military. In the middle ages, the need for a powerful, agile, well-trained horse to take into battle was essential. These horses were working animals and warriors in their own right. The riders and mounts were pushed to the very limits of strength and endurance. Later, the cavalry valued the obedience of the horse and the strict standardization of movements, such that soldiers with little equestrian background could be proficient. Still the demands on the mounted pair was high. Fortunately, there is no need in today’s sport for battle tactics, but that essence of the warrior horse, and the standardization of movements is what gives classical dressage it’s foundation. From this, dressage developed over centuries into an art form and the sport we know today.
The texts of the masters over time offer a glimpse into the development of classical training. The advice given, often in ornate language, of how to achieve the ideal performance can be hard to grasp, but there are many times where authors refer to the difficulties and reactionary nature of the mounts. It was not easy to train horses in those days either! Debate and ridicule surrounded many trainers, who often were criticized for dubious methods or ridiculous circus-like movements. However many of those methods and movements make up the standard of today’s dressage.
The modern day division of ideals between “classical” and “competition” dressage has never been stronger, and with good reason. Riders who don’t agree with the aggressive training methods sometimes used to produce spectacular gaits that delight the uneducated public are looking for options to learn and practice their passion for the sport. More and more equestrian organizations are incorporating classical techniques into competition guidelines as alternatives to what may be overbearing for the horse or demanding for the rider. These guidelines show progressive thinking and do not following the status quo of today’s competition atmosphere. This effort will evolve over time to better the present day sport, and push the sport in a positive direction. However, the idea that classical riding is less difficult is faulty. It is not, and should not be, a nicer, easier alternative, or a watered-down version of the sport.
I am a strong supporter of the fact that basic dressage training is a must for every horse, and better balance and fitness can benefit every horse and rider. I am also a very strong promoter of classical philosophy, correct science, and proper bio-mechanical methods. Dressage training, using these three concepts is not inhumane or abusive for the horse, but it’s not easy and it is not designed to be less difficult than so-called competition dressage. In fact, in my opinion it takes more thought and more learning on the rider’s part, and much more effort to maintain fitness on both partners (horse and rider). Executing a training level test correctly does not mean simply completing walk, trot and canter in nice, round circles. The training level tests are meant to demonstrate that the horse and rider pair is fit and balanced, and that the horse is developing the proper musculature, balance and coordination to do the movements with ease. Before entering a competition at a certain level to confirm that level, the horse and rider should be training one or two levels above. This takes time, effort and consistent work.
Training classically using proper bio-mechanical theory is to train like a human gymnast. It means selecting certain muscle groups and working them with targeted exercises to make them stronger and more flexible, and the body as a whole more symmetric and more enduring. Even short sessions like this can tax the stamina and psyche of any horse. Challenging a horse’s physical balance in this way is not without stress. A horse that is not accustomed to moving this way may resist, evade or even panic. For the rider, it is far easier to use arm and leg strength, or auxiliary devices to pull and drive a horse into a frame than it is to develop the human core muscle strength and body balance that is required to truly train classically. That’s how true self carriage for both horse and rider are developed.
Of course, to train in this manner, with the minimal amount of physical and mental stress on the horse, must be done slowly, and with great care. Even training “classically” while pushing the horse beyond what he is physically capable of at the time can be damaging. The level of difficulty is raised in tiny bits, over months or even years. The training must be done at the horse’s pace, not some artificially imposed timeline. It should take 5-10 years to “finish” a classically trained horse, and alas, it is never really “finished”. Horses with physical limitations or mental challenges can take much longer, or simply may not be suitable to execute the higher levels. This doesn’t mean that a talented young horse can’t develop quicker, but care must be taken that the correct foundation is in place. The rider cannot be greedy.
Once you feel the indescribable harmony of two beings dancing light as a feather, you will never regret the work it took to get there. But if you are looking at classical as an easy alternative, think again. Classical is not meant to be easy, but in the long run if you want to improve the health and fitness of your horse to achieve the maximum performance in any discipline, a truly classical foundation is a must.