Past Is Not Perfect

Hang around a Classical riding group for any amount of time and you will learn two things: horsemen of the past were all knowing, and horsemen of today are an abomination to classical riding principles. An exaggeration, perhaps, yet close to what many experience when joining those groups. But is it true?

I often see new ‘converts’, who have accepted the idea that most modern Dressage is bad for the horse and are now pursuing classical knowledge, call into question something they see in a vintage video or photo. Many times they refer to what they have already learned – the horse is behind the vertical, the parotid gland is compressed, the neck is ‘broken’ at the third/fourth vertebrae, the back appears to be dropped, etc. I applaud those comments, as it shows they are trying to apply what they are learning. But too often those comments are shot down as ignorant, because the person in the images or video is a much revered horseman of the past, and therefore cannot be compared to modern riders. I ache for the learner who receives such a response, because it is sure to shut down conversation, and therefore all learning opportunity. It is for these very people that I write this post.

An image debated over in a classical group – is the horse’s back dropped, or not?

Wisdom of the Ages

First, let me start by saying that there is a lot of wisdom to be gathered by reading the works of past horsemen. Many had the opportunity few of us do – the luxury of spending a lifetime learning from the horse. Some were employed as royal horse masters, giving them access to the best stock and years to perfect technique. Others came up through the cavalry, again affording them the opportunity to dedicate most of their time to horses. But they were also men with ambitions, jealousies, quirks, egos – and a need to produce a finished product for the chosen purpose. The honest and humble horseman will always admit that they have done things they are not proud of. Who among us – or within human history – is perfect? So there should be no sin in appreciating their skills and contributions, while also keeping an eye open for flaws we might not want to repeat ourselves.


Some in the Classical Dressage world have a myopic relationship with the horsemen they admire from the past, especially those whose names are on everyone’s lips: Steinbrecht, Baucher, Beudant, Fillis, DeCarpentry, just to name a few. There are obvious reasons why these names are well known – just as there are reasons we know names like Mozart, Shakespeare, and Rembrandt. But it cannot be strictly said that they were the most gifted horsemen, then or now (just as with those artists I named). Most of you reading this can probably think of some current famous names in the horse world who you believe are not deserving of their fame – yet the annals of history will show they were popular, published a lot of books, and/or won a lot of medals. Study history in any subject and you realize many talents and accomplishments were left behind, because history is always written by the ‘winners’.

That we know them as important to the history of Classical riding does not mean they were always as we think of them now. They all took a lifelong path, which likely had some turns they later regretted taking. When I was an art student there was far more realistic discussion of pros and cons of any given artist’s body of work, no matter how famous, than I ever see in discussions of the great names in Classical Dressage. Since all we have of many of these horsemen are their words, with nothing but artist’s renderings to really view the ‘art’ they created, we must view their writing in its entirety as the only remnants of their art. Yet, when I wrote my review of The Gymnasium of the Horse, I was told that I was not worthy of reviewing Steinbrecht’s work if I “could not look past” the following quotes from the work.

The jab with the spur is the strongest and most emphatic influence with the spurs. It gives the horse a momentary, intense pain and, by injuring the skin, causes infection and swelling of the parts involved so that, for some time, the sensitivity at that point is even greater.

But even for the most violent and repeated spur jabs, all activity must be limited entirely to movements of the lower legs, up to the knees. Any visible participation of the arms or the upper body is annoying and bad manners.

Pages 10 and 11 (2011 edition)

If we cannot point to such passages as potentially disturbing to a modern audience, in an era where many of us are outraged by blood on the side of a competitive Dressage horse, how are we to have a coherent discussion about Steinbrecht’s work? Can we truly “look past” such lines in a work that is nearly a bible for the Classical community and still claim that we understand the work? Even Heydebreck, who edited an early reprint and was a devout follower of Steinbrecht, made a note that he had removed or reworded many passages that referred to “sharp spurs”, an “iron firm hand”, and “forcefully restraining” the horse. He notes the inconsistencies of these passages to those where Steinbrecht speaks of being kind.

Does that mean I dismiss this work as valueless? Of course not! But if we keep to the idea that Steinbrecht was among the greatest who ever lived (as many do), without recognizing that he appeared to engage in what we now consider cruel practices, we cannot truly understand his work – nor can we stand on firm ground in criticizing those same cruelties when practiced today. Considering that the version of the book we have today was produced by a student of Steinbrecht’s, after his death, and later edited by a student of that student (and for many of us translated from German), it seems even more valid to discuss these inconsistencies as part of this important work.

Etching of Steinbrecht
Gustav Steinbrecht

What Do You See?

When we do have pictorial evidence of a past horseman’s work, it is not always in line with the reputation they have as an idol. This is when you get those brave souls who raise questions, only to be admonished for daring to question one of these hallowed horsemen. Many times I have questioned what I see reflected in the horses, only to be patronizingly told that I do not know a ‘happy horse’ when I see one. Here are two such examples. What do you think?

I make no apologies to anyone for seeing a gaping mouth on any horse as cause for great concern. In these images I see tension and coercion reflected in the bodies of the horses. Are these simply ‘moments in time’ (a defense used for many modern riders, but dismissed by Classical fans)? Perhaps. Could there be reason for those moments? Possibly. Yet the response I’ve gotten has never been, “You’re right, it is disturbing, but it doesn’t fit with what I know of [him].” No, the reaction is always that I have no right to see anything wrong in photos of either of these famous men who are much admired horsemen! Yet, I still viscerally ache for these horses.

Often the argument against modern Dressage is how much damage is done by forcing a horse into hyperflexion – a valid argument against something that is damaging physically and mentally. This is looked upon as a modern invention, not practiced by the quality horsemen of long ago. Yet, when you look at the comparison below, what is the defense for it?

Again, I have had the very same people who will disparage what you see on the left get angry with me when I question the famous horseman on the right. Some have told me he may have been the finest ever, yet offer no explanation or defense for this photo. I find both images equally disturbing, and cannot personally fathom how the difference in a name, or personal feeling about a person, can let one look past highly disturbing treatment of a horse. (I have intentionally left names out of this, though some may recognize those in the images.)

On a less dramatic front, there is the idea of what is “correct” in Dressage. The most common criticism of today’s Dressage competition is that the horses go ‘behind the vertical’. There are a lot of reasons why this is detrimental to the horse – and it is literally against the FEI rules – so it is justified that this criticism tops the list. Yet, again, many who would criticize the photo on the right will defend the photo on the left based only upon the famous horseman in it.

If there is reason why the photo on the left is actually better than the photo on the right, fair enough! Let’s discuss that. But criticism of the man on the left will get you shut out of groups that have spent much energy criticizing the rider on the right. I am neither for nor against either rider – I am only interested in what I see in the horses. From that perspective, I have issues with both photos. I will happily discuss those concerns, welcoming any enlightenment that might come from such discussions. Ironically, supporters of either photo will challenge you to prove you can do better, if you dare to find fault with their hero.

These are people and horses in these images, each with their own virtues and flaws. Perfection is never possible – even good is not always a constant. Would the rider on the left actually defend this as a perfect moment, not worthy of criticism? We cannot know, but I would hope not. The best horsemen I have known have welcomed discussion of their own riding – polite, constructive, and as part of the learning process for the student. Can we not accept the same on their behalf?

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 (Museler)

Keep an Open Mind

By now there will be more than a few Classical fans who are fuming at this piece. I realize that I am treading on hallowed ground for some. However, I hope those who are earlier in their journey, still trying to understand the principles of Classical Horsemanship, have begun to realize that all that is old is not perfect. If you have seen old images or video that made you scratch your head, gain confidence that there was likely good reason for your concerns. So, how to approach Classical masters that were, in fact, only human and prone to flaws? First, keep an open mind. Second, look to the horse for your answers.

When I read the classical works, I look first for things that resonate with my own experience. Does it reflect some feel or response I have been able to elicit in a horse? If it is something new, I assess it against my current horse(s) or horses I have known – does it seem likely to help? Under what circumstances would I use it? To do this, you must realistically assess your skill as well as your horse’s physical and mental state. For example, doing light flexions were helpful with Tally, in trying to rehabilitate her blocking rein actions from her experience with a trainer who created great pain through the reins; however, with Coffee having been started by someone who did nothing but over-flexion, I will not dare to take such actions, and can actually achieve better flexion through working on his body.

I also look for areas of commonality across the works. The value of the shoulder-in is one such clear commonality you will find in all good works. Where the works and methods diverge – and they most certainly diverge in places – again use the horse as your guide. A method that advocates riding the horse more upright from the start would not be my choice for Tally, whose Friesian heritage already gives her an upright neck carriage, but disconnected from a back more suited for carriage work than riding. On the other hand, Coffee’s downhill build, and early training to be curled and low, leads me more toward such a method for him. Classical riding should be about the principles, not the technique – which is why so many older works spend more time on what you are trying to create, and less on how to create it.

… to derive sufficient benefit from the study of the treasure trove of experience contained in the serious literature of horsemanship, one has to recognize the existence , on the one hand, of ‘principles’, which are invariably valid for every horse, and every rider and, on the other hand, of ‘methods’, which are especially applicable to individual cases. Every living creature has a personality, influenced by a multiplicity of factors, and while principles are unchangeable, methods may have to be adapted to special conditions.

Principles of Dressage (Albrecht)

When looking at classic images and video, look first to the horse. What is your overall impression? My next look is always to the horse’s expression – what are their ears and face telling you? Then begin to assess the various aspects – purity of gait, engagement, carriage, rider position and aids, etc. If you like it, try to figure out why you like it. If you don’t like it, determine why you don’t like it. If someone has a different opinion from you, try to find out what they are seeing that you are not. Hopefully they will engage in discussion, and not just shut you down, so you can both learn. Everyone has different areas they focus on, so we can all usually learn from each other, if we make the effort to discuss politely. But if you find you still feel differently from others, try to figure out why. Perhaps you have some experience that the image conjures up – either positive or negative.

Practice by considering these three images, which I used for an earlier piece. Each is someone who is considered a Classical master by some – and each is someone who I have heard at least one Classical fan denigrate as not being truly Classical. (Ironically, I received such contradictory opinions the last time I put these three side by side.) What do you think? Do you like all three of them? Or does one speak to you specifically? Why?

Finally, be charitable when assessing old images and video. Remember that an image is just a moment in time. It can be a mistake, and it equally can be deceiving. I have seen still images that looked good, but when I was able to see the horse and rider in motion, flaws quickly appeared. Also, something you see may not be what that horsemen later advocated. Truly great horsemen evolve over a lifetime. Baucher is reported to have later regretted his earlier work and attempted to correct it later in life. Odds are we all see things differently now than when we started, and will continue to adjust as we learn more.

While I believe that the old works and old masters are important to study, I find complete fidelity to them, and unwillingness to question, very disturbing – not least for the sake of the horse. In the war of opinion over the best horsemen, too often the horses get lost, yet they should be at the center of the questions at all times. Whether in images old and new, or attempting classical methods on your own, let the horse be your guide as to the path you should follow. To that end, I leave you with this – still my favorite definition of “classical 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 (Museler)

4 replies

  1. Yes! Thoughtful discussion that considers the context and the horse is vital. For example:
    One of the differences in the two photos you chose to illustrate ‘behind the vertical’ is the tension on the snaffle reins. In the contemporary photo, the snaffle rein is taut and nearly the whole bar of the snaffle is visible. IThe older photo shows the rider using the curb reins alone, no tension at all on the snaffle. The snaffle may be used to ask the horse to elevate their head, the curb to ‘break at the poll, so I wonder if the next image would show the rider requesting the elevation with the snaffle.
    The nose-band in the contemporary photo appears tight enough to keep the horse from opening its mouth. I cannot tell if there is a nose-band on the bridle of the earlier photo. I’d rather see a horse free to open their mouth when their rider’s heavy hands cause them discomfort rather then have their mouth strapped shut so their misery can be ignored.
    For the ‘evidence based’ trainers, yep there is evidence that just plain nose-bands are all too often cranked tight enough to cause permanent bone damage, never mind the damage done by mechanical hackamores, crosspulls etc:
    I do not know the fate of the horse in the earlier photo but I believe that the contemporary photo is of a horse that was retired from competition due to suspensory ligament injuries. Tendon and ligament injuries in dressage and reining horses who normally work on manicured level footing in the schooling/show arena tend to be the result of repetitive mild strains that can be ignored until the horse is too lame to work. Such strains are usually a combination of conformation, conditioning and schooling.
    So my questions become: is the horse built for the work being asked of him, has the horse been brought into condition to carry a rider and does their schooling respect that individual horse’s conformation and history?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Discussion … what a wonderful concept! The points you make about the photos are good ones, yet too often on social media such an opportunity for discussion is shut down and education is missed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the ability to engage in debate and often jump right in constantly advocating for free and open speech.

    In fact once I’m over my newest 30 day FB suspension I’ll be doing so again.

    Liked by 2 people

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