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.