You thought THAT was Classical?

Recently I was at a clinic and overheard something that made me wonder if dressage riders really know what ‘Classical’ is.

The clinician was very competitive but also classical in his teaching. He was working with 2 grand prix level riders improving their Piaffe. Afterward, one of these top riders made the comment that what he was teaching was Passage-on-the-spot and this was what judges were now looking for in competition…then she (not the clinician) said judges were no longer looking for ‘classical Piaffe’ but this ‘new’ Passage-on-the-spot.

Whoa…that comment surprised me…Passage-on-the-spot IS classical Piaffe…NOT the shuffle we so often see these days in competition. This great clinician was trying to turn them back to the Classical…not away from it. There was nothing ‘new’ about what he was teaching.

Obviously even upper level riders are confused about what is Classical and what is not.

So how do you tell if something you see or are told is really Classical?

I will give you several ways:

1) Compare it to what is taught at the bastions of Classical Dressage: The Spanish Riding School and the Cadre Noir at Saumer are the 2 most prominent. The first time I saw Piaffe was in Vienna at the Spanish Riding School. I also saw it performed by Classical Masters many times before I saw it in competition. I was shocked at the shuffle I saw in the competition and wondered how they could call it Piaffe.

2) With classical training the horse should be able to perform any movement so that it flows naturally into any other movement. In the shuffle Piaffe so often seen, the horse stops, shuffles in place, then often gets stuck getting out…this is not Classical.

3) Look at the original purpose of the movement. Piaffe originally was used to prepare a horse to perform the Levade and other airs above the ground. It perfected the muscles and balance needed for those movements.  That shuffle and overloading of the front end so often seen will never get off the ground.

Watch this fun video of the Spanish Riding School from 1935. You can see all these 3 points. The horses move smoothly from Passage to Piaffe, the Piaffe is elevated (no shuffle here), and it goes right into Levade.

4) Go even further back and look at the purpose of Dressage to begin with. The word Dressage is from the French verb ‘dressager’ which means ‘to train.’ In the beginning, what we call dressage was simply the basic training given to horses to prepare them for the battle maneuvers now known as the airs above the ground: levade, capriole, etc.  Piaffe was not the penultimate movement it’s become today.  It was simply the stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Think about what a knight needed in battle. He needed a horse that could, from one moment to the next, go forward, back, sideways or up in an instant. To avoid an axe swing he did not have time to half-halt, half-halt, then piourette. Now add another level of challenge, this had to be done with the reins wrapped around the pommel. He had his sword in his right hand, the shield in his left….there is nothing left to have a death grip on the bit (like you see too much of in the dressage arena today). The concept of lightness is not new…at one time it was necessary for survival.

So watch riders and trainers and ask yourself if what you see could ever lead to that level of muscle, balance, flexibility and obedience.  Even if you have no intention of going that far, you should still be on the same road.

5) Correct Classical Dressage maximizes any horse’s athletic potential and trains them to be able to work hard at any effort and STAY SOUND. Granted there are individual horses that for other reasons have a hard time staying sound, but if the trainer is routinely injecting the hocks of most of his or her horses…the training is NOT Classical…no matter what they might call it.

Which segues into the last one in this list….

6)  A truly Classical Dressage trainer or rider will never, ever use gadgets or other short cuts.  No draw reins, chambons, Pessoa lunging harness, etc., etc., etc.  Just don’t go there…not if you want your horse to stay sound and move correctly.   They all cause more problems than they solve and the horse pays the price of the rider’s impatience or lack of knowledge with sore backs and aching joints.  So if you see a trainer or a book recommending these, whatever else they are, or say they are, they are NOT Classical.

There are lots of trainers and books out there claiming to be all about ‘Classical Dressage.’  Many of them really are, but there are also too many that are not.  Hopefully this will help you think beyond the surface and see through the false claims.

Why the flash?

A thinking dressage rider should know what each piece of equipment does that he or she uses.  What it does, what it doesn’t do, how it should fit, and any potential problems it might cause.  This is especially true of any additional, optional equipment, such as a flash noseband.   It’s not required, so why use it?

“Everyone else uses one.”  Wrong answer.  That should never be the reason you use anything…even if it were true…which it’s not.  I don’t use one, so not everyone does.

“All dressage snaffle bridles are sold with one.”  Wrong answer.  It’s true that almost all are sold with one but, again, your horse deserves an answer with more thought than that…besides, it’s always possible to cut the little loop off…I do.  Just because the bridle comes with one does not mean you have to use it.

“My horse will run through a snaffle without a flash.  I need it to control him.”  Excuse me?  If a rider cannot control her horse without a flash that should raise a red flag for her to review their training program.  i.e. more training.

“If I don’t use it my horse will gap his jaw open and my test scores will drop.”   This at least has the virtue of some thought, but again, it’s the wrong answer.  In fact, it’s very wrong and also unkind to the horse.

When a horse gaps his jaw open he is telling his rider that something is not right.  A horse does not gap his jaw just to gap his jaw.  There is always a reason.  He is having trouble doing what is being asked.  This could be due to balance problems, or stiffness, or a bad fitting saddle, or many other things.  Instead of strapping the mouth shut, a caring rider will explore the why of the problem.  He won’t fix the gaping jaw.  He will fix what is causing the jaw to gap.

What would anyone think if a little league player told his coach he couldn’t hit the ball, and instead of finding out why, the coach strapped a gag on the kid (complete with crank buckle), then used a whip and spur to tell him to go out and hit that ball?  A rider who uses a flash noseband is like this coach.  He is gagging his horse and telling him to shut up.  He doesn’t want to listen to any problems and will punish the horse for trying to tell him.

A flash noseband is painful to the horse, both over the nose and over the poll.  Most of those nosebands have a very narrow crown piece that passes under the bridle crown piece and puts constant and painful pressure on the poll…especially if a crank is used.  And there is never any release from this pain.  No matter how well he behaves, the horse is constantly being punished.

It’s no wonder that so many of these horses express their unhappiness and frustration by grinding their jaw or flapping their lips…it’s the only expression left to them as they are desperately trying to say something to riders who will not listen.


I challenge you…

If you are a thinking dressage rider that really cares about the physical and mental well being of your horse, I challenge you to throw away your flash and let the caveson out to the last hole, or take it off completely (for practice, the caveson is required to show but it does NOT have to be tight).

Be prepared to delve deep for patience and understanding as you explore the why of the why.  You may even have to own up to the gaping jaw being caused by a fault in you, such as your balance is wrong or your hands are rough.

If you succeed, you will be rewarded with a horse that has much more faith and confidence in you and shows a calmer happier expression in the dressage ring.

One last concluding note….

I do not rule out the unique situation where a flash noseband would actually be of some positive value.  One example would be a young rider on a strong horse that is easier to control in a flash.  Then it becomes a safety issue.  But even in this situation, both rider and horse should be working toward getting rid of the flash, not toward a reliance on it.