The Modern Dressage system, versus Classical French Equitation.
The more I see of horses, when I am away training, the more I despair about prolonged use of ‘long and low’ putting them on their forehand. When taking clinics and demos last week, every horse I worked with was on its forehand, put there as much as anything, by the fashion for long and low, or even ‘deep’, front end curled back, whilst not as drastic as the practise of rollkur, still puts the horse on it’s shoulders.
I remember Dr Reiner Klimke saying that we British still had our horses working long and low when they are ten years old. He was taking an ABRS clinic at Towerlands at the time, and was teaching someone on a four year old. Rider was horrified when the great man asked her to put the horse 'up'. 'But he is only 4 years old' she said. This is when Dr Klimke replied that we rode them long and low as a training system, not purely as a warm up, break period, or cool down. He said that was why our horses were all on their shoulders.
Paul Belasik said just the same thing when he came over for his first clinic here in Yorkshire, and worked to get all the horses much more up in front. My own horses are worked this way, and long and low reserved only for cooling down, rarely even for warming up.
I realised the error of my ways, when still training much more in the classical German style, and Nadja King from Horses For Life magazine, wrote primarily about the differences between Iberians and other breeds, especially warmbloods. The Iberian is built solely for collection, to tip the pelvis under. Working them long and low, flattens the croup, and causes them to thrust by swinging the hindlegs under, often damaging the back in the process.
I was horrified, because I had been trying to encourage my Iberians to move like a warmblood! I went straight back to revisiting my original French heritage. My old trainer, Capt Desi Lorent, always insisted that you couldn’t mix French and German systems. I set out to prove him wrong, because in those days, I was still hankering after competition, and French equitation, was never going to win rosettes.
I strayed from what I truly believed, but in many respects am glad I did, because in order to comment on both schools of training, I am very glad that I also went down the German and competition route. In my fifties, I have come back to the French ideals, although I was always striving for lightness, it so often wasn’t happening in the way I had experienced when riding pure French.
I re-read Jean Claude Racinet's excellent book, 'Racinet Explains Baucher', which, along with his other two, I had owned for years, but had long forgotten to read. Neon lights flashed on, as I read JC's explanation of the different aims of French and German schools. Sure, the end result should be the same, but the roads to get there, diverge right from the very start.
I had known of JC through my friend, Dr Bill Sanders in the US. Bill has long told me what a genius JC is with regard to the purest of French equitation, and having read the books, he was right. JC explains that the French system requires Balance Before Movement, whereas the German system requires Balance Through Movement. JC states that in the French system, balance is obtained at the halt, and the movement introduced like an eye dropper, dropping big, fat drops of liquid, one at a time. None of this 'forward, forward' ‘forward' stuff!!- which is more about speed than impulsion.
The French system requires engagement of the haunches, and not engagement of the hindlegs, whereas the modern German system requires engagement of the hindlegs, and not the hindquarters.
What is the difference? In the former, the hind joints compress, and produce more upwards spring, with pelvis tilted under. The hindlegs do not step as far under the body, nor come far behind the point of the hip. From this, the compression in the joints, strengthens them, so that when later, medium and extended paces are asked for, it is coming from a still tipped under pelvis, so that the movement is derived from collection.
With the latter, the hindlegs swing under like a pendulum, developing forward, rather than upward thrust. The hindleg moves quite a long way back, behind the point of the hip, as well as swinging an equal distance underneath, so that the moment of thrust comes from a hindleg that is well behind the horse, as it pushes off the ground. This will produce a longer stride, but not necessarily lift the shoulders.
Bear in mind that the modern sporthorse derives, not so very long ago, from carriage breeds, which by dint of long distances being covered, a long swinging stride would have been required. This was further refined with mostly Arabian blood, whose action, combined with a flat croup, gave the extra flamboyance to carriage horse action, and with selective breeding, the modern warmblood emerged.
The Iberian/Baroque breeds, however, were bred for collection, with a naturally sloping hindquarter and higher set on neck, producing a very manoeuvrable, sharp horse, capable of fast and tight turns, requisite for the bullring, for instance.
But many native ponies and cobs have the higher set neck and sloping quarters of the Baroque/Iberian breeds, undoubtedly due to the influence of such blood being introduced into our native ponies in order to refine the type.
Therefore, many so called ‘ordinary’ horses, can be trained to high levels using the French system, they will not have the hugely extravagant movement of the sporthorse, but think of the pleasure gained by the amateur owner, who can train his or her horse to higher levels, rather than being eternally stuck at preliminary or novice dressage, simply because the horse hasn’t sufficiently flashy paces. The paces will however, improve immeasurably due to the increased elevation produced by collection, and when a longer stride is pushed out, the elevation will remain, rather than the horse running and flattening.
I am renowned for championing the use of the Pelham bit, especially for horses who have been i badly educated in the snaffle. The results are so instant as to be miraculous, in many cases, and of course, I have criticism levelled at me for ‘cheating’!
JC says in his book, ‘Racinet Explains Baucher’, that he sees riders every day on his clinics, who have been ‘showing, year after year. But since they do not have the real ‘dressage horses’, nor the finances to buy such a horse, they feel condemned to First Level Test One (he is speaking of US tests), because try as they may to push their gangly TB onto the thick snaffle/drop noseband with their legs, no progress comes about.And so they drop out, change the bit, ride for pleasure, and all of a sudden they witness a breakthrough’ .
I see this so often at my own clinics, where the horse is transformed, often in minutes, and the rider is incredulous that such a change can be wrought in so little time. Once the jaw is mobilised, the balance can be changed, and from that, the movement will lighten and become so much more expressive. It happens time and again, and it is not cheating, but merely freeing the horse, in body and mind, to perform what we are asking of him, without restraint of a solid, heavy contact.
But the Classical Seat is the absolute necessity for this all to come about. The seat has to be worked on in order to perfect it, and once perfected, the rest will seem comparatively easy! Sitting correctly, you will ‘feel’ so much more, instead of blocking it, and because you will be balanced, the application of more refined aids will be absolutely possible.
So, let’s start a new French Revolution!!- one where lightness is paramount, where horses look happy and free in their work, with riders, elegant and proud, aids barely visible, yes, it can be achieved even by the ordinary rider.