Is there really any need to ride classically today? After all these concepts go back to 400 BC. Do we not know more about riding now than then? The short answer is: you would think so, but the truth is that we've made more progress with computers in the last 25 years than any advance in equitation over the last 2,500 years!
One of my favourite quotes is this from Alois Podhajsky, former Director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna:
"The well-founded doctrines of the old riding masters are frequently rejected today with the remark that these methods are old-fashioned and not applicable in our present times, which demand quick success. And what is the result of this fast training? The standard has declined until the once so beautiful movements have become caricatures of what they were. And yet a performance of the highest standards must be built up step by step and on a well-founded basis. I have learned by experience that today's riders may indeed rely upon the teachings of our predecessors, for they are of invaluable help in the reasonable development of this sport. If a rider thinks that he has found a new method he may be sure that if it is any good he has come upon it by instinct or by chance and that it was practised long ago by the old masters
What follows is a conversation between two people discussing the merits of classical riding today and musing on: Why is there such a gulf between Classical Dressage— often referred to as art— and Competition Dressage— a sport?
The Way GP Horses Look Today Versus Fifty Years Ago
(A) To me the competitors of the W.W.II era were beautiful: quiet, soft riders on Warmbloods, TB's, Anglo-Arabs, Connemara crosses or whatever, all horses that still look like normal horses for whatever their basic body type was, going through the upper level movements calmly, with happy-looking horses and a light, easy attitude as if they were just "taking a walk in the park" together.
(B) That's my definition of beautiful, too. Happy horses, dancing happily, relaxed and enjoying their work. They always have this wonderful smooth topline and a lovely, sleek but not bulky musculature. Doesn't matter what breed.
(A So the first question is: if the W.W.II era riders and today's riders are doing the same "movements" but the W.W.II riders could get a not-very-well-conformed horse to do it with minimal bulky muscle development, whereas today's horses look like they are on (or are on) steroids, what has changed in the training that we have apparently made it so much harder for the horses to do the same movements?
The larger question to my mind, however, is why "classical" dressage and "competition" dressage have moved so far apart in the last 50 years. When you read about the development of competitive dressage, it seems that the decline in cavalry school riding and the rise in dressage-for-itself should have brought classical and competitive dressage together. In fact, the opposite has happened, as competitive dressage has (to my mind) has gradually developed an extreme aesthetic that may even be incompatible with classical riding ...
(B) Money is a big factor--it's not cost-effective to take the amount of time it takes to train a horse classically. You either have to be a truly dedicated amateur with extra cash, or a well-subsidized trainer with a die-hard belief in classical training AND sponsors who are patient enough to let him take the time. Many classical trainers (real ones, not trainers who failed in competition and now call themselves "classical"--what they really are is plain bad) will skip training and first level because that vertical headset requires too much compromise and some retraining when the horse arrives at collection. So they'll start at second or third level, where it's easier to get by with a correct, classically trained outline. What I have heard, from people have been or are there, is that if your FEI horse is truly classically trained, -and- has the spectacular gaits that are now in vogue, you can clean up big time. But you have to get there, and you have to be a bit intractable about the temptations and shortcuts of the lower levels. Plus it helps to play the politics, know the right people, cultivate the right judges, get your name in the right places. You have to know how to play the game, and play it superbly. Do that, and your classical horse will do extremely well. Or so I'm told.
(A) The (then) top riders (Werth, Anky, etc.) are" always pushing for a ten" in each movement, even at the risk of creating resistance, whereas Klimke "settled for a six or seven" if that is all he thought he could accomplish with a relaxed horse I found this comment very disturbing, because it suggested a mentality of hyping the horse up, or pushing it beyond its physical limits, to get more "expression," which seems very unclassical in spirit regardless of whether the riding is technically correct.
(B)I've been taught the same thing. But at the same time, my teachers said that true brilliance, and true correctness, in a truly talented horse, will blow the over faced horse away. It's a balance between what the horse will do and what it can do, and the classical rider always opts for the horse's side of it. Klimke won plenty (he died, sadly, a little while ago), and was still winning up to the end, so he wasn't -that- much at a disadvantage.
If quiet riding on a relaxed horse can only get you a "six or seven" in modern competition, then that raises a lot of questions for me. Is de Kunffy correct when he states that a classically trained horse under a fine rider who performs well will be victorious? Or would that rider have to push the horse in a way you should not do to a friend in order to win at top levels?
(A Well, if you truly are dedicated to the goal of winning, there will come times when you have a choice between the horse and the prize. This is where the classical rider may lose the win, because he'll back off for the horse's sake. BUT, look at it this way: if he's good enough to make the tops in the world, even if he takes a tenth instead of a first...hasn't he still, in a fashion, won? We've lost to a great extent the idea that it's an honour just to -be- at that level. Now everybody has to get the gold, and the one who's won silver kvetches and moans and has to put up with all the hype about the "disappointment." Hel-looooo. This person is second in the world. There are how many hundreds and thousands of riders who --aren't.- But that's another soapbox.
Finally, are those of us (including me) who want to ride classically but still compete, just fooling ourselves? Is the right solution to bow out of competition, as most classical masters have done? Or should we take seriously the spirit of competition being done to benefit the horse's training and become more vocal about pushing for standards and judging at every level that reflect the classical ethic?
(B YES to that last. I don't think bowing out is the answer--there are too many mushrooms who couldn't cut it, infesting the ranks of the soi-disant "classical" camp as it is. Mind you I hate competing, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that if we want to teach, we have to teach by example. There are ways to play the game so that our different methods and (often) different types of horses can do well. It's up to us to learn them, and practice them, while doing our best not to compromise our classical principles. It ain't easy, but I think it's got to be done. I haven't competed in years. At the moment I have nothing -to- compete. But I Have Plans. Yes I do. I feel strongly that the time is coming for us classical types to put our money where our mouths are, and if we want to change the way competition works--we have to do it by competing. Not by standing off to the side snarling and shaking our fingers. Not by inventing our own tests and competitions (which will always look like consolation prizes for horses that couldn't play with the big kids). By being right in there, putting ourselves in a position to make changes. It can be done. Remember all the screaming when the stretchy-chewy circle and the Ueberstreichen appeared in the US tests? Those movements were incorporated by the classical faction among the test-writers. They're subversive and they're evil and they're wonderful --because they're all about catching the short-cutters, the draw-rein trainers, and the rest of the incorrect-dressage camp. We need -more- of this. We need more educated judges, and more competitors who are themselves educated, who persevere even through prejudice and misunderstanding. That's how I feel about it, anyway. Your mileage may vary.
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Classical Dressage Notebook