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Dressage: Classical Equitation

Cynthia Hodges, M.A.

Dressage is one of the few equestrian sports that is an Olympic event. It is also the fastest growing equestrian sport in the country. Its recent popularity is due to a rediscovery of dressage’s many benefits. The term dressage is a French word that means training. The purpose of dressage is to make the horse the best riding mount possible. This is done by improving obedience, suppleness and balance. The idea is to school the horse so that it eventually moves under saddle as it does at liberty. The horse becomes more consistent, beautiful and comfortable as the training progresses. At the same time, the horse’s soundness is preserved because it moves more naturally.

History of Dressage

Dressage has a long and rich history. The methodology developed from thousands of years of training horses for practical use in the military. Its artistic side is due to the equestrian ballet, otherwise known as the carrousel. The Greek General Xenophon preserved the principles of the art of equitation. In his two books, Horsemanship and The Calvary Commander, written ca. 400 B.C., he shares his ideas of beauty and harmony. Xenophon’s theories were the basis for the renaissance of equestrian art that occurred in the 16th century.

Grisone, a Neapolitan nobleman living in Italy during the Renaissance, is credited with the rediscovery of Xenophon’s works. He became known as “the father of the art of equitation” by his contemporaries. Antoine de Pluvinel (the student of one of Grisone’s students) brought Xenophon's ideas back to France. As Louis XIII's riding master, de Pluvinel resurrected Xenophon's ideal of harmony with the horse. He also indoctrinated Francois Robichon de la Guerniere in these humane principles. Guerniere became one of the most influential equestrians ever known as Louis XV’s riding master. Guerniere's tenets, as described in the 18th century, are still used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. They form the basis for all dressage training, even international competitive dressage.

The equestrian ballet, which we have to thank for dressage’s artistry, began in the 16th century. The medieval tournaments developed into a new type of equestrian festivity, the carrousel. This was due to a blending of several new elements. Medieval mounted contests of martial skill were influenced by three factors. The first was the allegorical ideal of fighting for the reputation of one's city, for a lady, etc. The second was the increased use of spectacle. A procession to show off one's sumptuous clothing assumed enormous proportions in accordance with some fictional framework. The third element was the introduction of dressage. The Baroque ideal was to raise the horse to a work of art through equitation. This was done by combining complex movements to form a picture of flowing grace. The horses used in the ballet were taught everything from the basics all the way up to the High School or haute ecole. The movements of the haute ecole are the airs above the ground. They are very spectacular movements in which the horse rears up (levade), jumps up and kicks out (capriole), and even jumps on its hind legs like a kangaroo (courbette).

Dressage Horses

Dressage is open to any type of horse. The only requirement is that the horse is sound. Historically, the Iberian horses were preferred because of their natural cadence, collection, and dressage ability. The famous white Lipizzaner, of almost purely Spanish stock, was historically very popular and is the chosen horse of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. In competitive dressage, however, the most successful are the warmbloods. Originally crosses between European carriage horses and lighter Arab and Thoroughbred stock, these horses have been systematically bred for athletic ability in dressage and jumping. The warmbloods are known for their big-striding gaits and even temperaments.

Dressage Training

The dressage training is aimed at improving the horse’s suppleness, making it instantly obedient to the rider's aids, and inducing it to accept weight on the hindquarters and “carry itself.” It is not a matter of “putting the horse in the bridle,” but rather of inducing the horse to put itself back on its hindquarters, thereby assuming the correct frame, or position, of the dressage horse.  Self-carriage is a key goal of the training.
Many exercises have been designed to cause the horse to bend either one or both hind legs. The ultimate goal is to get the horse to bend both hind legs the same amount at the same time. If the horse bends the hind legs evenly, the horse takes equal weight on each hind leg. The airs above the ground are the apex of this training.

Here, the aesthetic meets the practical. If the horse takes weight evenly on both hind legs, it will move in balance. As a result, the horse's soundness is preserved and the gaits are livelier. Because the forehand is lighter, the shoulder is freed and the front legs can stretch out in front. The extended trot is an impressive display of this. The horse seems to dance because the strides are light and effortless. The horse will also be able to stop or turn immediately upon the rider’s request, which was vital in combat situations.

Gustav Steinbrecht writes of this in his text, Gymnasium of the Horse,

The rider has to direct his undivided attention to the gymnasticization of the hind legs, in particular their hip and stifle joints, if he wants to develop everything in his horse with which nature has endowed it. He has completed this task and trained his horse perfectly, if he has developed the two forces of the hind legs, i.e., the thrusting as well as the supporting forces - the latter in combination with the springiness -, to their full potential, and if he is furthermore able to determine arbitrarily and precisely their effects as well as their ratio to one another. (Steinbrecht 1884, in: 1935, 55, translation: T. Ritter).(Source:, Thomas Ritter)

In the dressage training of the horse, only the natural gaits are used. These gaits are developed progressively to increace the “spring” in the step.

The walk, the slowest gait, is four-beats. The horse has a foot on the ground at every moment. The walk is used to introduce new movements and to relax the horse. A common mistake seen in dressage horses is a pacing walk, where the two legs on one side swing forward together. This is usually the result of the horse being “put together’ at the walk too much and too early.

The trot, a springy gait, consists of two beats. The horse’s legs swing forward in diagonal pairs. There is a moment of suspension when all four legs are off of the ground at the same time. Increasing the suspended moment is very impressive, which culminates in the advanced movement called passage. Horses with naturally pronounced suspension are very popular for dressage.

The canter is the fastest of the gaits. This rocking 3-beat gait is very comfortable to sit. In the canter, one of the horse’s hind legs begins the stride, followed by the other hind leg swinging forward together with the diagonal foreleg, finally the horse’s other foreleg comes forward. In the canter, too, there is a moment of suspension, which is increased in the training. A common mistake in the canter is a four-beat canter, which results from the horse not “jumping off” of the hindquarters enough. In other words, there is not enough energy coming from behind to make the canter active.

The horse is encouraged to shift its weight more onto the haunches by using a combination of transitions. A transition occurs when the horse switches from one gait to another, halts, or increases or decreases the length of stride in one gait. When the horse has to make these changes, he has to gather himself together accordingly. This not only strengthens him, it makes him “sharper,” because he expects the rider to ask him to make changes. When the horse is halted, he must sit a little and bend his hind legs to take weight in them. This strengthens the horse’s carrying strength. When the rider then asks him to move forward out of the halt, the horse has to push off with his hind legs, which strengthens the pushing power. The half-halt is just a mini-halt that momentarily checks the forward movement and shifts weight back. The horse is then driven forward to increase the spring in the steps. The rider should always strive to balance the forehand and the hindquarters.

Another key component of the training is increasing the horse’s suppleness. This is usually thought of as lateral and longitudinal suppleness. Longitudinal suppleness is how loose the horse is over the topline. Transitions are an excellent way to loosen the horse’s back, as is letting the horse stretch forward, down and out with his nose periodically.  Circles, serpentines, and other excercises that bend the horse in the ribcage increase the horse’s lateral suppleness. The shoulder-in, invented by William Cavendish, the Duke of Necastle, but perfected by de la Gueriniere, is a fundamental exercise  that flexes the horse’s inner hind leg. In the shoulder-in, the horse moves on a straight line, but the body is bent in one direction as though on a 10-meter circle. The horse’s feet can be on either 3 or 4 tracks, depending on the degree of bend. There are other exercises frequently used that are variations of the shoulder-in. Advanced As the horse’s training progresses and his hind legs get ever stronger, the collection of his gaits increases. Collection is how much the horse can carry himself on his hind legs and how much he can push off of them. The ultimate in collection is the airs above the ground, which comprise the haute ecole. These exercises are described in more detail farther below.

One of the advanced movement that requires a lot of strength in the hindlegs is the canter pirouette. It is considered the non plus ultra of the turns. In the pirouette, the horse turns his forehand around his hindquarters, rotating around his inner hind hoof, which he picks up and puts down on nearly the same spot with each stride. It is important that the horse stays in the same collected rhythm, while maintaining the bend in the direction of motion. De la Gueriniere describes the pirouette in the following way:

The pirouette is a kind of volte except that it is performed on one spot and does not exceed the length of the horse. The croup stays on the center and the inside hind leg serves as the pivot around which the horse turns, the forelegs moving much more than the outside hind leg. (de la Gueriniere, 30).

The passage is a very collected and suspended trot. The horse jumps off of the ground with very cadenced strides. The piaffe is a passage in place. The rider balances the horse between the hands and legs. De la Gueriniere describes the piaffe as follows:

Piaffe (piaffer) is the action of a horse who executes a passage in one spot, gracefully bending his forearms and lifting his legs without bending incorrectly, moving forward, nor moving backward, and remaining obedient to the rider’s hand and legs. (de la Gueriniere, Francois Robichon. Ecole de Cavelerie. Part Two. Xenophon Press. USA:1992. 17-18).

Haute Ecole

The airs above the ground are the culmination of the dressage training. They are generally considered to be the most impressive of the exercises. Unfortunately, these movements are now only taught at the Cavalry School in Saumur, France and at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

One of these exercises is the pesade, which looks like the horse is rearing up. However, the rider is causing the horse to lift his forehand in a controlled way. To take all of that weight onto the hind legs requires great strength. De la Gueriniere writes of the pesade as such:

The pesade is an air in which the horse’s forequarters are raised high while remaining on one spot without advancing. The high legs are kept on the ground and do not move so that time is not kept with the haunches as is the case with all the other high airs. This is a preparatory lesson useful for teaching a horse to jump easily and to control his forequarters. (de la Gueriniere, Francois Robichon. Ecole de Cavelerie. Part Two. Xenophon Press: USA. 1992. Page 32).

Another of the haute ecole exercises is the courbette, which is developed out of the pesade. In the courbette, the horse first lifts his forehand, then pushes off of the ground with his hind legs. The horse hops on his hind legs! The stronger the horse is in his hindquarters, the more courbettes he can do in succession. De la Gueriniere has this to say of the courbette:

The courbette is a leap in which the forequarters are raised still more than in the mezair. It is also more energetic and sustained. The hind legs first bear the weight of the forequarters and then accompany them, marking time with a low fluid cadence. (de la Gueriniere, Francois Robichon. Ecole de Cavelerie. Part Two. Xenophon Press: USA. 1992. Page 32).


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© Cynthia Hodges
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