People often ask whether classical dressage can be successful in competitions, or whether you have to sell out and sacrifice the horse’s well-being and the principles of classical dressage in order to be successful in competitions. There are several different issues involved that need to be examined in order to be able to answer these questions.
First of all, what is classical dressage, anyway? Answering this question deserves its own separate article. Suffice it to say that confusion is widespread. It seems that countless people will claim to be classical riders, although they don’t really have any firsthand experience with it, or any knowledge of what it is, or how it works. On the other hand, there are many riders who want nothing to do with classical dressage, because they also have never experienced first hand how effective it is, and they have only seen incompetent riders who claim to be “classical”. My advice is not to trust anybody who has never studied for an extended period of time with a member of one of the big classical schools.
In the past, that used to be quite different. During the first half of the 20th century, the top competitors were all classical riders, since the competitions were first organized and run by the military for commissioned officers. In Germany, colonel Hans von Heydebreck was one of the first competitors and judges. A student of Paul Plinzner, who published Gustav Steinbrecht’s “Gymnasium of the Horse”, Hans von Heydebreck was on the committee of officers who wrote the famous Heeresdienstvorschrift, the cavalry training manual which became the precursor to the current “Richtlinien für Reiten und Fahren”, the Guidelines for Riding and Driving of the German National Federation who has been in charge of organizing and administrating competitions since the end of WWII. He also wrote a commentary for the 3rd edition of Steinbrecht’s Gymnasium of the Horse, which became the theoretical underpinning of the cavalry training manual and the FN Richtlinien. In addition, he wrote a booklet entitled “Die deutsche Dressurprüfung” (The German Dressage Test) with guidelines for competitors and judges that is based entirely on Steinbrecht’s work. It would be a good idea for modern judges and competitors to read it and implement it.
Another famous competitor was colonel Felix Bürkner. He was trained at the cavalry riding school in Hannover, where classical German dressage was taught and practiced. Between the wars he ran a private riding academy near Berlin together with his friend Hans von Heydebreck where the first professional trainers exams were held. During WWII, Bürkner was called back into the army and appointed commander-in-chief of the cavalry riding school that was now moved from Hannover to Krampnitz, close to Berlin. In all of the training stables that he led, whether civilian or military, he always had two riders from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna “on loan” who helped with work in hand and piaffe and passage work. Felix Bürkner rode in the 1912 Olympic Games and trained Olympic horses during the 1920s and 1930s.
Richard Wätjen, another top competitor, who also trained horses for the Olympic Games, spent 12 years at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, as a student of chief rider Anton Meixner. He was also one of Egon von Neindorff’s main teachers.
Colonel Alois Podhajsky, one of the former directors of the Spanish Riding School, competed consistently and successfully at the highest levels. His greatest competitive success was an individual bronze medal at the 1936 Olympic Games with the little Thoroughbred gelding Nero that nobody had wanted to ride when he was a young horse, because he didn’t seem talented enough. There are many other examples of classically trained riders since then who have competed successfully.
In the past, the divide between classical dressage and the competitive establishment was not as wide as it seems to be today, because the content of the teaching as well as the competition rules and judging guidelines were largely controlled, or at least heavily influenced, by the military. Consequently, there was more uniformity in the standards than today. And since the military horse had to be safe, obedient and rideable under any circumstances, the training of military horses could not go quite as far astray as the training of a horse that is only ever ridden inside an arena to produce movements, because the rider’s life and safety depended on the quality of the horse’s training.
An issue that has become all too obvious in the last 15 years is that mainstream dressage is always subject to fads, new “discoveries” of questionable value and unproven novel methods. Some of these are in direct contradiction to the time tested classical methods. When the dressage “establishment” embraces these new methods by incorporating them into their trainer certification programs and judges’ education, then the scores for classically correct training go down, the public interest in classical dressage wanes, and an entire generation of horses usually pays the price with their soundness. When the pendulum swings back in the opposite direction and the latest fad is finally proven to be unhealthy for the horse and counterproductive for the training, the scores for classically correct riding go up again and the interest of the general riding public in classical dressage increases along with it, because “what wins must be correct” – or so many riders believe somewhat naively. The truth is that the best rider and the best-trained horse don’t necessarily win in competitions, because many other factors play a role as well.
A current widespread problem is that many judges seem to be so used to seeing horses that are on the forehand, with short, curled up necks and high croups, that they think this is correct and reward it. When they see a horse that goes uphill, with a lowered croup, raised withers, and an elevated head and neck carriage, they think there is something wrong with it and give low scores. We now have a whole generation of riders – perhaps even two – who have never had an opportunity to experience classical dressage personally, i.e. who have never sat on a correctly trained horse, and who have never seen a correctly trained horse, ridden by a rider with a good seat, so they have no idea what correct gaits and posture look like, much less feel like. This includes many trainers and judges. Those riders who still have the knowledge and practical expertise are very quickly diminishing in numbers, and since it takes so many years to train somebody thoroughly in this art, the old masters are dying faster than they can produce their successors.
There is also a tendency to score the horse’s natural gaits higher than his training. Some judges think that if the horse’s gaits deserve only a 6, then he should only be able to get a 6 for any movement of the test, even if it is executed perfectly. Any mistake that occurs is subtracted from 6, not from 10. This means that the scores reflect the quality of the horse’s gaits rather than of the training. In other words, riders with average horses don’t really have a chance to place well or win, while the riders of extravagant movers can get away with doing a poor job of training the animal, because the sheer talent of the horse will cover up many shortcomings in the riding and training, so that they can still get fairly high scores – in spite of the training flaws.
For quite some time now, there has been a somewhat excessive emphasis on extensions in the tests, which favors warmbloods and other horses who are born with great thrust and a natural ability to extend. If there is a coefficient on medium or extended trots in a test, horses without much talent in this area will have little chances of winning their class. In the past, the extended trot was considered to be a carriage horse gait. For the rider of a campaign and utility horse, as the practical riding horses used to be called, it makes little sense to spend much time in an extended trot. If the rider needs to go somewhere fast, it is much more efficient in every way to canter or gallop there. During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the heyday of classical dressage, much more emphasis was placed on collection.
In my own experience, a classically trained horse that is ridden correctly in a test can still be competitive, although it will not always come out on top. Much depends on the judge and the current judging standards. Interestingly, even when the judges don’t reward the classically correct training, the spectators always seem to appreciate it.
The classical rider should not be discouraged and avoid the show ring because of fads and fashion trends that contradict the classical riding and training principles. On the contrary, the more classical riders compete, the better. We can educate the riding public by showing well balanced, supple horses who go in an uphill carriage and by riding with a quiet, elegant, supple seat. Spectators, other competitors, and judges need to see classical riding and training if the art of riding and training is to survive. We have to prove the validity of the traditional training methods to each new generation of riders by going out in public and demonstrating through our personal example in the saddle that the classical principles achieve results that are superior to any other method. If classical riders hide and refuse to show, they only play into the hands of those who claim that classical riders don’t know how to ride and that classical dressage can’t “cut it” in the show ring.
In the big scheme of things, it is not so important that the classically trained horse /rider combination always wins. It is far more important for the classically educated rider to represent his teachers and the classical heritage with dignity and integrity by riding well and placing the horse’s well-being above all other considerations.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: DR. THOMAS RITTER