When we hear the term “Classical Dressage”, most of us conjure up images of professional riders on Olympic caliber horses performing extremely difficult movements with a great deal of collection, giving us the impression that classical dressage training is beyond our abilities, as well as the abilities of our horse. As beautiful and inspiring as these images are in our mind’s eye, we need to remember that classical dressage is not solely about spectacular movements but, instead, it is about the day-to-day basic schooling of every riding horse regardless of breed or background.
Classical by definition means “of or relating to the first significant period of an area of study”. The earliest surviving work on many of the principles of classical dressage was Xenophon’s On Horsemanship, which emphasized training the horse through kindness and reward. The definition of Dressage is “the art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance”. When we pair the two definitions together, Classical Dressage can be defined as training a horse through positive reinforcement to be safe, reliable, obedient, and comfortable to ride under any circumstance.
At the heart of classical dressage is the partnership between horse and rider, a connection that involves a careful balance of trust and respect. By displaying only kindness and softness, the horse would never learn respect. On the other hand, a lack of kindness and softness will cause the horse to withdraw in order to protect himself. The horse thrives in an environment of love, fairness and consistent boundaries and will accept any justified reprimand if it is fairly executed and balanced with reward.
True classical training will preserve, prolong, and, in some cases, even restore the soundness of the horse. Each movement is trained in preparation for the next and executed in such a way that the horse uses his body efficiently through balance and suppleness, minimizing friction and wear and tear to the his body. Such training improves the horse’s balance, suppleness, and straightness, resulting in smoother gaits, less resistance, soundness, and longevity.
By understanding the meaning of classical dressage, we can clearly see how these principles will benefit our western horse. Every horse can benefit from better balance and straightness and because classical dressage is about making the horse safe, comfortable, maneuverable, reliable, and keeping it sound, its principles can be applied to our western horses. Western Dressage is an exciting new discipline that focuses on the principles of classical dressage training, while embracing the traditions of the American west. We all strive to improve our horse and our riding skills; through Western Dressage, along with a deep love for the horse and knowledgeable instruction, you can attain the goals you once thought were out of your reach. It’s about the Journey!