What is “Classical Dressage”


Many students have asked me over the years “What is Dressage?”

Painting by Janey Belozer

The following exerpt by Dr. Thomas Ritter is one of the best descriptions of what “Classical Dressage” is supposed to be. Not what modern-day dressage has become. At its heart, Classical Dressage is the quest to attain the highest level of mental & physical communication between horse and rider. To witness the sheer beauty of horse & rider uniting as one seamless pair is to witness what heaven will be like!  R. Smith

From a historical and practical point of view, the purpose of Classical Dressage was to train a horse to be safe, reliable, obedient, and comfortable to ride under all circumstances. Horses also needed to stay sound for many years – for economic as well as ethical reasons, since good horses were always expensive and often hard to find, and because the training takes a very long time.
From a philosophical point of view, Classical Dressage is about training the horse purely for the joy of training – l’art pour l’art. In addition, it should benefit the horse’s well-being. Anything in the training of the horse, that is not in the best interests of the horse’s soundness, happiness, and spirituality is not classical. Classical Dressage is not about the spectacular airs, such as the levade or capriole, or the piaffe and passage, however beautiful and inspiring those are. It is instead about the day-to-day work of the horse. It is the “chopping wood and carrying water” of the equestrian disciplines.

At the heart of Classical Dressage is the spirit of establishing a connection with the horse. The horse is not a vehicle, either literally as a means for transportation, or figuratively, as a vehicle for success, prestige, and power. The horse is a living, breathing, and FEELING being, and it is of the utmost importance, in the training, to connect with this essence. This connection involves a careful balance between trust and respect. It would be idealistic to think one could achieve this simply through indiscriminate kindness to the horse, but if such kindness and softness are not balanced by sensible boundaries, the horse will never learn either respect or trust. Both go hand in hand. One is not possible without the other. The horse thrives in an environment of love, fairness, and consistency. It is the human’s responsibility to provide fair and consistent boundaries in the horse’s life. The horse, just like a child, can sense when he is treated with love and respect. He will accept any justified reprimand and even outright strictness, without losing his interest and love for the human, if it is fairly executed and balanced by reward and love. On the other hand, if the horse is treated without love and respect, he will withdraw in order to protect himself, and either become afraid or angry. It is our responsibility, as the caretakers and trainers of our horse, to see that his spiritual and psychological needs are met. If we are to train the horse in the spirit of Classical Dressage, this cannot be ignored, and the horse cannot be treated merely as livestock or assets.

True classical training is gymnastic training. It can even become physical therapy. It preserves and prolongs (and in some cases, even restores) the soundness of the horse. Classical training does not teach the dressage movements as tricks without the necessary gymnastic preparation. It ensures that each movement is learned and executed in such a way that the horse uses his body economically and efficiently by minimizing friction and wear and tear through balance and suppleness. In classical dressage, movements are not an end in themselves, but they are gymnastic tools that make specific muscle groups stronger and more supple. Such an approach to training as gymnasticization continually improves the horse’s balance, suppleness, and straightness, which results in smoother gaits, less jarring, less bracing and resistance, and consequently greater soundness and longevity.  Read More…

In developing the ELS “Seamless Riding” Balanced Seat Program I found myself in a dilemma. Most adult humans I enrolled as students had physical and mental (fear-based) challenges. In order for the student to fully realize their potential as a rider, these challenges needed to be addressed first .  It was and still is my intent to prepare riders with the pre-requisite mental & physical knowledge needed to achieve any discipline of riding they may choose. It is through physical & mental awareness that this is achieved. I believe that the vertical balanced-seat, long-leg position of dressage & western is the primary position to learn to ride properly in the motion of the horses’ movements.  Additionally, it is my passionate intent to educate humans “about” horses. How they think, feel & learn. Only then can a human truly connect with their horse to achieve the level of partnership desired.  R. Smith

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