Before continuing with an exploration of classical dressage principles, I want to clarify my reasons for doing so.
I do it because part of understanding dressage is understanding why we do it. Classical theory provides answers to that “why” for me. Those answers furthermore embody training principles which inform four areas of my horsemanship at present:
THEY INFORM MY OWN DRESSAGE RIDING
I am alone in my dressage work now with my stallion, and I’m wondering what all the years of training and competition have taught me. Surely I’m capable of working through the presenting issues with my horse without having someone yelling in my ear all the time.
However, it is said that dressage is a coached sport. This is true at least insofar as one has her eye on the competition arena. Dressage is extremely precise, and one needs eyes on the ground to identify problems or good points that the rider may miss. But beyond the competition part, I’m convinced that an educated rider is capable of working on her own for at least some of the time.
THEY INFORM MY WORK WITH MY P.R.E. STUD HORSE; THEY HELP CREATE A SAFE STALLION
This is the subject of a series of articles all by themselves, but I will touch on it briefly here.
I consider myself a horsewoman. As such, I am committed to learning all I can about the horse as a creature in all its shapes, forms, sizes, and sexes. But I have been warned long before I purchased my P.R.E. (Pura Raza Española) stallion Soñador that I shouldn’t own a stallion. I shouldn’t own one, ride one, or be around one, They’re too dangerous. In particular, I was told women shouldn’t own stallions. Really?
But in the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, that’s all they ride is stallions, all beautifully behaved as they perform their movements and drills. During a recent trip to Spain, I saw stallions behaving obediently in a circus of mares, geldings, baby strollers, tents, grandmothers and what not all mixed together during the annual trade fair for the Spanish horse, SICAB, in Seville, Spain. But in this country we are told,
“If you’re not going to breed your stallion, you should geld him.”
I have come to the conclusion that ours is not a horse culture. And because of this, most riders in this country lack the experience and know how to deal with intact male horses. I want to be different. I want to the best of my ability learn to work with my stallion. Classical dressage is helping me do that.
THEY INFORM ANSWERS TO MY OWN QUESTIONS ABOUT MODERN DRESSAGE
My current study of Alois Podhajsky has as its purpose the recalling of experiences of the masters and applying them to the language and approach I am familiar with today. What are the principles and exercises which express those principles that can help us achieve the forward, balance, straight, collection, impulsion I spoke of in my earlier article? How can we use these principles to diagnose problems and choose the right exercises to help us work through those problems?
One challenge in all this is trying to determine what modern terms such as “thoroughness” and “fancy mover” have to do with a classical approach discussed by Podhajsky, Perhaps I should define “classical.” By “classical” I mean the theory and practice which has been set down over centuries as the best and most effective way to train the horse to be an obedient riding partner who is responsive and capable of executing the rider’s will.
THEY PROVIDE A COUNTERPOINT TO BREED BIAS AND FAD IN MODERN DRESSAGE
We now have “dressage horses,” and the best “dressage horses” are warmbloods who have been bred to conform to dressage standards; conversely, dressage standards reward those horses which so conform.
I’ve had two warmbloods on whom I did very well. Then I started showing my thoroughbred in dressage because my star warmblood became chronically lame. This horse, Spectacular Leap, has been a love of my life whom I purchased to be my jumping horse. He got converted late in life to dressage competition at age 16 when circumstances indicated I would have to do this to further my competition goals. We did well but not great. I distinctly remember one dressage test the scores of which clearly struck me as showing a bias against my horse because of his breed and way of going. Thoroughbreds like Arabian horses are flatter movers to accommodate the primary work they were bred to do — the former track racing, the latter long distance endurance.
I now have my lovely and talented P.R.E .stallion. Then I remember a dear friend of mine saying,
“What about the trot?” “Well, what about it?” I replied. “He trots.”
I told her I followed my heart, not convention; that I can train the necessary warmblood trot on him (I was thinking of the purpose of dressage anyway) and that P.R.E.’s are known for their ability to collect. I had accomplished work at the lower levels of dressage and bought my P.R.E. to help me with the upper levels where collection becomes more of a requirement. Another friend told me,
“So is extension.”
He can extend too. But the issue was can he extend the way warmbloods do it. I am aware that we were now getting into the area of fad.
Just the other day my trainer, Joel Sheridan, and I trailered my stallion over to a neighbor’s ranch to expose him to other horses and let him see some new sights. While Joel was riding him, he began to demonstrate the kind of wonderful trot that is devoid of fad and bias but rather showed the classical pure gait that Podhajsky would be proud of. The trot was gorgeous and energetic, thrusting from behind with the forelegs reaching out in equal symmetry with the hind legs. It was beautiful, a true dressage competition 10 according to my estimation. But it was not passage-like, and that’s the point.
The thing which characterizes the warmblood trot is his ability to hold the suspended period of the gait longer than other breeds. This has been bred into the horse. The trot is a two-beat gate with one diagonal pair of legs hitting the ground being one beat, followed a period of suspension after which the other diagonal pair of legs hits the ground; that’s the second beat. The extra milliseconds of suspension gives the horse’s trot that floaty impression. It is unquestionably a show stopper in the competition arena .
But there are also some problems not the least of which is a passage-like trot. As we will see when I get into a discussion of Podhajsky, the emphasis must be on purity of the gaits. A trot must be a trot, a passage a passage and so on. There must not be any cross-over so that the onlooker is confused by what s/he is looking at.
Another problem is how this adoration of the warmblood suspension in the trot when emulated by other breeds becomes a time waster as far as practical work goes. I wouldn’t want my endurance race horse spending time in the air during the suspension phase of the trot only to squander the time we need to go forward to win a race. But this same value may not carry over into the dressage competition arena where the emphasis becomes one’s horse’s ability to wow the judges with a suspended trot regardless of whether or not this ability serves any useful purpose.
This leads me to the question,
“Don’t dressage horses have some other job that they need dressage for to help them do better?”
P.R.E.’s were battle and bull fighting horses. Now they excel in working equitation, a sport from Portugal, which combines a dressage test with ease of handling and speed trial to continue to test their ability to do the work they were culturally bred for throughout the ages.
CONCLUSION AND CALL TO ACTION
Classical dressage theory is behind the pursuit of the well ridden, versatile horse. Understanding this theory has worth for every horse regardless of discipline. I will continue in succeeding articles to build on that understanding, its history and practical application.
I would appreciate the reader’s comments on this article below. Please tell me what you think.