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Teach your horse French!


‘Enlightened Equitation’ is based on the French system of Classical Equitation.

I trained in French Classical Equitation in my 20s, with a student of Portuguese Master Nuno Oliveira, Capt Desi Lorent. Aged 13, I had seen Nuno ride at the Horse of the Year Show and knew that this was how I wished to ride, but at that time in the UK, I couldn’t imagine anyone being able to teach me. Dressage was almost unknown as a sport, and so the only option available was British Horse Society lessons, and whilst these were better and far nearer to classical standards in those days 50 years ago, I knew that there were better ways.

Years later, I began writing for magazines and stressed the need, even 30 years ago, to re-evaluate the teaching of riding because I realised that much cruelty was involved, whether deliberately, or more often inadvertently, because riders were not educated that a horse is a living, sentient being. Few riders would treat their dogs the way that they do their horses, the dog having the ability to cry out in pain, most riders would be mortified if they knew the pain they are potentially inflicting on their horses.

This pain can largely be avoided entirely if riders were taught to develop a seat that is truly in sync with the horse’s movement, a seat that is fully independent of the reins, then, the lot of the horse will be an easier one.

In this era of ‘social license’ with lobbying increasing for the riding of horses to be banned altogether, if something isn’t done to address the issue, it will surely happen. The average non riding animal lover sees horses being hit with whips, spurs dug into their sides, mouth hauled about with a bit, so is it any wonder that they rightly assume this is cruel? It is high time that the equestrian world put its house in order before it is too late!

I ride with a bit, in fact, two bits at times, I carry a whip and wear spurs, but these are never used as punishment, at most, the whip is used to galvanise a lazy horse by smacking my boot and making a noise, at least, it is used to touch or lightly tap, an area of the horse’s body, to give him a signal that I want that part to move. The bit/bits, are used as my means of communication, as in a polite conversation, my spurs are used to touch, not prod, to give the lightest but also most precise leg aid.

So, a correct seat is the first prerequisite to ensure that we are the least possible burden on the back of the horse, and that we cause him as little discomfort as possible. But so many riders see little wrong with their riding, because they have never been made aware. Riding is often so badly taught, with scant attention paid to the rider, and no clear instruction as to how to move with the horse.

‘Sit deeper’, ‘Relax your back’, ‘Follow the movement’, all mean nothing to the average rider, and even less to a beginner. Horses are truly saints to put up with beginners bouncing on their backs holding onto the reins for balance, kicking them in the ribs, how they put up with it, week in week out, I cannot imagine. There are so many better ways, but the problem is that most riding schools are struggling to survive, and even more so since the Covid debacle. Many have already ceased to exist and just become livery yards, so that very novice riders are going out and buying their own horses with little or no knowledge.

The time is now or never, to drastically improve the standard of teaching and therefore, riding. The Pony Club needs to revise its ‘give it a good Pony Club kick’ attitude, so that children are educated to ride their ponies with respect and care. When I see small children, maybe six or seven years of age, in Portugal riding 16hh Lusitano stallions, performing high level dressage movements at events like Golega Festival of the Lusitano, it shows it is possible to teach even small children the finesse needed to ride well. Yet when I have posted videos of such children on Facebook, comments are often derogatory - ‘put that child on a naughty British pony and they would soon be on the floor’. But the ‘naughty British Pony’ wouldn’t be naughty! It would be trained correctly, in hand and long reins, so that the child could learn correctly from an early age. And don’t get me started on British Ponies, we breed the best in the world, and then sell them abroad, for them to return to the UK a couple of generations later, and at vastly greater cost, as little German or Dutch ‘riding ponies, look at the breeding and it is all British!

But the first step in learning French Equitation is to want to learn for the sake of your horse. The second is to commit to putting in the effort to improve your seat and refine your aids, in order to be able to apply them to your horse. The third is to re-educate your eye to what you perceive as the correct way of going especially in the lower levels of training, which is where so many riders get stuck and remain, because they assume that they haven’t the ability to train to anything higher than preliminary or novice dressage, which is definitely not the case! The vast majority of riders are quite capable of training at least to do all lateral exercises and beyond, if only they are given a system of training that permits progress! So many riders think that one trains to each specific dressage level and that the movements entailed should only be learned and practised once one has reached almost the next level of competition. The movements are not designed for competition, but to train the horse gymnastically, and this is so much where the French and German/FEI training differs.

How often do we see riders desperately trying to sit to the trot at typical ‘working trot’ speed, bouncing about trying to maintain some sort of adhesion to the saddle, head nodding, lower leg flapping, because the seat isn’t deep enough to be able to absorb that much movement. Often riders are over horsed, buying huge moving warmbloods that need a professional rider to be able to sit the movement, a rider who probably rides eight to ten horses a day, not someone who rides only one horse 6 days  a week, and then quite probably in winter, with the absence of facilities to ride in dark evenings or mornings, only at weekends. But using the French system, it is possible to improve the sitting trot because the horse uses his joints far more as shock absorbers, enabling a far more comfortable ride for the rider, and in this way, improving the horse’s comfort too.

The late French trainer, Jean-Claude Racinet, summed up the difference as being that the German school is about movement before balance, where as the French school is about balance before movement. So, in the German method, the horse is sent forward strongly to create a longitudinal balance, with a ‘swinging back’ – we will look at this in greater depth later – hind legs stepping well under and tracking up in trot, with big overtrack in walk being very desirable. Frequent half halts are then employed to transfer the weight further back. There will be no use of in hand work or early lateral exercises in general, although there are exceptions to this, most work will be executed in working trot, and canter will be introduced early on. 20m circles are much in evidence because the horse will not be sufficiently supple to describe a smaller radius. Frequent transitions will be employed, and transitions within the pace, lengthening and shortening, in itself, not a problem, but is likely to be when at the lower levels.


In the French system, the work will be much slower in tempo. Most trainers will work the horse in hand to teach them to move hindquarters and shoulders before even mounting the young horse, so that the rudiments of bend are established from the beginning. Slowing the pace doesn’t mean slopping along with the rider needing to nag with the leg to maintain forward movement. Much is misunderstood by this word ‘impulsion’, because to many as previously mentioned it suggests speed, and also ‘power’ comes to mind, the sort of tense power exhibited so often in high level dressage horses. We will look at this subject in greater depth in due course.

So lets sum up the prerequisites needed to ride and train in harmony with your horse.

  • First and foremost, the desire to help the horse and hinder him as little as possible.

  • An open mind, and a desire to learn, realising that much of what you have already learned is no longer applicable. I had to go through this in my early twenties, having been taught by BHS instructors for years. But I am so glad I did!

  • A commitment to improve your own seat/riding in order to help your horse

Ignore the naysayers, as there will be plenty of those, especially if you are in a livery yard. Your horse is yours, not theirs, so do your own thing, and has so often happened, when they see the difference in your riding and the horse’s way of going, this piques their curiosity and they start asking questions!

Heather Moffett

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