Training in the Right Way: Classical vs Competition Dressage

This week’s article begins to look at the differences, and very important similarities, between classical and competition dressage. As with most things, the important truths tend to lie somewhere in the middle.

In modern day dressage, Classical Training and Competition Training are almost always referred to as opposite styles of training or distinctly different types of dressage. In reality though, they should not be so markedly different from each other, and yet the divide is growing greater.

If you peruse the plentiful dressage posts on Facebook, or have been reading any dressage training discussion forums, you will have inevitably run across some pretty polarizing discussions about Classical vs. Competitive dressage training. At the two ends of the spectrum, you will find that there are the folks that espouse that competition dressage is what it is because of the innate impulsion and power in the modern-day dressage sport horse. On the other end, you have the folks who favor what amounts to removing all the impulsion and instead focusing entirely on harmony and lightness in the bridle.

The competition riding proponents will argue that the classical riders never have enough engagement and never put their horses truly on the bit, and the ultra-classical proponents will argue that competition riders are abusive with the amount of strength and over-flexion they keep their horses in. All of this begs the question: who’s right and who’s wrong? As with most things, the truth is often somewhere in the middle.

Laura Graves and Verdades at Aachen. An excellent example of harmony and lightness in competitive dressage.  Photo (c) Eurodressage. 

Something that is often pushed as a reason classical training is ‘better’ is that it is kinder. But is that the actually the case? Is classical training truly and historically kinder and gentler than our modern-day competitive riding? No. Absolutely it is NOT (more on that later). On the other side of it, competitive dressage riders will often argue that some of their unsavory training methods are necessary due to the need to manage such talented, hot horses. But do our competitive riders really need to ride with so much impulsion, strength, and heavy rein contact? No. Also Absolutely NOT. Period. End of discussion.

So basically, everyone is wrong and a little bit right. Or partially so. Unfortunately, this topic is full of snarls, rabbit holes, and long winding paths that we can easily get lost in. I have trained with some amazingly successful, competitive riders and trainers and with some very classically trained folks from Portugal and the Spanish Riding School. While I cannot say that I know everything there is to know about both styles of training and riding, I can say that excellence in dressage training resides at the upper echelons of both styles. In other words, the very best modern day “classical” training and the very best modern day “competitive” training are more alike than different.

As you drift away from the very best of the best trainers in these two styles, the differences grow greater and greater, as well as the opinions and arguments about which one is better. The bottom line is that there is a humane (yes, there is), competitively successful (again, yes) way to train horses for dressage competition. It uses principles of classical training developed over centuries (of good education choices and bad abusive mistakes). And fortunately for us, we modern-day riders have the benefit of all these years of knowledge and experience to make our best competition horses better, but we have to keep these principles alive in order to do this. The point is that we have the BENEFIT of knowing that these two extremes are not successful, but there’s some common ground in the middle that is.

If you are reading this, you probably have a sense of what competitive dressage looks like at the highest levels. You may not know what Classical dressage looks like when it is done well. For that reason, Classical Training needs to be defined in order for us to continue. Classical Training can be defined as the history of European-based riding horse training, but it has another meaning. It is the educated approach to training riding horses based on historical evidence and practice that promotes results through knowledge of a system instead of using force or violent methods.

Humans regularly resort to force and violence when they do not have the education, knowledge, and experience to achieve results through non-violent methods. Particularly in horse training. Most of us involved in dressage have heard the phrase, “Dressage ends where force begins.” Well, force begins where knowledge ends. All the situations that riders confront while training horses have a solution that education in the classical principles of dressage will help them solve. So when we look at the abusive, cruel practices in the the history of training horses, and in competition training, we are looking at the use of force instead of the use of knowledge.

Has Classical training always been kinder and gentler? No. Not historically speaking and not now either. What do I mean by this? If you actually take the time to read some of the old texts on dressage training and look at some the pictures of the equipment and riding styles from centuries ago, it is evident that cruelty and abuse were present in the old days as it is now.

An “Early twentieth-century illustration…. (based on Grisone) of using a cat tied supine on a pole to cure “restiveness” in the horse.” from Federico Grisone’s The Rules of Riding (originally published in 1550) 2014 edition translated by Elizabeth M. Tobey and Federica Deigan. 

Spurs and bits illustrated in “A General System of Horsemanship” by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, published in 1743.

Bits illustrated in “A General System of Horsemanship” by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. 1743.

These days, anyone can say they are a classical trainer. And, they may be very well-educated and capable trainers in some cases. But there are also the trainers that ride with their horse’s neck high, back down, no forwardness, and no rein contact and believe that they are being kind. The reality of this is that this is not kind, nor is the horse ridden using the classical principles of elevation and collection that HELP the horse carry a rider more comfortably and efficiently.

Illustration from “School of Horsemanship” by Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere published in 1733.

Competitive dressage has not always been so driven by extreme natural talent and impulsion. Not so long ago classical training principles were at the top of the competitive game. Trainers like Reiner Klimke, Herbert Rehbein, George Wahl, Franz Rochowansky, Willi Schulteis, Waldemar Seunig, Paul Stecken (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list) were using classical principles to create Olympic quality horses with less natural talent than is available today. Their students are still out there, doing the same.

Carol Lavell and Gifted. A very powerful horse trained with classical principles. Photo (c) Bob Langrish. 

So where does that leave us? Essentially, if we take the best “classically trained” Spanish Riding School (or any of the other modern-day classical schools) horse and pit it against the very best competitive dressage sport horses in the world, the classically trained horse won’t have the impulsion and power to win in the Grand Prix at the Olympic level. But IF we train a top modern-day dressage sport horse using classical principles, he will beat the ones who are being hyper-flexed and forced into submission. We have already proven this at the top of the sport in 2012 and 2016, and yet we inexplicably continue to turn further and further away from this truth as time passes. Now —  particularly amid the extreme social awareness brought about by the recent Operation X documentary, is the time to rectify that. We should be looking to benefit from the knowledge we have of the classical system of dressage to train our competitive horses in the right way. Not only will the horses benefit from it, but we will too.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.