Some years ago I came to the realization that my journey in pursuit of ‘classical horsemanship’ had taken an interesting turn as a result of a conflict between what I thought I already ‘knew to be true’ and what I was starting to see when I watched more skilled riders. At this time I had been struggling with bouts of insomnia and passing many sleepless nights watching video of several different riders, all of whom professed to follow a ‘classical horsemanship’ method, but were slightly different from one another. These differences did not surprise me particularly as every rider puts a degree of themselves into their riding, even if they are trained by the same person. Additionally, each rider comes to a different understanding even when they hear or read the exact same words. especially if you are dealing with English translations of works originally written in some other language. As the line from a Tom Stoppard play states, “You understand, we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style.”  So knowing all this, what was the conflict? To explain this I have to put things into context a bit.

Years ago I began my first dressage training with an instructor whose background was mostly competitive dressage.  In my attempt to be a good student and having little dressage knowledge of my own, I simply tried to do as she told me. While under her instruction I did become a better rider, but there were aspects of what I was being taught that just ‘felt wrong’. As I progressed in my training, I began to notice that most of the time when something I was be told did not quite ring true, it was when I was being told what I would need to do to score well.  “The judges will be looking for this.” or “That will get you marked down.” Every time I heard something like this it invariably accompanied something that felt forced, arbitrary and just frankly wrong. My instructor kept assuring me it was what I needed to do if I wanted to score well and after all, “That was what dressage was all about right?”

Eventually I went to my first dressage schooling show, which also turned out to be my last; I hated it. On my score sheet the judge’s comments included “Fine horse. Would have scored much higher if the rider had cared at all.” Now the comments of the judges on a dressage test are intended to help you by pointing out things they felt you need to improve, issues you may not even know you have and this one was right on the money. I didn’t care how I scored. I only cared how I felt when I rode and much of what I was being told to do to score well, didn’t feel right.

I did not know it at the time, but I had just begun my search for the “academic” path. I began looking at everything I saw through the lens of my current understanding of what would be best for both horse and rider. At that time this took the form of a rejection of ‘Dressage’ as done in competition and a similar rejection of ‘Western’ riding, also as done if competition; which led to a trip down the ‘Natural Horsemanship’ rabbit hole.

In the years that followed I tried my hand at a number of different riding methods in my search for something that felt right. In those early years I, like many inexperienced riders, fell into a pattern I have come to call “Nexpert Syndrome”; the habit of moving from one ‘expert’ to the next, because something they did caught my eye or captured my imagination or simply fooled me into thinking they had a better way of doing things. During this time I ‘knew’ I was closer to the right path with each subsequent change in direction, even when these changes were often radically different from the last time I ‘knew’ something was right.  Looking back, I don’t feel I was being foolish or particularly gullible, there was just so much I did not know and so many people trying to sell me, often literally, on the fact that they had the answers I was seeking.  It is an easy trap to fall into, particularly if the person is charismatic and seems to be truly convinced they are right.

When one is early (or even not so early) in their journey in the art of horsemanship one doesn’t even know enough to know how much they don’t know. How are we expected to recognize when this same situation exists in the person who is teaching us? It is only after we have made a certain level of progress and gained a degree of experience that we can start to effectively use our intuition as a tool in determining whether or not the clinician we are watching even understands what they are trying to sell us. It was a long time before I was able to recognize that oft times the person I was watching was just paraphrasing the words of a better horseman that they had heard or read, which in itself is not necessarily a problem. What was a problem was that while what they were saying might be completely correct, what they were actually doing with the horse bore little resemblance to this spoken truth.

Now I do believe that most people out there teaching, holding clinics, making videos, and writing books, do so with the honest intent of passing on the wisdom they have acquired. However there are also a few I believe are being intentionally disingenuous as they sell overly simplified techniques that they know full well fall far short of the reality of what they are actually doing themselves. The intentionally deceptive I can typically spot, it is the true believer that proved to be a problem for me.

So for a time I attended clinics and watched videos by a number NH practitioners and for a while I thought I had found ‘my way’. Working in concert with the horse’s nature and forming a partnership to achieve a harmonious relationship with the horse, what could be missing from that? Well for me, what was missing was any real performance improvement. I was not becoming a better rider really, not from a performance standpoint and my horses were not becoming stronger, more capable or more balanced. I came to believe what was absent from this ‘working with the nature of the horse’ was any real understanding of the physical nature of the horse and how best to maximize that. Sure in ‘Natural Horsemanship’ there as a lot of emphasis on the evolved emotional and even psychological nature of the horse and taking them into consideration in the training, but often very little accurate understanding of the biomechanical nature of the horse. It was a way to train happy trail horse but not particularly effective at training a happy but still accomplished performance horse. What I wanted was a form of ‘Natural Horsemanship’ that took in to account and addressed what was best for the performance horse, in a mental, emotional and physical sense. Do you know what the ‘Classical Masters’ would call that kind of ‘Natural Horsemanship’? Horsemanship.  

So it was at this point that I really started reading the works of the old masters of the horse, Xenophon, Cavendish, Guérinière, Pluvinel, Monteton, L’Hotte, Baucher, Steinbrecht and as many others I could find translated into English. In these books I found a universe of wisdom I didn’t know existed. My understanding of what I was reading barely scratched the surface and the depths beneath seemed beyond anything I could ever fully grasp. I began to perceive that the study of this form of Academic Horsemanship would be lifeline journey. On this journey there are many way points and many directions, but no final destination.

I began to believe that modern riders have nearly universally abandoned this wisdom and that it was truly a lost art. The more I saw of ‘English Riding’ competitions the more I rejected what I was told about ‘head set’ and putting the horse ‘on the bit’ and the rest. To me this was mostly ‘grab and jab’ riding and I wanted nothing to do with it. Don’t even get me started on what I thought of competitive ‘Western’ riding. What was the result? I was left believing that there were very few modern riders who followed the ‘true’ teaching of the historical masters; that most were just caricatures of what the Masters envisioned in their treatises. 

However, in my push back against what I saw as completely wrong about modern competitive riding, I missed out on a simple understanding that was vital; by rejecting completely what I was seeing being done badly by so many, I was trying to recreate what I thought was the intent of the masters, while being in no way like what I was seeing in competition. This is quite simply not possible. It was not possible because the techniques I had rejected out of hand in modern dressage were actually just methods based on very different interpretations of the teachings of the same masters. This ‘everything they are doing is wrong’ viewpoint caused me to stagnate again in my training. 

Fortunately I eventually realized that there are still people following the methods of the original masters in ways that I could intuitively see were right, though few of them were competitive rider. I had to find those riders who put the well-being of the horse ahead of the quest for trophies and prize money, modern master like Nuno Oliveira and Philippe Karl and yes, even riders who did compete but still follow what I view as an unadulterated classical path like Pedro Torres.

Which brings us back to the sleepless nights when I sat and really watched those videos of the men I just mentioned, and other men and women; riders in a variety of activities, who are on the path I wish to follow. I was able to see in their riding what the ideals of the historical masters looks like when being done right and I able to perceive the tiny differences that have tremendous impact on the art.  Since then I have been trying to put away my preconceptions and not allow my early negative experiences prevent me from recognizing the good when I see it, regardless of riding discipline and to strive to master that good, rather than simply reject the bad.

The Specifics

There are many aspects of dressage that people hold differing views about; I know, massive understatement. From what bit to use and how to hold the reins, to where the leg is placed in reinback and countless other things. I could write several books detailing them and never address them all, but the one that I have been thinking about the most in the past year has to do with the ‘cycle of energy’ that flows between the horse and rider in ideal riding.

This cycle starts when the riders calves are used to engage the horse’s hind legs to step under and drive forward, the energy then circles up from the hind feet, through the abdominal muscles, lifting the back, through the withers and over the crest of the neck to the poll, where it continues to circle down through the horses head to the bit, then up through the reins to the rider’s hands, lifting the shoulders, raising the withers and elevating the neck.  This is the way I believe one should seek collection.

The more engaged the hind legs are under the horse, the greater the percentage of the total horse and rider weight carried on these stronger limbs and less on the weaker front legs. The more the abdominal muscles are used and the back raised, the better the horse is able to support the rider. The more directly the flow can follow the spine of the horse from withers to poll in a consistent, natural arc, the ‘rounder’ and flexible the entire frame of the horse becomes. A relaxed poll and jaw and mouth allow the flow of energy to continue around to the bit, where a flexible, gentle contact through the reins allows the rider to elevate the horses withers and neck. The more elevated the neck without losing its natural ‘roundness’ the more the balance of the horse and rider is shifted back. Then when the energy is cycled through the relaxed muscles of the rider’s, arm, shoulder, back, seat, then legs, where the calves again ask the horse to engage and now step even further under itself because the general rounding of the horse has lengthened the topline while shortening the bottomline, and the elevation of the shoulder neck has shifted the center of gravity further back. This cycle of energy leads the horse to collection. Simple right?

Here is the problem. If any part of the cycle is not working correctly, the flow of energy is blocked. So, if hind legs and trailing out behind the horse only pushing forward instead of also engaging and lifting, the energy does not start. If the horse is not freely moving through its rib cage, using its abdominal muscles or lifting its back, the energy does not flow. If the neck is inverted or over bent, the energy does not flow. If the horse is ridged or too open at the poll or the jaw is clenched, the energy does not flow. If the rider has too little, too much or inflexible contact through the reins, the energy does not flow. If the rider is poorly placed I the saddle, or tense in one or more sets of muscles… well I think you get the point.

Ideally, for this cycle of energy to be exist the rider must be in the correct seat position and have a suppleness, balance, relaxation and poise. The horse must be able to work in a swinging tempo and free of mental or physical tension which allows the energy of the hind legs to be guided forward, through the back and neck, to the bit. The rider must be able have a receiving as well as directing contact that the horse OFFERS, not what is forced on it, as well as be able to communicate with the horse through his seat, legs and reins. The horse must have little to no asymmetry, good spinal alignment and equal loading and swinging forward of the legs. Finally, the horse has to have been developed to allow the needed carrying, lifting and thrusting power of the haunches.  

As you can probably guess, all this takes a great deal of time to develop and each horse will be stronger in some areas than others.  Achieving the whole package in perfection may never be possible for most horses, but any horse can be made better by seeking it. What we must do is make a conscious effort to address each of these factors to the best of our ability and to the level the horse is capable of giving.

A horse and rider working like this have certain visual aspects. There is the arched neck and head near the vertical with a supple and relaxed contact through the bit to hands resting low, the forehand is elevated while the haunches come more under and the balance is shifted rearward. However the frame you are seeing is result of the horse adopting a physical state in order to do what is being requested of it. The frame or outline you see is not making the horse perform as you see, it is the result of it and if watched with an educated eye, you can see the cycle of energy in the tensegrity creating this.

When I see a finished horse ridden this way by an accomplished rider, I am able to finally comprehend the perfection of the equestrian art, as expressed by the Master of old.  It is not dramatic. It is not exaggerated. It is not supernatural.  It is very simply the perfection of sublime subtlety. A union of horse and rider that appears so effortless, the observer must pay close attention to even see the aids employed.

Unfortunately too many riders and trainers work from a backward progression. They want to put the horse into the finished frame and then drive the horse into movement. When I watch the top levels of competitive dressage what I too often see are gifted horses, forced to produce very dramatic and exaggerated movement, displaying tremendous effort to achieve something unnatural. I see riders locking excited horses into a box by constraining their heads and holding them back, while spurring them forward and I see unbelievably athletic horses being asked to perform feats that will ruin them.  At the lower levels of competitive riding and training, I often see horse being pushed, far too early, down this same path.

While I realized that much of competitive Dressage cannot in any way claim to be true to the teachings of the Masters I admire, there are still those riding today who ride in a way that is. To the fan of the ‘extreme’ in horsemanship, their riding may appear unexciting or look to easy, but for those who strive to truly understand what classical riding should be, nothing is more thrilling.