What is Classical?

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!)

From the Parthenon, created in the era of Xenephon

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

Portion of etching of Antoine de Pluvinel, 1552-1620

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.

Richard Waetjen
Nuno Oliveira
Alois Podhajsky

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.

Aside from the uniform, I love this unknown pair from Udo Burger’s “The Rider Forms the Horse” – light contact on a well developed, calm yet alert horse.

7 replies

  1. Acclimating a horse to our human demands is all too often glossed over by all schools of dressage. Most books on dressage and the progression of competitive dressage tests assume that schooling starts with a horse accustomed to bit, saddle and carrying the weight of a rider. Ignoring the crucial first year of acclimating young horses to humans and hardening their back and legs so they stay sound under saddle assumes that there is a knowledgeable stable master preparing the young horse.
    Baucher addressed that grey area of starting a horse that was and often still is the domain of the stablehands. His insight into the physiology of the horse was remarkable. He did successfully demonstrate that he could have the dregs of the French cavalry, man and horse, able to perform maneuvers in one hundred days.
    The flaw in his method, as the French Cavalry manual points out, is that any method of schooling that does not include physical conditioning is fundamentally flawed as the horses are soon unsound. However, conditioning a horse so they can carry a rider without harm takes time and knowledge. Having the time to acquire and apply the knowledge takes money. And Baucher made himself unpopular in large part because he set out to democratize fine horsemanship.
    The class prejudice is explicit. Even the French cavalry manual that had incorporated many of Baucher’s ideas by the early 20th century still stated that an officer’s presence and horsemanship is part of his command. The cavalry manual advised that actual cavalry troopers not be taught principles or theory of horsemanship. The stated policy was that an officer should be able to hold his command of his troops thru his presence and exceptional control of his horse. This was especially important in actual combat.
    Even the circus insult is more about class than horsemanship. In Europe Travelors or landless Gypsies who lived with their horses on the road were the only ones able to devote time and energy to their horses outside of aristocratic stables. They could and did make some money by showing off their skills on horseback.
    Despite his insights, Baucher’s legacy is still problematic. In the USA it has resulted in people accepting 90 day wonders crippled before they ever mature produced thru ‘natural’ horsemanship and ‘western dressage’ . Those schools are unaware that they are bastardizing Baucher’s exercises without really understanding their context or theory because the exercise were passed down by troopers taught the what without the why.

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    • There are actually many older works that address the early life and education of the horse, prior to specific training. But they are not as valued by the Dressage crowd, as they devote as much time to general topics of Horsemanship as they do to the Dressage movements.

      The passing down of knowledge is always sketchy. Two students of the same teacher can take away two different lessons. If you add in the fact that they aren’t given the why (a problem that has only gotten worse from those cavalry days) then you get truly corrupted interpretations.

      Baucher is problematic for me, as I have only read his early work and did not like it. I have to get the later material as I hear it is better. But, you are right – I see too many today who say they follow Baucher who create horrific results.

      Great information and perspective! Thanks for posting it!

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      • Baucher’s second method is available at no cost online. It is worth the read just to see his perspective.

        I have not found much on much on starting horses in texts pre-WWII. Since most stable hands were illiterate until very recently even the texts that address stable and pasture management, breeding and acclimating and conditioning young horses do so from the point of view of the literate owner delegating tasks not from place of the day to day hands on dirty work. If you know of an exception I’d love to have the title.

        As for horse books written since WWII…they fall far short of what the horse actually needs. I recently came across a study finding three- quarters of the riding horses examined were clinically lame AND their riders did not notice! Clearly the modern horse industry needs a serious revamping.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I will dig through the library. Many of the works don’t go into detail on the early work – but talk about the young horses’ early life, growing up in the field, early handling, how to accustom them to the stable, etc. Written by the elite trainer, but at least some of them recognizing the importance of that early handling. Rare, indeed – and all were pre-WWII.

        Sad to say that starting young horses is a long lost art! I could go on and on with that subject! From the most basic skills no one teaches any more, to the fact that past masters didn’t even touch collection until a horse was under saddle for two years. Topic for a future post … or ten. 😉

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      • That’s why I agreed to write a series on starting the horse and rider for the many equine associates degree programs them myself and went ahead and e-published when the publisher flaked out on me. Describing what how and why for the reader who has grown up on video games not horses was a real mind-bender!

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      • I bet! I think there is so much in childhood interactions with horses (becoming all too rare) that are difficult to replace or explain. And most people now see the horse more as a tool, ready made for their use. It reminds me of people who can’t understand why their dog doesn’t just come knowing how to sit or walk on a leash! Little thought to the amount of education it actually requires for them to navigate in a human-made world.

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