Classical Equitation? What do I mean by that? Well, equitation based on the synthesis of riding masters before riding became heavily influenced by Francois Baucher and his 20th century acolyte Decarpenty. Francois Baucher, a man of intelligence and undoubted skill as an equestrian, and regardless of if we agree or disagree with his ideas, many classical riders are influenced by his ideas. Classical Riding works because it has stood the test of time. It works without fear or force and most definitely without gadgets. It’s working with, never against, the horse. It’s opening the lines of communication between horse and rider, listening to horse, of being aware of every move you make means something to the horse, of first being able to ask yourself, “What did I do that caused the horse do that?” when you didn’t get the response, you were looking for. Classical Equitation and modern day competitive dressage have little in common- indeed competitive dressage has developed an extreme aesthetic that is incompatible with classical ideas. We must work in harmony with the horse, to no longer over bend the horse, asking for the high head carriage, the hyper flexed neck, the head behind the vertical, the horse loaded onto its forehand.
“The well-founded doctrines of the old riding masters are frequently rejected today with the remark that these methods are old-fashioned and not applicable in our present times, which demand quick success. And what is the result of this fast training? The standard has declined until the once so beautiful movements have become caricatures of what they were. And yet a performance of the highest standards must be built up step by step and on a well-founded basis. I have learned by experience that today’s riders may indeed rely upon the teachings of our predecessors, for they are of invaluable help in the reasonable development of this sport. If a rider thinks that he has found a new method he may be sure that if it is any good he has come upon it by instinct or by chance and that it was practised long ago by the old masters.”
In theory, competitive dressage should follow the same principles as classical dressage. However, there has been criticism by some riders for the trend at all levels for “quick fixes” and incorrect training that makes the horse appear correct, but that is in fact neglecting the basics. Podhajsky rightly commented that:
“A ruthlessly condensed training only leads to a general superficiality, to travesties of the movements, and to a premature unsoundness of the horse. Nature cannot be violated.”
Baucherism is so popular today, simply because of competition. Competition within equitation has destroyed dressage and any true sense of classicism. Many dressage riders, are in fact little different to Baucher and his horses trained to do circus tricks. The new wave of dressage to music is little more than a rider putting on a show, and saying ‘hey look at me, my horse is so obedient he does this and this’ just like Baucher did. It grabs headlines, its grabs the public imagination, just like Baucher’s circus, but in reality, these riders are putting on a show, a staged performance as it were, which is the riders ultimate goal, to win rosettes and flatter ego’s, totalling divorcing the true purpose of training horse and rider from the principles of Xenophon and de la Guérinière. Baucher, and his mendacious influence passed on through Lhotte and James Fillis, has changed equitation into something it’s not meant to be- a spectacle, a performance to the adoring crowd, rather than working with the horse for mutual benefit and long-term soundness of training. Introducing goals of artifice, saying we must be ready by X date, rushes training of horse and rider- It results in cut corners, the horse is relegated to second place, and training is rushed, which is simply not good enough. Riders get sponsored by by organisations, who want quick results and rosettes as a reward for their sponsorship. Good PR by the sponsor overrides all responsibility for the welfare of the horse. False principles are applied to training of the horse. The same is true in the riding school- riders want to feel and achieve constant progress- corners are cut and true fundamental basics of how we activate the pelvis and obtain a neutral spine are totally ignored. Indeed in the BHS this does not occur until a higher level of training, when in fact, how to use the core muscles, pelvis and spine are the underpinning fundamentals of equitation.
It takes a lifetime of riding to develop both the rider and horse, of which we should expect to work with for over a decade and not just a few years as in the modern, and alien arena of competition where doing tricks out of balance without resistance, can fool anyone to believe that things are going great. Working a horse on a pessoa does not teach the horse to use its back correctly, merely that if it keeps head in and legs under it wont hurt its mouth. The horse is forced into an in-natural position. The relentless pursuit of rossettes and ribbons, hyper flexion, high head carriage, all destroys the horse. Surely a horse is for life, not just to get the rider to the next level of equitation? That is counter to practice advocated in Vienna by Podhajsky, and one with which I totally agree. Competition has destroyed the true purpose of equitation, something thankfully, a number of like-minded riders around the globe have sought to redress.
Otto de la Croix’s pointed out in his book ‘Natural Equestrianism (1901)’, the extremes of, Paul Pfinzner’s hyper-flexion and Fillis’ high elevation:
“The time has seldom been more favourable for a detailed evaluation of the natural basics of the art of riding. Almost simultaneously we have hyperflexion and high elevation, and the riding world remains clueless who is right.”
The debate started by de la Croix is still on going with Rolkur. We have learned nothing in nearly 120 years. The main aim of all those employing this method of lowering and curling the head and neck of the horse is said to be to get the horse to raise the back and swing it. For the horse to develop the muscles of the back correctly, the horse must be working in a relaxed state and not a shortened cramped state. One of the major advantages of this method, and what has made it so appealing to many riders and trainers, and dare I say it acceptable to some judges, is that it produces a very manageable horse in the competition arena. You get a horse that agrees to go on the forehand and not lean on the hands or throw up his head when he loses balance or gets tired. But it compromises the horse. Nor does it elevate the back, it seeks merely to keep the horse on the forehand. . One can only build and strengthen the back if the horse is supple and not contained and pulled in by the hands. To keep the back in ‘the bascule’ to aid the ligaments between the vertebrae, and to stabilise the viscera, alternating abdominal/iliopsoas muscles and back muscles are used, along with those of the pelvis and lumbar vertebrae. The muscles that arch the back from behind are basically the M. Psoas Major and Minor, the Psoas Group, supported by the Rectus Abdominis. The development and use of these muscles is key to the success of a balanced horse. This cannot be achieved with gadgets like side reins, drawn reins or pessoa’s- which basically make the horse step under rather than pull on its own mouth. The development of the balanced horse can only be achieved with constant and consistent training based on pre-Baucher methods.
The back must never be arched mechanically, constantly and stiffly upwards, by static, permanent muscle use. Our goal is such, that we only want the back to lift into ‘the bascule’ to undo the sag that we as riders create when we sit down on the horse’s back – We want the back to relax, let itself be lifted, and the abdominal muscles to tighten intermittently [like a flashing lamp, on and off] so that ‘the bascule’ is not broken by its sagging each time the horse lands from a step and the mass of the horse bears down together with the mass of the rider. If, as Baucher’s supporters desire, that the back is made to lift from the front by forcing the head down and arching the neck, it actually causes the back to point downwards towards and into the shoulder, lowering the withers, by rotating the proximal part of the shoulder forward. The result is that the horse is pulled onto the forehand- the horse therefore is not in balance, nor supple, or able to work forward and upwards from behind. William Cavendish was amply aware of the need to sit the horse back onto his quarters centuries before Baucher:
A horse that does not go well upon his haunches, can never do well in the manège, so that our whole study is to put him upon them; but I would have you understand, when a horse may properly be said to be upon his haunches, and when not. Suppose a horse to be almost sitting upon his croup, he is not upon his haunches notwithstanding, if his hind-legs are distant from the lines of nature (which is to have them much asunder) although’ he was almost upon his croup. But to be upon his haunches, his hind-legs ought to be in their natural position, with the haunch-bone pointing directly forward, and his hind-legs under his belly, bending his hocks as much as possible; and this is the just situation of a horse upon his haunches. But we ought to consider the natural form and shape of a horse, that we may work him according to nature. You may observe in all my lessons, that I tell you how the legs go, and those who are unacquainted with that, are entirely ignorant and work in the dark.”
Yet Baucher disagreed with basic biomechanics. The back can only become ‘the bascule’ by being elevated from the quarters- this is how the horse is biomechanically supposed to be ridden, in harmony with the natural physique rather than be forcing the head into a fixed location. This prevents the forehand from being able to extend with any degree of comfort and fluidity. Thus, when a rider who holds the horses head in, allows it allows the forehand to move forward, and now with the poll far away from the forehand, the deformed brachiocephalic muscle [It goes from the back of the head to the inside of the forearm, along the side of the neck. If the horse holds his neck out and up as far as he can, the forearm will be able to move as far forward as possible, by the power of this muscle shortening, pulling the leg closer to the head.] is able to pull the forehand up really high, to get that spectacular look in the piaffe/passage and extensions. Piaffe must be taught as the precursor to the Levade and not just for the sake of riding piaffe, this is what de La Guérinière understood and reasoned about, yet this principle is sadly lacking in modern dressage where the piaffe is there for its own sake as a part of the ‘tricks’ a rider deploys in a dressage to music test to wow the judges and audience alike, and not for its true purpose.At first glance, for a horse trained this way, everything looks to be going rather smoothly, and “balance” never fails, and suppleness and submission clearly shows in the consistent “giving” to the rider’s aids. Judges cannot tell if the horse is balanced or not, or truly straight. Thus, a vicarious circle is generated. Baucher’s method was discredited in France by General Oudinot and in Germany, as we shall see, by Louis Seeger. Baucher’s principles from first hand observation of how he actually rode were dismissed as harmful to the horse. Oudinot and Seeger witnessed the failings of Baucher with their own eyes, yet Baucher’s teaching live on, largely due to the work of General Albert Decarpentry who brought the ideas to a new post war generation of riders.
For these riders following the Baucheristic method, lightness is seen as the horse immediately yielding to the aids [ I call this quickness- Baucher’s method produces a light horse from the point of view of rapid almost instantaneous obedience to the aids] and who does not want to ride a horse that is quick to the aid? However, rather than working in true balance, with the bulk of the horse’s weight transmitted along the back, which has to be elevated, to enable the pelvis to tuck under, allowing the hind feet to step under and carry the horse. What we are aiming for is true lightness through elevation. Too often we see the elevated horse but with a sagging back, dragging along its hind legs-a direct result of Baucher’s second method, when the neck is elevated by hand alone. The neck should only be lifted in proportion to the stepping under and tucking of the quarters. Lifting the neck alone will not create impulsion of lightness. To do so the back must also elevate into ‘the bascule’ and the shoulders be freed by the rider allowing more through the seat, and not driving the seat to fruitlessly try and generate impulsion. This takes time for both horse and rider, to develop skills and muscles to maintain the work.
This is what Podhajsky understood and taught. The back must become ‘the bascule’ transmitting the weight of the horse to the quarters, to enable true lightness. Yet many modern riders do not understand this fully, or indeed achieve it, seeking quickness over true lightness. The net result is an incorrect piaffe or passage, and a rear for the capriole, rather than a lifting of the forehand, and a descent on the hind legs. True passage can only be obtained when the horses back assumes ‘the bascule’ shape. Even Nuno Oliveira, who combined Baucher and de La Guérinière into his own unique system [technically not true classical equitation], when we look at films of his equitation in the piaffe or passage, the horse tends to be hollow and not tuck under/ steeping under sufficiently to allow the true passage or piaffe. Our inability to question ‘great men’ of equitation, and emulation of methods associated with a single coach [equitation of the cult of personality results in the development of unique systems often in competition with each other about the merits or not of other personality cult techniques], has led to a degeneration of classical principles of horsemanship, bolstered by the Baucherisation of American, French and Portuguese dressage as well as the FEI. I am a freelance Classical Equitation instructor- classical principles are my driving force, and educating riders about the benefits of classical ideas for their horse and for them as a rider is my goal in my teaching.