Header.jpg (19835 bytes)

The Art, Science and History of the Dressage

from: Wynmalen, Henry. 1971. Dressage, A Study of the Finer Points of Riding. Wilshire Book Company:Hollywood.

The current use of the word "dressage" is, in England, of comparatively recent date. The word has been taken over verbally from the French, as a term connected with horsemanship. The fact that there just is no exact equivalent whereby to translate "dressage" into English probably goes a long way to explain the misunderstanding, and sometimes event the touch of mystery, whereto the use of this word has given rise.

But, though the term itself may be untranslatable, its correct meaning can be explained easily enough. The French word "dressage", which has its precise equivalent in many continental languages, as for instance "dressur" in German, is derived from the verb "dresser". In a general way this is used only in connection with animals: on dresse un chien (dog), un cheval (horse), un elephant, unlion, or for that matter most any kind of animal that is teachable. Thus, the word means teaching, or schooling, an animal. It means a good deal more than the English word "training" which , used in connection with sport and with animals, generally refers more particularly to the creation of physical fitness; in dressage the emphasis is rather more on the mental approach to the animal’s understanding. The difference goes further than that, since the term dressage is really only used to indicate a more advanced stage of animal teaching, to teaching him rather more, or possibly a lot more, than one requires ordinarily from an animal.

Thus, the ordinary house-training of a dog, teaching him to come when called and to comply with similar fundamental rules of doggy behaviour does not qualify as dressage, but the training of a gundog, or a sheep or police dog or that of a performing dog in the circus certainly does, for that is dressage! Likewise, in the case of the horse, the term dressage is not used, in the country of its origin, in connection with the ordinary process of rendering a horse amenable to carrying a rider peaceably and reasonably effectively, and well enough for most people’s ordinary requirements. That process, which may require anything up to about twelve months, is known in France by the term débourrage, which has a somewhat unpleasant sound in much the same way as the more or less equivalent English terms of "breaking" and "rough-riding".

It leads to a stage of plain usefulness beyond which very few horses ever progress, and this remark applies nearly as much to continental countries as it does to England.

Now, dressage is the art of improving one’s horse beyond the stage of plain usefulness, of making him more amenable, easier to control, pleasanter to ride, more graceful in his bearing and better to look upon.

Success in every art depends upon a measure of talent, enthusiasm, hard work, tenacity of purpose and finally upon a sound knowledge of the principles of such art. Sound knowledge is mentioned last because it is gained last, as the result of much experience; there just is no other way.

With dressage it is no different, and here also is experience alone that can ultimately lead to knowledge. The road to experience is, I am afraid, a long one; in fact it is more than that, it is never-ending. In the hands of the true enthusiast, the artist at heart, even the most accomplished horse is always improving, just a little every day, or every week, to come just a shade nearer the absolute ideal, which, because it is unattainable, is never attained. But the pursuit of the ideal is a passionate quest in itself, full of reward in the constant discovery of newer and ever more subtle harmony between horse and rider.

It is only thus, by striving for that very harmony, that the full object of dressage can be approached, and expressed in that degree of "lightness" which distinguishes above all else the finely schooled horse. Above all else because true lightness includes all else, balance, grace and action.

Certainly, the attainment of these greatest heights lies well beyond the realms of ordinary, practical horsemanship, and the number of riders prepared and able to devote a lifetime in its pursuit will always be small.

Dressage in its higher forms is a specialty, a never-ending study of the finer points of riding, it is the University, the true High School of riding. Its value for practical riding purposes is great and twofold. In the first place it is the living academy of scientific horsemanship, of the "équitation savante", wherein alone the root-principles of that art can be studied and perpetuated.

In the second place it provides, in so doing, the guidance whereof every horseman stands in need who wishes to raise his own horsemanship, and with it the performance of his horses, just that much above the standard of mediocrity as will make all the difference to his enjoyment and success. In fact, it does more than that. For, although dressage itself can only begin where ordinary breaking and riding leave off, it provides none the less invaluable principles whereby methods of handling and breaking horses can be improved immensely, to the untold benefit of all parties concerned.

And of course every horse, to be really effective for any purpose above the very minimum standard of plain utility, needs at least a modicum of dressage, and some require a good deal. The troop horse, the police horse, the officer’s charger, the hack, the international show-jumper, the Olympic cross-country horse, must all be trained and schooled to standards considerably above the minimum. And, since all such special schooling is dressage of a kind, it may as well be dressage of the best kind.

The fact as to what is, and what is not, dressage of the best kind is not really open to discussion. Its principles are laid down in the laws, and in the application of these laws by competent judges, of the F.E.I. or, to give the institution its full name, the Fédération Équestre Internationale. It is the international body whereto all equestrian nations of any moment belong, and it is governed by the most competent horsemen which such nations can produce. Its prescriptions on matters of dressage are based upon the traditions and the practice of the world's leading and most famous equestrian institutes such as the French Cavalry School at Saumur and Cadre Noir, the Imperial Riding School of Vienna, the German Cavalry School at Hanover, heirs to the proud traditions of former famous Imperial and Royal riding establishments in that country, the Cavalry Schools of Sweden and of Switzerland, both famous for the fine riders they have produced, and others of equal or almost equal renown. Such authority is not open to question.

Its dicta have been laid down in a booklet, translated by the British Horse Society, the representative National Authority in England, called Notes on Dressage. It contains only brief notes on the manner wherein the schooled horse is expected to perform his work.

It contains no indication as to how these results can be obtained, which is only logical since instruction as such is not, and should not be, the responsibility of any governing body.

We live in a time when, under the influence of mechanization, cavalry has lost its usefulness, in a manner that appears final and without redress. As a direct result some of the famous schools of horsemanship have already closed their doors, others are due to follow suit and all appear to face a dubious future. The pity is that with them will disappear the fountainheads of living knowledge; for l’équitation savante is above all else a living art; its traditions and its principles cannot be fixed in stone nor its techniques preserved in paintings; nor even can its precepts be fixed in books of learning. By its very nature the art can only live in the lives and loves and works of horsemen and horses of flesh and blood, who can but try to carry on noble traditions during their own short allotted span.

But though the history of cavalry may draw to its close and the most famous riding institutes be threatened with extinction, the noble sport of riding is still with us, and thriving. In fact it appears to be doing so almost more than ever before. Show and competitions, national and international, are crowding upon each other; the number of competitors and the severity alike of competitions are increasing constantly. To be successful a high standard of riding is more than ever necessary. To ensure this, it is essential that the traditional higher school of riding be kept in being.

Riding as a sport is a wonderful pastime, a marvelous exercise and a school without peer for the formation of character, determination and grit. Riding as an art is more than that. It is part and parcel of our western culture and, as such, should be treasured and preserved.

As an art it is extraordinarily difficult to teach, on account of its complexity. It involves the problem of creating harmony, both physically and mentally, between two living beings so utterly different in these respects as man and horse. The interplay between them is constant and ever varying, and is made up of multitudes of little actions and reactions that may be separate and inseparable all at once.

The fact remains that, as to forms of execution, we are tied down within certain limits formulated by indisputable authority; as to form we are, in a sense, presented with dogma. This is no longer so,when it comes to the precise method of preparing individual horses and individual riders for the attainment of that form. The fact that they are individuals, that no two riders nor any two horses are ever alike excludes, eo ipso, any dogmatic approach in that respect. Though we undoubtedly must and do have a school based upon common theories and ideals, their interpretation must be left, ultimately, to the individual rider and his individual horse.

Individual exponents of merit cannot help but stamp their schooling and their riding with their personality; in art it must be so, since without it there would be no art. It is a fact about which we may well rejoice even though it does add to the complexity of the student’s problem. It is also, unfortunately, a fact where of equestrian authors have rather frequently lost sight; they are sometimes led to construct their personal experiences into a dogmatic basis of dictation to, or maybe argument with, others.

The famous controversy which raged around the middle of the nineteenth century in France, between the rival schools of Baucher and the Comte d’Aure, is rather a good example. According to Baucher the hand must always act before the leg, with d’Aure standing just as firmly by the principle that legs must always act before the hands. In my opinion there is no room, in advanced riding, for either of the words "must" or "always"; I prefer to think, what I feel to be the truth, that "it all depends". In the delicate movements of the higher forms of riding we are constantly endeavouring to maintain an equilibrium of balance and rhythmic action; the slightest disturbance of either is bound to affect the degree of perfection of our presentation adversely. In these movements the rider and his horse assume much the same delicacy of movement as the tight-rope dancer on his cord; disturbance of the equilibrium is always threatening and can be prevented only by constant slight action, or maybe inaction, of either hand, or leg, or both, or seat, or balance of body or any or all of the many little means of control whereof the skilled rider disposes. But, as in the case of the tight-rope dancer, these little actions are, and can only be brought into play by subconscious instinct, born of experience.

The great value of "theory" in the Art of Riding does and can only lie in the guidance that may be derived from it; if elevated into dogma it becomes a straight-jacket wherein the art itself will finally be strangled.

The theory of modern dressage, and much of its practice, find their roots in the schools of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries which reached their zenith in the École de Cavalerie.

Although this school ceased to exist as a result of the French Revolution, its traditions were kept alive throughout the nineteenth century, and up to our time, by other schools in Germany, in Vienna, in France and other countries, and by a number of famous écuyers of varying nationality.

There are a number of authoritative books of the period so that the sources of study of this, the classical method, are not lacking. To mention but a few there are, apart from de la Guérnière himself, Du Paty de Clam, Baucher, D’Aure, Hundersdorf, Raabe, Le Noble du Teil, Steinbrecht, Rul, Faverot de Kerbrech, L’Hotte, Barroil, Fillis. Through all of them runs a thread linking back to the pure classicism of a Guérnière.

This must not be taken to mean that there have been no innovations during all this time; there certainly have. Baucher introduced the repeated changes of leg at the canter, not practiced by the ancients, and a host of other new and very difficult exercises of great appeal to the circus. So did Fillis. The Comte d’Aure began to show a marked interest in outdoor forms of riding, as a sport and art combined.

But, taking everything as a whole, these books reveal the classical school for what, in essence, it was: a school for training the horse for the main purpose of giving indoor displays of refined, elegant and advanced classical riding. That tradition has been maintained to this day in unadulterated form by the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. And a great school it was, and in Vienna still is; to it we owe and from it we can still learn the foundations whereon the principles of modern dressage rest. All the same, in order not to be led astray, we ought to recognize that there are certain very important differences.

In the first place, there are the horses. The old school used and Vienna still uses, horses with much knee action, as we would consider somewhat of harness type today. Horses apparently mostly of fairly small size with much carriage in front and frequently low in the quarter; very suitable therefore for the pronounced sitting position beloved by the ancients in their favoured "airs" of piaffe and terre à terre. The piaffe and the passage were taught thoroughly and with very great care before any schools at the canter were attempted. The presentations were mainly based on the execution of intricate manège figures, with much emphasis on the volts, which were squares or rectangles, the corners being always taken on two tracks.

In fact work on two tracks at the passage and the canter, shouler-in and pirouettes, formed the highlights of these presentations, whereat the horse was always shown with head and neck bent so as to be looking at the public, which was known as le beau pli.

The whole of this work was done dans le rassembler, in the highest degree of collection. Changes of leg at the canter are not mentioned in the old school and could hardly have formed part of it; the change of leg demands a positions of the horse more horizontal than the old school favoured; for the same reason extended paces were not thought of.

In elegance of execution, seat and precision of movement that school still stands as a model, hard to equal and impossible to surpass.

But it is no longer the school of today. Today we ride horses, thoroughbred or of thoroughbred type, bigger, faster, more powerful and with an entirely different type of action, low and long striding. Today our interest is no longer concentrated on indoor presentations; we no longer make horses specially for that purpose. Our main interest today is that of outdoor riding, for sport; for a long time that has been the only interest, to such an extent that the principles of The Art of Riding have been almost completely lost in the process.

And that is where, in my opinion, the modern school of dressage is giving rise to a renaissance of the art in a form more closely skin to the requirements of the day. Our modern school lays as much emphasis on freely extended paces as it does on the most highly collected movements of the classical school. It requires moreover, in its competitions, continuous transitions from collected to extended paces and vice-versa, which introduces very great and very real difficulties wherewith the ancients were not troubled. I includes further the repeated changes of leg at short intervals and at every stride, which are of great difficulty, and it demands finally that our horses shall be able to perform this exacting programme in the open. Quite rightly so, and most fortunately!

But it cannot be achieved by a horse exclusively manège trained. It demands the free-going, high-couraged horse that has first been thoroughly trained and schooled in the freedom of God’s open country, and preferably one that has been well and truly hunted.