As dressage riding has gradually evolved over the years, classic dressage training and the time-honoured principles governing the training of horse and rider have been called into question time and time again. Based on the personal experience and subjective conclusions of individual riders and trainers an attempt would be made every now and then to proclaim a fundamentally new method of some kind.
In the world of dressage sport, for example, we have recently seen moves being made by some participants to turn the traditional principles of dressage training upside down.
The history of equine dressage training is closely tied to the history of humankind, especially here in Europe.
The oldest known document on horsemanship was written some 400 years before the birth of Christ.
Within a thousand years of the time of Christ things had progressed beyond merely training horses for military service. As a result, equine dressage training gradually developed into an art form.
During the 16th century an advanced culture of horsemanship grew up at the courts and ruling houses of Europe and a number of famous equestrian schools were already in existence by this time. The exercises and performances that were developed back then are broadly consistent with those that are used in the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special events of today, apart from movements involving ‘school jumps’ and ‘airs above the ground’.
In the 17th and 18 centuries the foundations were laid for the system of equine dressage training that we now have in Europe. The great masters of the day were Pluvinel, Löhneisen, de la Gueriniere, von Hünersdorf and others. Their performances clearly indicate that the natural disposition of the horse must be recognised and respected and that the natural movements had to be perfected through dressage-based gymnastic exercises and training. The setting of the forehand in front of the hindquarters, the shoulder-in and the balanced seat have now become key elements of the classic riding technique.
In the 19th century a greater understanding of animal psychology and the natural behaviour of horses began to have an ever greater impact on equine training methods.
The ‘back mover’ was defined: the back as the centre of movement of the horse and the importance of a relaxed back musculature. Maintaining and enhancing swing in the trot and gallop became a requirement. Emphasis was placed on providing steady support with a delicate rein hand. Properly understood forward riding and straight-line work now at last became the mainstays of the European training system. The turning movement was clearly defined and the relationship between the flexing of the haunches, the use of the back and elevation was properly described. The relative stance of the animal was also postulated.
The 20th century then eventually became typified by the world of tournament sport and at the start of this period civilian riders were allowed to participate in these tournament events. The horse became increasingly regarded as a partner for leisure and sporting activities.
There was now available a great store of experience in and knowledge of equine dressage training that had been built up and passed on over some 400 years. This body of knowledge was then systematised and made available to civilian trainers and riders as a set of rules and regulations.
A process of international harmonisation also took place.
Since the 1948 London Olympics the world of equine competition has developed with a pace and momentum that is unparalleled in the history of the sport. And this also applies to dressage.
The breeding of horses has advanced enormously in recent decades. The dressage rider is now able to obtain a well-built ‘uphill horse’ with a harmonious topline, well angulated hindquarters, nicely laid-back shoulders, a good base of the neck and a light poll. Most of these animals have a lot of energy and resilience and they make the work of training much easier for the rider. However, these horses also need the rider to be very smooth and supple in the saddle and to deliver well coordinated and sensitive aids and commands. These dynamic and resilient horses can only be confident in their own movements and in their own energy below the rider, and can only achieve the required degree of balance, when: the back is relaxed, the nose is vertical, the poll is relaxed, the stance is relatively upright and the sensitive hand of the rider releases his mount forwards at exactly the right moment. Then and only then can these horses deliver their full potential and thrill the rider, the judges and the spectators! Then it can be said that they are being trained and ridden in accordance with the traditional principles of classic horsemanship that have been passed on down through the generations.
The development and history of classic dressage training has had its share of ‘mavericks’. There were always those self-styled masters who thought they had found better and easier ways to achieve the desired ends. In the 19th century, for example, François Baucher would rein his horses tightly in, turning them ‘on their head’ as it were, with a very close neck. He believed that this method would make them compliant and that this would prove to be a quicker way to train them successfully. But this technique ultimately failed. In his old age Baucher changed his views and said that coming up with this method was the stupidest and most reprehensible thing that he had done in his life.
Nearly 150 years later we in the classic school of riding again find ourselves facing ideas and methods of this kind. At the end of the 1990s the term ‘rollkur’, later also known as ‘hyperflexion’, suddenly appeared from nowhere to confront the world of dressage. By 2010 we were also seeing many horses that were trained in this way taking part in some of the major trials at international championship level. With a very tight neck, a stiffly set back and the hind legs moving more in an upwards direction than towards the animal’s centre of gravity the collected trot is not smooth in its sequence and the quality of the canter stride and walk is much reduced. The horses rarely give the impression of being relaxed and confident. And it continues to be alarming to see that horses being handled in this way are still often highly rated by the judges.
Yet the classic school of riding has managed to stand firm against this trend. This is because the principles of classic dressage training, as handed down, are not some dogmatic relic from a bygone era. Over some 400 years the classic style of riding has gradually evolved in steady alternation between theory and practice. And it continues to develop today, constantly striving for new knowledge and the even greater perfection.
The Olympic Champion at the London Games in 2012 presented her horse in a most impressive manner: a strong vertical stance, a relaxed backline, in relative elevation and with a smooth tail carriage. That all spells good riding in line with traditional principles.
After London came the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Caen 2014 followed by the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016 and at all these events we were seeing more and more horses being presented in an expressive and dignified manner at the hands of riders who were supple in the saddle and sensitive at the rein. All the medal winners at Rio instructed their horses in accordance with the traditional principles of classic riding. The judges awarded these performances marks of as much as 80% and more. Traditional dressage is back on the right track again.
The classic style of riding is not a national system – it is international. The guidelines that have been handed down to us belong to every horse enthusiast who is involved in dressage training around the world.
Classic dressage training is not inconsistent with the modern sport of dressage!
Based as it is on a doctrine that has been passed down over the centuries classic dressage is timeless, contemporary, alive and thriving.
Warendorf, March 2017