The history of dressage reaches back for more than 2,000 years when the Greek general Xenophon wrote his famous book, The Art of Horsemanship. He said that riding is the fusion of two living beings—horse and rider—into a living work of art with a unique beauty. Classical schooling is the opposite of drilling or mechanical training.
To school your horse in the classical way is twofold: You must develop the horse physically and educate his mind. With your body and your brain, you must develop a fine-tuned, sensitive feeling for balance and harmony, which is no overnight affair but comes to you in time. All this is difficult because it demands patience and a great deal of self-discipline. So a basic requirement for the rider is a true, sincere love of the horse, a glowing passion and a strong will to reach the highest performance level in upmost correctness—all this without compulsion and violence or false ambition. These character traits should be the ideal of a rider who regards riding as an art.
Classical dressage is the gymnastic training of the horse’s body together with loving education. It is nothing else but the cultivation and improvement of the natural gaits, which are shown when living at liberty. The walk is a marching gait, the trot a swinging gait and the canter a springing gait. In my opinion, these are the main requirements for a dressage horse, and they give the best opportunity to decide if your schooling is going in the right way. When speaking about dressage, we mean this classical art of riding which emphasizes the beautiful natural movement. It is the development of inherent potentialities and natural abilities. The goal and result is a more supple, keen, flexible, obedient and calm horse that is confident and attentive, thus achieving a perfect understanding with his rider.
But the first requirement is to get the confidence of the horse and to develop it. Confidence creates the best basis for obedience, and the horse should feel that man is his friend and not his torturer. It requires a lot of patience and sympathetic understanding of the rider as well as a specific attention to the sensitive character traits, especially of the young horse. The phase of confidence should give safety to the horse and by this, he tells his rider he likes to work with him. Then riding grows into a two-way conversation. The aim is complete harmony. Most important in classical schooling is a systematic training so that is comfortable to sit and something to enjoy.
The classical training principles consist of these points:
1. A straight horse, showing the desire to move forward. Don’t be fascinated by spectacular movement, perhaps mightily kicking in front with a tight back at the same time. This is not the way of classical principles and comes nearer to sensationalism and showmanship of circus riding. Therefore, we expect from every dressage horse—from beginner up to the Olympic level—an even, ground-gaining, unconstrained walk; a supple, regular, sustained and active trot with elasticity and impulsion coming from behind; and a united, cadenced three-beat canter (cadence is the symbiosis of rhythm, impulsion and joint flexion.
2. Absolute regularity of the gaits. A rider must pay utmost attention to the correct rhythm of the basic gaits, i.e., the purity, regularity and evenness of steps and strides. Faults in rhythm cannot be compensated by other merits in the horse, i.e., when a horse shows a superb extended trot but a four-beat canter.
3. Constant and confident acceptance of the bridle. Tense steps will not permit the rider to sit steady and without apparent effort on the horse’s back. Such a tense horse will be worn out very early because he is not flexible in his joints and back. Flexibility and smoothness—a prerequisite for good rideability—can only be achieved with suppleness and throughness, which is the opposite of tension. When suppleness is lacking, the way is not free for the required activity of the hind legs and for the swinging back, which is the bridge between the front and hind legs.
4. Showing well-balanced, smooth, flowing transitions. This means that the hindquarters are engaged. Because the forehand of a horse weighs more than the quarters, the horse has to be trained in such a way that it comes into balance, i.e., activation of the hindquarters coming more under the center of gravity and carrying more weight. Then the forehand can stretch upward and get more mobile in each direction because the weight is taken off.
5. Obedience and total submission under rider’s control. Correctness of the required movements and track figures. Forced training overburdens the intellectual capacity of a horse and can never produce beauty and brilliance. This would be the same as whipping a dancer to jump around. So the meaning of obedience in our sense is a horse attentive, relaxed and well-balanced, straight, consistently on the bit and anxious to accomplish the rider’s desire.
Some say that classical equitation has had its day. It is antiquated and should give room for modern concepts and new methods, such as rollkur (hyperflexion). But where does that lead? The horse did not change in all this time, even if the quality has improved through selective breeding. In the 16th, 17th and 18th century, the foundation of our riding was established, then developed and refined. Methods like rollkur are attempts to train through coercion and force. They hope to accelerate the learning curve and sell horses more quickly.
Instead, riders must be patient and carefully work their horses from back to front instead of from front to back. And horses must not be ridden using too much hand instead of the leg and seat. Remember that shortcuts are misguided. The old classical principles have proved valid for all time and are consistent with nature. When nature’s borders are violated, the result is an unnaturally affected or forced movement that destroys any possibility of harmony, brilliance and perfection.
Finally, I want to give an example of how far the confusion about schooling in dressage has progressed. A well-known rider said to me bluntly: “Why should I bring a horse to suppleness when tenseness is necessary for high-level movements like passage?” You see, here begins the wrong way. Steps in passage and suppleness at the same time only seem to be a conflict. In reality, only a supple horse is able to perform a very collected, elevated and cadenced passage, which is characterized by a pronounced engagement of hindquarters, a more accentuated flexion of the hocks and knees and the graceful elasticity of the movement with a prolonged suspension. A horse should be able to go smoothly between passage and piaffe and back again without apparent effort and without altering cadence. In fact, this is a test for suppleness. Of course, for piaffe and passage there must be a “positive” tenseness such as loading a battery and not a negative tension. The borderline between both can be difficult to differentiate. Without positive tension there can be no expression and brilliance. This is the point where dressage riding moves from simple workmanlike riding to classical equitation.
When riding is an art, then you have to allow the spectator a personal taste. It’s like observing a work of art, but a personal taste only in so far as the performance does not leave the basis of classical principles.
Dr. Josef Knipp, a native of Germany, is a retired FEI dressage judge who has bred and trained dressage horses for more than 35 years. He received his training from master riding instructors Fritz Tempelmann and Gen. Albert Stecken. A popular clinician worldwide, he has been a trusted advisor to Dressage Today for many years.