I always hate to disappoint my readers, but this post may raise more questions than it provides answers. There exists no single definition or understanding of ‘Classical’ with regard to riding. Many have tried, and many definitions are very close to each other – but that is only at a high, aspirational level. When it gets down to anything concrete, deviations abound. This is where the ‘art’ of riding comes in – there may be agreed upon styles, but each artist is unique in their interpretation and practice.
I have witnessed countless arguments between people who all claim to be ‘Classical’ yet clearly have different viewpoints on what exactly that means when it comes to a movement, style, or training approach. Although we have a romantic notion that ‘Classical’ is a timeless type of riding and training that dates back to Xenophon, it’s just not that simple. (Some Classical folks have likely pulled the daggers out at that statement!)
First, there is the basic question of to what you are referring as ‘Classical’. Dressage? Riding? Horsemanship? Then there are the details such as time period (16th century? 20th?) and country (Portugal? France? Austro-Hungarian Empire?). It is difficult to know if you are following the principles of something that cannot be clearly defined!
Let’s take the example of Gustav Steinbrecht, the posthumous author of The Gymnasium of the Horse. Ask anyone in a Classical group what books should be in your library, and this is likely to be on everyone’s list. Yet, many of these same people follow the teachings of Baucher and his disciples. Here is just some of what Steinbrecht wrote of Baucher:
…Mr. Baucher, who, with the audacity of his claims and the enormity of his promises, has brought the entire equestrian work into uproar and confusion. His method consists of gradually and cunningly robbing the horse of its natural power, which Mr. Baucher considers to be the enemy, and to thus make it subservient. … His method should be called the backwards system. Having haunted the equestrian world long enough, it has finally, to the relief of all horsekind, been banned to where it really belongs: the circus.The Gymnasium of the Horse, Pg. 49, The Purpose of Dressage
It is clear, throughout Steinbrecht’s work, that he had no affection for Baucher. Yet, both are considered masters in the Classical art of riding.
If you view riding as we historically viewed academic art, where there are some basic guidelines, but a lot of individual variation, this can be a more understandable conflict. Art masters of old were known to argue about details of technique, even if their artwork was equally appreciated. Different styles lived side by side, each with their own practitioners and followers. Sadly, we have only the rare etching to show us anything of either Steinbrecht’s or Baucher’s training results, as equestrian art does not survive the artist. So we can only surmise from Steinbrecht’s reaction to Baucher that the two were very far apart in their methods.
On the subjects of time and country, we get into the purpose which the training was intended to serve. I know of some Classical horsemen who skew toward the age of chivalry as their focus. Others, who follow schools from Spain or Portugal, inherit the bullfighting ring as being behind some of the methods they adhere to. The likes of Steinbrecht and Baucher were influenced by the requirements of what was then the modern cavalry. Many have studied the history of the various schools far more than I, but I can see the clear differences and their results in the horse’s training.
So, what exactly is ‘Classical’? Merriam-Webster has among the definitions of ‘classical’:
- standard, classic
- authoritative, traditional
- of or relating to a form or system considered of first significance in earlier times
Any of those could apply to the various lines of ‘Classical’ I mentioned above. But more interesting to me, in this context, are the definitions when you drill-down into ‘classic’:
- serving as a standard of excellence: of recognized value
- traditional, enduring
This brings me to the definition of ‘Classical’ that I adhere to, provided by W. Museler in Riding Logic.
The classical art of riding is not a set of fixed precepts, any more than Baroque or Renaissance styles are defined by particular ornamentation or architectural guidelines. It must be looked at as a complete entity representing all objectives and the paths to these objectives in the art of riding. The classical art of riding might best be defined as the method of training that seeks to establish the most complete rapport between horse and rider in the most natural way possible and with the utmost consideration for the horse. It rejects totally everything that contradicts nature, artificiality and artificial paces.Riding Logic, pg. 66, Basic views on Dressage
“Rapport … with the utmost consideration for the horse” sums up what has guided my riding and training journey. It is also how I judge others. It makes no difference to me if you train in the methods that served chivalry, or was just for show in the courts of the 17th century. What I look for is a horse who is at peace in his work. But opinions abound, often leading to judgements of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the range of what falls under the ‘Classical’ heading.
There are always differences of opinion in every field. Just as lawyers and doctors who are considered eminent in their fields often form different judgements from each other, so do riding authorities, and, after all, it must be borne in mind that riding is not like mathematics which deals in fixed and immutable measurements and quantities, but is concerned with feeling, temperament and capability of horse, rider and instructor: in other words, with qualities that are not absolute.Riding Logic, pg. 66, Basic views on dressage
Again, Museler speaks for me in this aspect. Disagreement is inevitable. I love a good debate on whether Trainer A’s piaffe is more to my liking than Trainer B’s – but too often those discussions devolve into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ based upon which school one was trained in. Preference is one thing, but ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ only come into it for me when there is clear discomfort or damage to the horse. Certain qualities are a given in anything that purports to be classical. For example, the nose must be in front of vertical in piaffe, and the landed front leg vertical. However, there is variation in how much ‘sit’ a horse may show, height the legs lift to, speed of steps, and other qualities in the movement. I have preferences – but those are just my preferences until I see something that is truly harmful to the mind or body of the horse (sadly too frequent in modern competition).
Here are three classical riders doing piaffe. There are clear differences, and I have seen arguments over variations in hoof height, hip angle, where the lifted hind hoof is pointing. Yet all are arguably correct, with slight variations down to style, breed, and technique.
My personal taste in “Classical” runs toward methods that came out of the German cavalry school of the first half of the 20th century. That is likely due to the fact that most of my instructors came from that tradition. It is in the writings of the likes of Museler and Udo Burger that I find techniques and philosophy that resonate with me the most. That does not stop me from looking at many other schools and styles of riding. Even if I find things I don’t want to adopt, it helps me to understand where others are coming from when we discuss a given movement or technique.
I don’t think there will ever be a definition of ‘Classical’ that will satisfy everyone. I am comfortable in asserting that what we see in modern competition is a far cry from anything that could be labeled ‘Classical’ – tension, pain, and incorrect biomechanics abound in that arena. Beyond that, you are free to choose your flavor of ‘Classical’.
Whatever school, style, or period you follow, just remember that it is not the only one that might fit the ‘Classical’ label. When you encounter someone who follows a different style, try to evaluate it on the attitude of the horse. Ask the person (if you can) about their method and the sources of their learning. Try to understand their approach. At best, you might learn something. At the least, you will understand more about their technique and can have even more engaging discussions.
There is no single path to a classically trained horse, but the final goal is always a willing partner, alert but calm, and made more beautiful in form and movement than Nature’s creation of him.