European Classical Dressage Versus Modern Riding
There are few things that inspire a spirited debate among dressage riders quite like the distinction between modern and classical riding. While some riding enthusiasts insist that the two forms are almost identical, others who have greater insights suggest that they are quite different sports with both subtle and important distinctions. Understanding why this causes so much disagreement requires a brief look at the history, trends and goals of each form.
European dressage is rooted in the training of war horses. Early century mounted soldiers quickly saw the benefit of a strong, agile, and easily controlled horse. The more skilled riders worked to create a system of training that developed the horse’s natural grace and athleticism, allowing their mounts to respond to light cues and move freely despite being burdened by a rider.
This practical background can be seen in many of the movements, particularly the emphasis on collection. Collection, which requires the horse to shift more of its weight to the hind legs, places the horse in a more balanced frame that allows it to move in any direction or change gait at a moment’s notice. Extended gaits cover more ground without causing the horse to rush or lose its balance. Movements such as half-pass and pirouettes demonstrate lateral control of the horse’s body, which would allow the horse and rider to move as one, dancing quickly away from an enemy attack.
As time progressed, dressage became a more formalized method of training. The Renaissance saw the rise of formal schools, such as the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Although these schools were focused more on exhibitions than on actual preparation for war, they still remained true to the old principles and training methods. There remained a heavy focus on collection, lightness, and energy. The classical European method is perhaps best exemplified by the airs above the ground, in which the horses perform remarkable controlled leaps and other maneuvers that show off their strength and balance.
Unlike modern riders, who typically consider dressage to be a competitive sport, the old European Masters considered dressage an art form similar to ballet. Classical European riders spend years learning to ride on the longe without stirrups or reins as they perfect an independent seat. When they are finally given the chance to train their own horse, they spend more years carefully working the horse through various stages of training, focusing on developing the horse’s natural strength and beauty. This process creates horses so light and balanced that classical riders show off their skills by performing advanced movements, such as Piaffe and Passage, with only one hand on a loose rein. No matter how successful or accomplished they became, however, the “old European Masters” believed that there was always more to learn and they could still achieve better unity and harmony with their mounts.
Modern Dressage and Riding:
Modern dressage, while generally based on some of the same principles, is more focused on the competitive aspect. Many classical riders believe this is to the detriment of the art. Riders are allowed to skip steps in their own development, which leads to an over-reliance on the hands instead of the seat as the riders struggle to pull their horses into a frame. This often results in the horse going behind the vertical, which is considered a serious error by classical riders. Sometimes these shortcuts can be extreme, such as the controversial practice of rollkur, or hyperflexion, in which the rider requires the horse to carry its head very low and with its chin tucked into its chest. This method was growing in popularity among competitors before it was banned by the Fédération Équestre Internationale in 2010.
In addition, the modern sport’s focus on flashy movement and powerful extended gaits causes many people to choose horses that are difficult to ride. Traditionally, classical riders preferred Iberian horses, particularly Lusitanos, which are naturally agile and have more balance due to being developed solely as a riding horse. By contrast, the popular modern warmblood is descended from carriage horses, which tend to travel on their forehands and struggle with collection.
The Rewards of Classical Dressage:
Although the time it takes to train with classical methods may be considered a disadvantage in today’s world of instant gratification, the “old” methods continue to produce superb athletes that work seamlessly together. Dressage has a uniquely aesthetic and pleasing appeal with its essence being the achievement of close harmony with an equine partner. The unity, grace, and skill of classically trained horses and riders is a beautiful sight that even modern judges reward in the show ring.
At Sons of the Wind Farm we honor the “old-masters” way of training and riding. The over 400 year old traditions of the European Dressage Masters are practiced here with perfection.