I’m sure that most riders in all levels of Dressage are accustomed to hearing the words “Classical Dressage”, but I often wonder if everybody really understands the meaning.
I’ve always been taught that classical dressage is something beautiful to do and to watch. The harmony between horse and rider, with the intention of enhancing the natural gaits and movements of the horse. If we look at equines when they’re free in their fields we see many things that can be recognized in a modern day dressage test. Transitions from walk, trot and canter to halt. Horses stepping backwards, making flying changes in the canter and sometimes we see a sort of trot on the spot, resembling piaffe. Excited equines leaping and jumping from the ground, reminding us of the movements we get to see at performances given by The Cadre Noir and The Spanish Riding School of Vienna.
Horses enjoying freedom in a field or paddock always look proud with their heads held high and they show off or want to impress. If you think about it, horses are really noble creatures that have always inspired great artists to paint and sculpture them, and they are nearly always portrayed in a majestic way. Most of us marvel at statues and beautiful old paintings we see of proud horses with their riders.
Classical Dressage has existed for a very long time and over the years there have been many books written on the subject, the earliest work that we know of in the Western world is that of Xenophon (427 – 355 BC). Through the centuries horses have been very much a part of our lives. Unmissable on the battle fields, essential on the farms and of course played a major part in transport, often the only means for people or cargo to be moved over land. In the last century horses started to be used more and more for pleasure activities and horse sport has become increasingly popular.
Consequently, breeding of sport horses came into shape, and this has played an important part in the Equine sport as we see it today. I am aware that through the centuries and throughout our lives things change and we often need to adapt. The facilities, the saddlery and equipment and veterinary products are endlessly being modernized and updated. The actual way we sit astride a horse and guide it with reins that are attached to a bit in the mouth has stayed more or less the same, although the position of the rider may vary, depending on what sort of equestrian activity is being performed.
Now in the 21st Century we also ride “classical dressage”, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be. Many times changes are made and new ways found to train horses with the intention of scoring high in front of the judges. The horse and rider performing together with the idea of using the natural ability of the horse in a harmonious, graceful and athletic way, often seems to be something of the past. We regularly see riders who try to intimidate these beautiful creatures by pulling their heads down with the use of all sorts of equipment to strap them in place, not thinking of the consequences for the horse.
Forcing horses into all kinds of unnatural positions and movements is not the idea of “Classical Dressage”. In most cases this causes resistance, and does not achieve the required result. Producing horses in dressage needs a systematic, deliberate and somewhat sympathetic approach and short-cuts normally lead to problems. Horses have to be obedient in order to understand and learn from their riders, but they should also feel relaxed and happy in their work, and be rewarded. A healthy balance between trust and respect for the rider and horse is so very important, and this should be maintained throughout the partnership.
I feel that dressage riders in general should take time to dig out books from some of the ‘old Masters’ and take note of how they trained their horses. Try to learn from them or chose a trainer who at least understands and teaches “Classical Dressage “.
We all expect so much from our equines, we owe it to them to treat them with dignity!