What style of riding is the right ‘path’ for you?

Before we attempt to answer this odd question, it is good to remember that the style of riding you choose to employ is mostly dictated by what you wish to do with your horse; tack, clothing and training methods all follow.

Most experienced riders tend to try to steer other riders to follow their path. After all, if they didn’t think it was the best way to ride they wouldn’t do it would they? The problem with this is there are many very different activities done on horseback and while there are clearly some ‘truths’ about horses and their training, the broader methods of riding and training can vary greatly.

Dressage for instance, dictates a specific seat, one that I prefer because it follows the principles I personally find important. But the same could be said of Jumping, working cattle, racing, etc. I have to constantly remind myself that “my way”, while correct for my goals, is not for everyone.
I am as guilty as anyone of saying things like, “That is the wrong way to ride because it makes it harder to do ………” The answer is of course “I don’t do ………” Lately, I try to phrase it as “Unless you are going to be doing ………, it might be better for you to ride this way.” or “I understand you learned to ride a different way, but this is the way the horse is trained.”

Oddly, I have concluded that most riders don’t give much thought to what they want to accomplish beyond “I want to ride as well as he does.” Never stopping to think that what “he” does is not really what they do in a practical sense, they are just impressed with the horsemanship they see.

Same goes for horse choices often. “Oh honey, I want a Friesian. Just look at it, that is the perfect horse” Perfect for what they never ask themselves. It is an abstract thing for them.

So how to choose?

European cavalry instructors of the 1700s often broke riding into three levels; utilitarian, campaign, and high school. By this they meant the skills of general riding, military riding and upper level ‘dressage’. They noted that not all horses nor all riders were suited to all levels of riding. The same can be said today, though we would likely replace ‘military riding’ with ‘performance riding’.

Historically speaking, people have learned to ride in the form that is popular where we live and at the time they are living. Horse breeding, riding style, tack and even fashion was dictated so. As an example, before the 18th century, riders in England rode in saddles with high cantles and pommels and ‘hunting’ was a matter of riding well across open areas or through fields and wielding weapons. Collection and agility were key and the horse breeding and training reflected that. After the land reforms in England that allowed land owners to fence off their lands with walls or hedges, hunting changed to a sport where you needed to be able to cover large distances and jump so everything changed, saddle, tack, horse conformation and training, to accommodate the new style of riding.

Tracing the paths of development you can clearly see how riding has evolved to the needs of the times. It is only recently that we as riders have had a choice as to how we want to ride; what activities we find interesting; what skills we need to teach our horses. Because today we have a situation that is relatively new to the horse world. We have the ability to pick the riding form we want to pursue from a vast array of disciplines from throughout time and from any place on earth. Today riding is a leisure activity and not a requirement of daily life, so we can try out hands and any number of differing activities. It is these choices that should dictate our selection of riding style, tack, horse and the instruction we seek.

For instance, I feel those truly interested in the ‘Western Style’ of riding and with a preference for stock horses would likely as not be better served with the true Vaquero methods of riding and training, than by the Classical Dressage form I personally prefer to ride on more baroque horses. The Vaquero form of riding would seem more familiar to those who began riding western and since this style of riding has strong roots in Classical riding, it can achieve good results as they relate to what is commonly done by these riders; stock work or western games.

I say this because I still feel that the ‘classical’ way is still the best way to achieve the height of harmony and connection with the horse. Many are put off by the ‘style’ of dressage, saddles, tack, etc. but that does not mean that they must eschew everything it has to offer.

With horses I feel there are still more wrong ways to do things than right, but ‘right’ for one activity is sometimes not as right for another. So there are some forms of riding that I believe are better than other and some I think are just wrong, period, full stop.

The saying is “There are many roads to Rome.” Many seek paved ones with clearly painted signs that lead quickly to their destination as they see it. Today there are many ‘branded’ methods one can pick from, which promote themselves as ‘simple’ methods to train the horse and rider, the promise just that.

As a friend recently said to me ” I think it is a product of our modern age. We want to “get it now” and our time is so limited. Time and money are limited. I think that most horse folks would rather be working with their horses than dealing with their “day job” but the bills have to be paid!” It is true that few of us are lucky enough to have the time to follow the training of the old Masters as it takes a lot of time and dedication.

For many, riding and training horses are matters of essentially learning a new language before they can even start to learn what is being said to them. For many of these folk, one or another modern clinician might be a good place to start. After all you have to know the alphabet before you can even spell your name. Why make it harder on yourself then you need to? I looked at this approach myself many years ago and gained some very useful information, well before I chose the classical path.

A good clinician/trainer will tell you to seek our knowledge outside their instruction because the art is far more complex and has much greater depth than they can teach in simplest terms.

There is no doubt at all that the classical path is difficult to follow. It is not paved and sometimes it is even hard to see that there is a path, but it contains so much old knowledge that has been forgotten or is overlooked by those speeding by on the highway of modern training I find it the most rewarding thing I have ever attempted.

I encourage you to give serious thought to what you want to accomplish in your equestrian life and then seek the best path for you.

As Philippe Karl says “It is not what you do, but how you do a thing that is classical or not.”