“I’ve got time! I’d like to shout this out to every rider who suddenly runs into problems and can’t come to an agreement with his or her horse.” This excerpt from Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s Tug of War explores the concept.
It is hard to find a way of riding or an individual “philosophy of riding” that doesn’t consider itself to be “classical.” The many interpretations of this term reveal how complex the topic is. One of the main causes for this lies in the fact that riders deal with a great variety of breeds as well as types of horses. However, there is a universal definition that does justice to all types of riding. A quote taken from the HDV 12—the riding manual of the German cavalry from 1912, which was also used as a basic reference for training horses by the world famous cavalry school in Hanover—serves as an example: “The goal and basic principles of dressage riding are to train the horse so it can perform to the highest level of its potential, and to make it obedient. This goal can be achieved only when the horse is put into a ‘position’ or ‘frame’ that allows it to fully unfold its abilities, while preserving and furthering its natural talents. In such a correct position, the horse will be able to withstand the strains of service life for a long time.”
Here is what’s crucial: at the center of this approach is the horse being allowed to develop into a strong and healthy athlete, which cannot happen with a mechanical and rigid training method. In my opinion, alternative training methods that carry the stamp of certain individual beliefs and philosophies might very well lead to success and be allowed to be called “classical,” but only if they take into account the fundamental anatomical, physiological and psychological characteristics of the horse in general, and of the individual horse in particular. Famous respected trainers of the last century kept pointing out the importance of time. Colonel Alois Podhajsky, former head of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna said: “’I’ve got time! I’d like to shout this out to every rider who suddenly runs into problems and can’t come to an agreement with his or her horse.”
No athlete is able to perform to his utmost, peak at the right moment and remain healthy without having built up his body (and mind) over a significant period of time. It takes time to find the right horse to begin with, to discover its characteristics, special features, and get to know it. It takes time to gain experience as a rider so you can apply the correct aids. It takes time and a great deal of patience to train a horse until it’s ready to compete while, at the same time, maintaining its physical and mental health—and to keep it fit until old age.
For this reason, the classical art of riding evolves over a long period of time for every horse and rider. Apart from possessing the necessary skills, “mastering” the art of riding also means any good rider must have a feel for the horse—his main concern being his horse’s well-being.
In the classical way of riding, the reins are only used as a sensitive aid to help the horse establish contact, not as an instrument of “navigation.” Above all, the reins are definitely not used as a brake. A sign that a rider has achieved the highest level of refinement in the art of riding is the “descente de main et des jambs,” a principle that was first explained by Robichon de la Guérinière: it means the “dropping of hands and legs.” If horse and rider are in harmony and have learned to communicate by using the most refined aids, the rider can even abandon his aids to a large extent, and let the horse finish the execution of the movement on its own—in perfect collection, keeping the same rhythm and impulsion. The classical art of riding understands “aids as aids,” literally—and only as such: they help the horse to understand the rider’s demands. Once the horse has understood them and responds to them, the rider can set them aside.
These basic principles of dealing and working with horses have been valid across the centuries, until today. They are also valid for all types of riding—not just dressage, but for other, modern Olympic equestrian sports, and Western disciplines, as well. The horse itself—with its potential and aptitude—determines the pace and way of its training, not the human being.