What is Classical Dressage?


In sixth-century B.C. Greece, Xenophon wrote the first riding manual, the classic Art of Horsemanship, in which he emphasized training the horse through kindness and reward. He recognized that training a horse required building a relationship with another being, whose integrity both physical and mental should be maintained throughout the process. This is demanding for both partners and must be achieved without losing the spirit of either.

The distinction between classical dressage and competition dressage has been the subject of a great of debate in recent years. A brief look into the 2,000-year history of equitation may help the reader put this question into perspective. Starting in the Middle Ages, horsemanship began to evolve from a purely practical and military pursuit into an art form for the entertainment and participation of the ruling classes in Europe. The first major publication on the subject of educated riding was Frederico Grisone’s Gli Ordini di Cavalcare, which appeared in 1550. Although the methods espoused by Grisone were brutal, his was the first expression of horsemanship over and above the traditional utilitarian role of transportation and war. The Italian Renaissance was characterized by vigorous intellectual, literary, and artistic growth, and the sixteenth century’s cultivated approach to horsemanship was an integral part of this movement. The Baroque period of the seventeenth century gave rise to the luxurious arts in which riding took its place alongside literature, painting, sculpture, and architecture.

The horses of the Baroque period were schooled for parades, exhibitions, and carousels held at the pleasure of the king and his court, and for the most part they were of predominantly Iberian breeding (Lusitano and Andalusian). This type of haute école (high-school) horsemanship reached its climax with the publication of Gueriniere’s book, Ecole de Cavalerie, in 1733, a book still used by the Cadre Noir of Saumur. With the French Revolution in 1789 came the decline of courtly riding, as the school at Versailles shifted its focus to military preparedness and to the education of cavalry troops, who were trained to fight rather than parade. The ideal officer’s charger had to be able to participate in the equestrian sports of the time, which were now hunting and steeplechasing, the basis for the combined-training tests of today. After court (or manège) riding lost the support of the royal courts, the venue for haute école riding moved to the European circus, a combination concert hall and riding hall that preserved the dignity of horsemanship.

Cavalry officers who were aware of the splendid equestrian traditions of the past opened the doors for François Baucher, a gifted circus rider and trainer, who managed to interest the French Army in his training methods. But by this time, the equestrian world had fundamentally changed. The 1800s brought a new pragmatic approach to riding with the concept of an “all-round horse.” It was at this time that Frederico Caprilli (1868-1907) advanced his training methods in which the rider’s forward seat was emphasized to allow the horse natural freedom in galloping and jumping. Nowadays, competitive dressage (or haute école riding) is done primarily for competition, dating from the 1912 Olympics, which focused, however, on testing the horse as an effective and obedient charger, not as an expression of art.

All thinking riders should be aware of this history and the evolution of horsemanship. On the one hand, the focus is on functionality, technical precision, and the rules of competition, but on the other, the rider’s goal is also to create beauty and art for the pleasure of the audience. Each approach has its place, but the pressures of modern competitive dressage tend to place an emphasis on technique, but all great riders know that must develop communication with their equine partners. They must strive for balance between the mastery of technical execution and the development of artistic expression. True harmony with the horse can be achieved when the rider balances the execution of a movement with the feeling of oneness with the animal. It is at that juncture that the horse and rider have transformed technique into art.

In searching for ordered movement, one risks producing some form of mechanization instead of maintaining the purity of the horse’s natural paces. Some horses, of course, have a naturally powerful and elastic way of going, whereas others will look more ordinary, but both types can be trained to improve their athleticism, thereby narrowing the gap in their performance. The aim of training must always be to make the horse look more beautiful.