/ by /   Articles / 0 comments

Modern vs Classical Dressage, is there a difference?

You Have you ever heard of an instructor say “I only teach classical principles” or “classical dressage”? and then we see them out at competition getting blue ribbons?  I can’t recall any instructor bragging about teaching competitive or modern dressage as a proper way of horsemanship, have you? After all, isn’t “Working Equitation” and “Western Dressage” built on classical principles not competitive dressage?

First, I would like to clarify the use of the word Dressage; it can be used as a verb, adjective or a noun. In this article I am using it as a proper NOUN.

There is no shortage of opinions or useless information on the internet (including my opinion) on this issue. Why is articulating the difference between the two concepts important or of any concern to you? If the two concepts are different, should you be aware of the difference so you can convey that knowledge to your horse properly? There are many trainers and instructors that claim one thing, but do just the opposite. This is call hypocrisy. Do you want to know how to spot this type of Dressage instructor?

Over the years I have been critical regarding folks making the claim they teach pure classical dressage, but yet they can’t seem to articulate the difference between the two. Lets not be emotional, lets analyze this topic to get to the truth.

Both concepts argue or claim:

  • Lightness to the aids as a goal
  • Suppleness as a goal
  • Better balance
  • Forward moving
  • Self carriage
  • Harmony as a goal
  • Willingness as a goal
  • Partnership as a goal
  • Use of gymnastic exercises
  • Welfare of the horse as a goal
  • Art form as a goal
  • Straightness as a goal
  • Obedience as a goal
  • Impulsion as a goal
  • Collection as a goal
  • Up hill as a goal

Did I leave anything out? Do you see my point? Both concepts claim the same concepts are being adhere too, but are there still differences in the two ideas? Yes there is! What are they?

#1 Modern or Competitive dressage came out of the ashes of classical that uses verifiable testing to validate proper method of training. Whereas classical has no verifiable validation of proper training. It is more of an art form. In other words you can say you are an awesome classical instructor, but there is no way to validate your claim. It now becomes merely an opinion.

#2 Classical dressage was a method of training war and field working horses back in earlier centuries. It was mandatory to train a horse with a method that allows the rider to ride one handed while using the other hand for utility purposes. Other than freestyle, modern dressage does not allow one handed testing. Why is this important to know? Because many folks seem to think all you need to do is drop the right rein and ride one handed. That cannot be further from the truth. It requires you to re-school your horse with a different feel and use of aids. The training method to train a horse to the goal of riding one handed is not the same method of teaching a horse to be ridden solely with two hands. It would be like using tuna fish to make hamburgers, they are not compatible.

If there is no step-by-step testing process, how do you validate proper training? This is why I like Working Equitation, it is a verifiable test to validate whether a working horse has been trained properly in classical principles. Truth is self evident and needs very little explaintion. Hence the validation is observed whether the horse can manifest and demonstrate power, agility, softness and flexibility while being willfully obedient being ridden one handed. Are you starting understand my point on how to spot or identify the two different styles? It is easy to spot a counterfeit, just watch any instructor ride his/her demo horse and the truth will be demonstrated by the horse. Can your instructor guide the horse through a working ranch or fight a war one handed? We may not fight wars on horseback in modern times, but we can build an obstacle course to show the agility of the horse being ridden one handed. If your instructor does not have a demo horse, be very leery, many instructors can read a book watch a few videos and they are experts. Ask this question,  can they build what they say?

This article has two objectives:

  1. Properly identify and categorize the two types of Dressage with credible resources.
  2. Properly identify categorize instructors that make claims.

This article was inspired by the following information from Lusitano portal to give credible source of information.

10636065 695695090521245 8628854623523544616 n

The tradition of educating and training horses to perform movements goes far back into history. In ancient days the main purpose for most horses was to function on the battlefield. It was later, during the Renaissance, that the nature of riding changed. To ride and educate a horse became the noble hobby of kings and aristocrats. This gave rise to the grand riding academies where dancing with a horse became a goal in itself and riding developed into an art form.

classical-dressage-300x172What is Classical Dressage?

The term ’Classical Dressage’ can be interpreted in many ways and today there are plenty of different schools. The view that we present here aims to be open and not state what is right or wrong – many roads may lead to Rome but in dressage, and riding in general, we often have to deal with multiple versions of Rome itself! A quote from General Alexis L’Hotte (1825-1904), an early chief trainer at Cadre Noir in Saumur, beautifully captures what Classical Dressage and Equestrian Art is about:

“The beauties of the horse reside in the nobleness, the grace, the boldness of his movements, their splendid achievement, their energy. The beautiful horsemanship, in its delicacy and its good taste, seeks the development of these gifts belonging to the horse, and not in perverting them. It is nature which we take as a guide, and not the extraordinary, the eccentric which we seek.”

Light and graceful horses

Classical Dressage, Classical Horsemanship and Equestrian Art all involve training and handling of horses in accordance with ancient and well proven methods. with the main aim that the horse ridden should move and execute exercises with the same lightness and as gracefully as he does when free. The various dressage exercises are not goals in themselves, rather they are seen as a means of achieving a healthy, strong, supple and well balanced horse that can express his natural movements and dance under a rider without tension or friction. This is accomplished through a trustful relationship in everyday training, which itself is based on gymnastic and strengthening exercises where one exercise logically leads to another.


School jumps were probably not used for attack

Classical Dressage is not so much about school jumps and high school exercises as it is about developing a supple and well balanced horse. It is important to remember that in earlier centuries horses were mostly owned and used by the military and that these horses not only had to be obedient and maneuverable, but also needed to stay sound for many years. It is widely believed that the military trained their horses to perform the airs above the ground as maneuvers to use for either attack or evade of the enemy. For example, the levad could have allowed the rider to see better, or the capriole used as a leap to escape when surrounded. That the school jumps were ever used in battle is however doubtful, as most of them expose the horse’s sensitive underbelly. It is instead more likely that these exercises were used to further develop the horse and rider and to demonstrate the control and strength of the horse.



The difference between Classical and Competitive dressage

What we know today as classical riding has evolved from ancient cavalry training, while competitive dressage displayed in the present day has in turn evolved out of these classical principles. Competitive dressage displays all the movements used at the grand riding academies with the exception of the airs above the ground. In actual fact, it is not absolutely necessary to differentiate the two as, at least in theory, competitive dressage should follow the same principles – the FEI dressage judging criteria, for example, expresses an emphasis on harmony and lightness. There does not have to be any contradiction between classical training and competing. But in what is called classical dressage, the goal in performing certain exercises is not to get a score from a judge, but to strengthen the horse, to make him able to carry a rider without shortening his “working life” rather to prolong it.. The classical approach also involves the idea that all horses can perform all exercises. , and they can, but perhaps not always to the standard expected of the dressage course.

Classical Dressage according to famous riders

Just as L’Hotte put it in the quotation above, many famous riders and masters express that Classical Dressage is about the natural beauty of the horse and a harmonious relationship between horse and rider. Contemporary Mestre Luís Valença has also spoken on the subject, expressing that equestrian art is about three things: Firstly the love, beauty, kindness and elegance of the horse’s movements. Secondly that the horse is allowed to express his style and personality with his spirit unbroken. Finally, that the rider must base his relationship with the horse on love to be able to get the best out of the horse.

The following quotes from other masters and famous riders express what classical horsemanship means to them:

“Equitation or the Art of Riding means to cultivate the movement of the horse with as little effort as possible”
– Egon von Neindorff

“Equestrian art is the perfect understanding and harmony between horse and rider”
– Nuno Oliviera

“The objective of the Classical Art of Riding is to train the horse not only to be brilliant in the movements and the exercises of the High School but also to be quiet, supple and obedient and by his smooth movements to make riding a true pleasure”
– Alois Podhajsky

“It is the ability, by means of good exercises, logically structured and based on the natural laws of balance and harmony, to train the horse so that it subordinates itself to the rider´s will contentedly and with self-confidence, without any detriment whatsoever to its own natural sequence of movement.”
– Anja Beran

Sources: Alexis-Francois L’Hotte: The Quest for Lightness in Equitation by H, Nelson; The Art of Classical Horsemanship by E Neindorff; Dressage: The Art of Classical Riding by S, Loch; Classical Dressage in Competition by Dr. T, Ritter; artisticdressage.com; valencaequestriantours.com; classical-equitation.com


Leave a Reply