The Principles of Classical Horsemanship

The Principles of Classical Horsemanship

“It seems presumptuous to try to replace the teachings of a Gueriniere or one of the other great old masters by new, so-called “modern” methods. At the very best the results would be, as can unfortunately be seen too often, that the rider may make work easier for himself. “Modern” interpretation is a term used mainly to cover up superficial and fast work and can only lead to the decline of the art of riding.”

Alois Podhajsky

Lest  the cart precede the horse (no pun intended), it would be beneficial to understand where the term ‘classical horsemanship’(sometimes referred to as the Art of Classical Riding or classical equestrianism) came from and what made it ‘classical’ before we discuss the principles behind it.

The expression came from a period in history called the Renaissance (from the French meaning “rebirth”), which began in the 14th century in northern Italy and extended throughout Europe through the 16th century. This was a time of the great revival of art, architecture, literature, and learning, emphasizing humanism and beauty harkening back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome. ‘Classical’ means having the aesthetic (an appreciation of beauty) attitudes and principles manifested in the art, architecture, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome characterized by an emphasis on form, beauty, simplicity, proportion and restraint that is enduring and has stood the test of time. This ‘rebirth’ naturally included the revival of the long forgotten art of riding, starting with Federigo Grisone (16th century) in Naples and Cesare Fiaschi (15 (?)-1575) in Ferrara. Both of these men were familiar with the works of Xenophon (c.430-355 B.C.). Xenophon, although he is generally considered to be the founder of hippology (the doctrine of horses and riding), makes frequent reference in his book The Art of Horsemanship to a book (only fragments of which still exist) written by an earlier horseman named Simon of Athens and so, in all likelihood, probably just developed Simon’s ideas. The book (still available in print) addresses the training and treatment of horses so as to bring out and develop all their beauty, strength, and power in a humane way.

With this condensed historical background we can now apply a working definition to the term ‘Classical Horsemanship’ (the Art of Classical Riding or classical equestrianism – whichever you prefer). It is the ability, by means of correct exercises, logically structured and based on the natural laws of balance and harmony, to train the horse so that he willingly subordinates himself to the rider’s will contently and with self-­ confidence, without any detriment whatsoever to his own natural sequence of movement.

In this educational process of the horse, certain principles were developed over time to provide guidance to his handler so that the horse could provide a long, dependable, and healthy life of serviceability to the human. For it is only through a logical and systematic gymnastication of the horse, over time, with patience and feeling and in a manner that allows him to participate as a partner in the process, that anything of lasting value will be achieved.

Today, the common attitude is to attempt to learn things fast in order to achieve things quickly. But quick success is not really possible if one is trying to ride within the framework of the classical school of thought. I grant you that there are those riders who are hugely successful in the saddle as competitors, but who may not be such exemplary horsemen, and, in fact, represent the very opposite of nature-oriented classical horsemanship. This comes about because they have tried to circumvent the importance of the classical learning process (for both the rider as well as the horse). As E.F. Seidler (1798-1865) wrote in 1837, “Bad impressions (made on the horse) caused by hurried training methods, oftentimes cannot be erased in months. But with a few days of patience, they could have been avoided altogether.”

The principles of ‘Classical Horsemanship’ which must be followed and which provide the fundamental framework in the schooling and development of the horse have been codified by Colonel Alois Podhajsky (1898-1973), former director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna from 1939-1964, in his book The Art of Dressage-Basic Principles of Riding and Judging (1976). These principles emphasize concepts rather than details and are herewith enumerated:

  1. A straight horse going forward with impulsion.
  2. Absolute purity of the gaits and regularity of the steps. These convey beauty to the riding horse and may truly be called the music of movement.
  3. The horse should accept the bit with calmness and confidence and submit willingly and spontaneously to the guidance of his rider. It is the horse that should seek this guidance. On no account should the rider force the horse into a determined position of head and neck by means of the reins. Collection obtained in this incorrect manner is invariably betrayed by the lack of freedom of the paces.
  4. Suppleness of the horse must have been obtained and improved by logically built-up gymnastic training. It is reflected in the smoothness of the movements, in fluent transitions, and, last but not least, in the absolute balance in all exercises. This balance can be obtained only when sufficient energy is present in the hind quarters of the horse, which take their full or greater share in carrying the rider’s weight. When the horse moves in this manner, he conveys the impression that, in terms of mechanics, the motor as the source of movement is located in the hind quarters and its driving power is guided and regulated by the reins in the rider’s hands.
  5. The horse’s physical proficiency is mainly the result of his suppleness provided there are physical self-control and perfect balance. It is manifested in the correctness of the exercises with regards to the sequence of the steps as well as the preciseness of figures. This adroitness should become obvious in any phase of the test, not only in the difficult movements of the more advanced classes but also in the collected paces and in the performance of simple exercises such as voltes and halts.
  6. The horse’s obedience, the most important requirement of a dressage horse, is mentioned last for a good reason. Obedience is the logical result of the above-mentioned requirements having been fulfilled. It must never be that of a drilled poodle. It should be the proud achievement of gymnastic training of the horse based on preservation of his willingness and individuality.

Although these principles have been summarized briefly and without enumerating details as to how they may be accomplished, it should be emphasized that they are based on a thorough study of the horse’s talents and abilities so that we may cultivate the movements of the horse when he is ridden similar to how he demonstrates them when at liberty.

Since the finish does not come immediately after the start in any endeavor, the schooling of the horse according to the classical principles should be built up in three phases, so let’s briefly take a look at them and see how they dovetail with the principles of classical horsemanship.

The first phase lays the foundation for all that follows in the life of the horse as well as the rider. It is crucial that it be accomplished correctly. One of the goals in this phase is to have the horse shift his weight from the forehand in his movements to more of a horizontal balance with equal weight on all four legs. Also in this phase, the two biggest challenges that the rider will have presented to him initially by the horse are contact and impulsion, so it is reasonable to establish these two imperatives at the very beginning of the work.

Contact means many things to many people, but mainly it is the connection between the bit in the horse’s mouth and the rider’s hands through the reins. The rider’s hands must be steady and firm but with great feeling in the fingers AND must mimic the side reins that were used during the first three months of groundwork preceding the first ride (if this groundwork was not accomplished or if was done but not correctly and incrementally, it will lead to many future problems). In other words the rider must be tactful but firm and the horse must respect the bridle. The rider must put the horse ‘on­ the-bit’. All too often ‘on-the-bit’ is attributed to a certain head set. In reality it should mean the condition of a completely relaxed horse accepting the rider’s aids without resistance. ‘On-the-bit’ is not a concept that is introduced to the horse over time – it is for now! – It is for the beginning of the process! If the horse learns that there is a difference between being longed and being ridden and that he can pull on the rider’s hands and go wherever he pleases, then there is a very good chance that he will constantly challenge the rider’s hands throughout his life. Without contact, there can be no collection. But contact should be measured in ounces not pounds, though I grant you that in the beginning of the work, because the horse does not have the requisite strength and balance, the contact will be in pounds but should then move to ounces. The only way to keep the hand steady and the horse seeking the bit is to push the horse toward it with good forward impulsion, but one should never allow the hands to override the legs. Even though one might ride for hours on a long rein, there may be occasions when that person has to suddenly collect the horse to perform some task and then immediately go back to riding on a long rein. So the horse must be schooled to ‘honor’ the hand and be obedient to the leg.

Impulsion is also for the “now” and needs to be developed early on. It begins by riding the horse freely forward with vigorous energy. Impulsion means the engagement [the reaching under of the hind legs(not short-stepping)] of the hind legs with long, unhurried strokes (not stiff, rocketing extension of the hind legs) with clear moments of suspension to build the strength necessary for the carrying power needed later on for collection. It is power, but power which is regulated so as to control the quality of thrust

Generated by the horse.  As Gustav Steinbrecht (1808-1885) in his book The Gymnasium of the Horse (1885) wrote “no stride should be allowed in which the hindquarters are not acting energetically” and I will add that that is required for all gaits. But, as a caution, this is not the time to attempt to put the horse on the haunches, i.e., shift more of his weight to the hind legs (that will come later beginning in the second phase). If this is tried prematurely without the proper forward riding stage, it could easily cause the horse to develop evasions because he has not yet gained the strength to collect correctly. In this first phase of training the objective is to develop pure working gaits.

The horse should have good engagement with even rhythm of his footfalls within each stride. Needless to say, before forward energetic riding can take place to develop these gaits, the horse must gain an understanding of the meaning of the rider’s leg aids and weight aids (the effects of the shifting of the seat to affect the horse’s center of balance). The sensitizing of the horse to the leg aids involves teaching him the ‘lesson of the legs’ so that he responds with alacrity to the slightest request. If the groundwork has been done correctly so that the horse knows voice commands and understands the whip, it shouldn’t be too difficult. To start the process, the rider should move both legs from the normal riding position slightly back toward the horse’s stifles (using only the lowest part of the lower leg) with just enough pressure for him to feel them. If, after one second the horse has not moved forward, the rider should make a clicking sound with the tongue and tap him with the whip just behind where the legs have touched him. As soon as he moves forward, the rider needs to release the leg pressure and praise and rub the horse’s neck.

The rider should not increase the pressure of the legs or repeatedly tap (bump) him with the legs – both of these actions will create dullness in the horse’s response to these aids. The goal is to equip the horse with a reflex of unconditional energetic forward movement without hesitation and with the lightest pressure from the legs (in the sports world of competitive dressage this is called ‘having the horse in front of the leg’). So, as the horse responds with more energetic forward movement from less and less pressure from the aids, one should remove the voice and the whip as secondary aids. Again, I quote E. F. Seidler, “Every horse must learn to tolerate the leg, no matter how sensitive he may be. Leg aids are the soul of the entire horsemanship.  They are the means by which we communicate with our horse and let him know what we want.”

The reason that I have spent some time on these two subjects is because they are crucial to the accomplishment of all that lies ahead and because most riders do not spend enough time and energy in making sure that they are firmly in place before continuing on with the horse’s education, thus causing problems with all further work.

Other work that must be accomplished in this phase of education of the horse consists of: the establishment of lateral flexion (but not the twisting the neck or the jaw), prompt canter strike-offs, counter-canter (to help in correcting crookedness), leg-yielding, and hundreds of transitions within gaits (to improve the horse’s responsiveness to the rider’s hands and legs as well as establish longitudinal balance) and between gaits (to improve the horse’s balance and strength and improve the rider’s quickness in applying the correct aids).

Alois Podhajsky stated that “the strengthening and consolidation of the horse’s foundation will be the longest period (of schooling) and can take up as much as two-thirds of his education. For this reason, the time dedicated to establishing this basis firmly, no matter how long it might be, should never be regarded as wasted or be evaluated as a failure.”

The rider, if all of these things have been done correctly and with patience, may not desire to continue on with the horse’s education – and that is alright, because he/she will have a nice comfortable riding horse to enjoy who is a pleasure to ride. But, if one desires to continue with the horse’s education to bring out more of his beauty and capabilities, then one must enter the second phase of the horse’s education.

The second phase, known classically as the Campaign School, in a broad generalization, consists of exercises which are designed to improve the longitudinal flexion of the horse, and those which are designed to improve his lateral flexion. This phase of riding is possible only if the first foundational phase has been firmly and correctly established.

The goal of these exercises is to develop a strong, elastic, connected horse. The lateral exercises (exercises of bend) will promote suppleness and help in overcoming the asymmetries that occur in the horse. The longitudinal exercises (exercises of straightness) will help develop the horse’s elastic ability to shift its weight distribution from a horizontal balance over four legs to having its weight carried evenly a little bit more on both hind legs. There will be more emphasis and work in developing impulsion, engagement, tempo (the number of strides in a given length of time), and cadence (the beat in the rhythm and the flow and amplification in the stride) so that a free flowing wave of energy will pass through the horse from the smooth, unrestricted action of the hind legs over an elastic, swinging back and a strong but supple neck to a lightly held bit. This is what is called “thoroughness” in dressage language. This can only occur when the horse’s neck is arched (crowned), the spine is in extension and the ribcage is flexible so that the whole topline of the horse becomes ‘one piece’ – strong but elastic, therefore making the horse ‘connected’.

Naturally, the work started in the first phase should continue. But now other, more difficult exercises will be added. 

The longitudinal exercises consist of the walk (free walk, extended walk, medium walk, and collected walk); the trot (working, collected, medium, and extended); the canter (ordinary, extended, and collected), flying changes of lead, Jong and low work, half-halts, halts (retaining energy, power, and position to quickly drive forward when asked, in other words, having stored energy available), and rein-back (backing up). These exercises develop the horse’s elastic ability to change its center of balance by shifting its weight distribution from a little over the forelegs, to a more horizontal balance over all four legs, to one where the weight is brought more onto the hind legs. Besides needing contact, there can be no collection without a redistribution of weight over the hind legs. The practice of training the hind legs of the horse to carry weight in collection is at the heart of classical training.

The lateral exercises (exercises of bend), which promote suppleness, keep the horse’s body flexible, and help to correct any crookedness in the horse also improve forward impulsion through increased balance, agility and collection. The exercises are: leg-yielding (the most elementary lateral exercise), shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, travers, renvers, and half-pass. As these exercises become more familiar to the horse they should be ridden also at the canter.

Once again, the rider may be quite content to “hold” what he/she has achieved in this phase and not move into the third phase and final phase of the classical training of the horse. But for those brave souls who want to continue here is what they will encounter.

The third phase demands even greater difficulties in the work and the rider must have the knowledge, skills and experience from years of work to accomplish it. The exercises in this phase consist of canter pirouettes, tempi changes, piaffe and passage (including moving from one to the other), and, for a limited number of horses, the airs above the ground. These airs are: pesade, levade, courbette, croupade, ballotade, and capriole. This third phase is the culmination of classical training for both the horse as well as the rider. It is not for every horse or rider.

These three phases may take eight to ten years of focused riding to accomplish but the effort will be worth the time and energy invested. On the other hand, one could try and circumvent this way of training the horse by doing modern things, for example, like ‘rollkur’ now called round, deep, and low, but which is not so new at all. This method of training (torturing) the horse by over bending him with his head pulled down in an unnatural manner was being complained about as being the current state of affairs in most German riding schools during the early 1800’s.

Up to this point, the word “dressage” has only marginally been mentioned. So now is a good time to ask if there is something called classical dressage and, if so, what is it and what is the difference (if any) between classical horsemanship, classical dressage and dressage? Before attempting to answer these questions, it should be remembered that dressage (from the French verb ‘dresser’ meaning to train [an animal]) was at one time only a means to an end, at a point of time in history when horses were an integral part of our world helping the human to travel, work, wage wars, and, for the privileged few, to engage in sport. For the most part, it now has become an end unto itself simply for the gratification of the human, but it can be classical if it is done correctly.

That having been said, I believe that there is system of schooling the horse that can be defined as classical dressage. Classical dressage is the progressive gymnastic development of the horse according to the principles and training phases spelled out in the earlier part of this article and is defined by the quality of the practice involved, meaning that the exercises must be ridden correctly without resorting to the use of artificial aids (draw reins, tie-downs, etc.) or contorting the horse into unnatural positions in the process. It is an art form not a competitive “prize riding” endeavor (as an aside, ‘Military Prize Riding’ was the name first given at the 1912 Olympic to what later became known as Dressage Competition).

However; in my mind, classical horsemanship implies a deeper and more comprehensive meaning than classical dressage. I believe it encompasses everything we do when we are in the presence of the horse (and even before) ranging from the horse’s care (nutrition, health care, boarding arrangements, farrier work, etc.), to grooming and tacking (including the fitting of all things that we encumber the horse with), to just ‘hanging out’, to studying his physiological and psychological make-up, to having a keen knowledge of the bio-mechanics of his movement, to the actual training (“dressing”) of the horse as opposed to classical dressage which is concerned with the training aspect only.  But, in general, classical horsemanship and classical dressage are, in the eyes of the general riding public and for all practical purposes, synonymous.

However, “dressage” is another matter entirely. The word has been diluted to the point that it has almost lost its original meaning (remember, it means “to train” [an animal]). Now it is widely used to describe riding activities ranging from someone sitting on an English saddle taking basic riding lessons (who proudly proclaims: “I ride dressage”), to someone going around and around in an arena for years trying to ride a perfect 20 meter circle (who proudly proclaims: “I ride dressage”), to someone riding in a local competition show at some “stuck-in-forever” level (who proudly proclaims: “I ride dressage”), to others who ride at the regional, national, or international level of competition but whose horses have no expression in their eyes and move spectacularly, but robotically – and everything else in between.

Then, there are also those individuals who have awarded themselves the title “Dressage Trainer” (and who proudly proclaim: “I teach dressage”), but who have never heard of the principles of classical horsemanship, and who are not familiar with the three training phases needed to obtain a properly developed horse, let alone know the purpose behind each schooling exercise or, if they did know, how to correctly ride it. They delude themselves (and, unfortunately also their ‘students’) into believing that they are something that they are not. Therefore, I can conclude that there is quite a wide chasm which exists between the practice of classical horsemanship and classical dressage, and dressage – and it is getting wider with each passing year.

There was a term used by riding masters in bygone days to describe what we mainly see today called “dressage.” They called it “POODLE DRESSAGE.” It refers to a horse that performs movements without the necessary gymnastic basis, making the movement’s mere stiff imitations of genuine, i.e. classical, and dressage. Some, but not by all means all, of the characteristics displayed by the horse which result from this incorrect or hurried training are: a bulging under-neck muscle (a “deer” neck), a neck muscle which is wide behind the ears and narrow in front of the withers (a “rooster” neck), muscles which are tight, ‘bulgy’, and resistant to moving in a flowing, smooth manner under saddle, non-acceptance of the bit, unsteadiness in the neck during movement, heaviness in the forehand, short-stepping, etc.  All of these signs indicate an incorrectly trained horse and will pinpoint ‘poodle dressage’ – even if the horse and rider perform all the movements in a dressage competition at the right letters and with the right geometry.

Reiner Klimke (individual gold medal winner in dressage competition at the 1984 Olympic Games), in Sylvia Loch’s book Dressage-The Art of Classical Riding (1990), is quoted as saying, “But how many lovers of horses have enough knowledge of horsemanship?….Often a horse is regarded merely as a piece of sports equipment. Hence, knowledge of correct classical training and horsemanship has generally diminished.” What else is there to say?

In the final analysis, in the absence of an adherence to the principles of classical horsemanship through the time-honored incremental development of the horse, what is seen, in the majority of cases, is schlock riding taught by ersatz instructors cloaked under the guise of dressage (this word is sometimes preceded by the word “classical” to add an aura to it), which just accelerates the decline of the art of classical horsemanship.

“For the life of me, I cannot figure out why amateurs think that the breaking of the young horse is something they should do, especially if they have no experience….for the Mistakes made can be permanent.”

Paul Belasik

“The horse’s greatest danger will always be that his life has been entrusted into the hands of a human being.”

Egon von Neindorff