There are several riding academies in Europe namely the French, the Austrian and the Spanish and probably a few more if one looked closely. Each academy aims to preserve and practice the Art of Classical Riding
The modern home of the Spanish Riding School is in Vienna, although historically it has been based in other parts of the long lost Austro Hungarian empire. Lippica, the ancestral home of the Lippizaner horse is to be found near Trieste and the breed is a revered iconic symbol of modern Slovenia. It is accepted that, like so many of the well known horse breeds of Europe, the invariably white/grey Lippizaner has Andalucian genes - as indeed reputedly do The Cleveland Bay and Welsh Cob breeds of Britain.
The Austrian school of Classical Riding is seen as an art form of equestrian dressage arising directly out of the principles established by a seventeen century French horse master - de La Gueriniere. So, in effect the world renowned riding centre in Vienna, Austria is based on a Frenchman’s schooling methods and is neither in Spain, nor are the horses Spanish nor are the riders Spaniards.
However in Jerez, Andalucia in Southern Spain, there is a Spanish School of Equestrian Art where Spaniards perform on pure blooded Spanish Andalucian stallions, riding techniques developed in Spain. Both riding schools provide a elegant display of dressage to a very high standard perhaps arguably better described as Equestrian Art. The uniforms and especially the hats are different but the displays bear a remarkable similarity. A highlight of the display at both centres is for the horses to perform above ground movements such as the Levade, the Capriole and other High School/Haute Ecole specialities. It has been suggested that these movements were developed so as to be useful when the horse was being used as a warhorse in battle. More realistically nowadays, these moves are to be seen as an acrobatic display, which indeed it is, by highly trained pedigree stallions folr paying customers. But the movements are magical to watch.
A similar equine display but mostly in time to music is offered by Le Cadre Noir of the French Cavalry at Saumur, perhaps underlining the point that such a display is more ballet than horse riding. Each of these centres is nowadays regarded as being tourist attractions as well as a national depositary of the skilled traditions of equestrian excellence.
Interestingly the British Military school of Equitation at Weedon was closed in 1938 as being irrelevant to modern warfare. Perhaps in the XIXth century Capt Nolan of Charge of the Light Brigade fame was arguably one of Britain’s more famous horsemasters until he was killed at Balaclava but he was merely concerned in breaking remounts for use by cavalrymen within 6 weeks - nothing stylish. Nolan was also convinced that geldings could perform as well as stallions. Much earlier the Duke of Newcastle published a book in 1657 on training horses but failed to create a durable basis for the art of horsemanship partly because of his cruel methods. Hartley Edwards is perhaps the most famous British guru of modern times but his books are mostly concerned with basic training.
Sylvia Loch, whose dead husband Lord Loch, was an instructor at Weedon, in effect preaches the use of de la Gueriniere’s and certain other classical instructors methods. Little she preaches is new but she applies the techniques to everyday horses of all breeds.
“Dressage” incidentally is the French word for “training“ or more exactly “to develop through standardised training methods a horse’s natural ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximising its potential as a riding horse“. However to reach the ultimate standards of haute ecole display, the horse must be taken by highly skilled horsemen through a long process of education and training which traditionally has been divided into three phases - the young novice horse, the campaign horse and finally the haute ecole horse. In truth for everyday riding, even for success in modern dressage competitions, this high school riding is of little use to amateur riders, however the fundamental principles utilised throughout the training phases of haute ecole are applicable to all horse training.
The past director of the Spanish School in Vienna, Alois Podhajsky, has stated clearly that the prime purpose of Classical Training is to produce by natural methods and without restraints a well mannered, quiet, supple, obedient & responsive horse which by its smooth movements is a pleasure to ride. An objective which must be close to the heart of all horse owners. Equine experts such as the American, Pat Parelli, must be also be considered when trying to get the best out of one’s horse whilst at the same time retaining a harmonious relationship with the animal.
The British for some reason, perhaps associated with concepts of efficiency, always want to hurry a process when it naturally must take time. Nolan made his name by being able to train horses for war in six weeks. However it must be said in mitigation that cavalry horses did not last long on a battle field. During the era when the horse reigned supreme in transportation and war, Britain was, and indeed still geographically remains, an island. All those years ago, ideas of best practice did not readily cross The Channel. Nowadays Britain is connected to the rest of Europe by various methods of communication and ideas can now readily flow backwards and forwards. Perhaps for reasons of relative isolation, on several scores the British attitude towards horses is different. British riders and thousands of furry foxes enjoy a green and pleasant grassland, criss-crossed by bridle paths and split into fields divided by 3 ft high fences or 6 foot high hedges. We have developed from Arabs and Turkomens a breed of horse - the Thoroughbred - which has a broad range of aptitudes. Out in the green countryside live yet more ancient breeds of horses, cobs and ponies each fit for a special purpose. The military, the police, the farmers and the fox hunters all have played their part in the creation of Britain’s national equine herd. Similarly the British passion for crossbreeds has influenced the quality of the horse population. We Brits believe that too much interbreeding can be counter productive as we have found with our dogs. Even in modern times it is remarkable that the breeding of many horses can only be guessed at. Only recently after much resistance has the equine passport scheme been introduced much to the distain of the breeders, who point out that the British don’t eat horseflesh. This scheme which passes on a profile of a horse’s history should inevitably in the future influence breeding practices. Few breeders seem to consider temperament as an important inherited characteristic in a horse, yet when training a horse, temperament and intelligence are of utmost importance. But maybe that is the problem - it is rare for the breeder to attempt to sell a horse “ready to ride” - that’s perceived to be the dealer’s area of expertise or the job of the British Horse Society. Also in Britain, the female is the dominant influence, not only in that mares are invariably used for riding as well as breeding but mostly that the rider is a woman. Horses in Britain aren’t put down when they have reached the end of their useful lives, many live on for years as pets eating the abundant and cheap grass. And of course, stallions, which can be temperamental, are mostly kept entire for breeding purposes only and not to be ridden as in Iberia.
The influence of the Irish must also be allowed for - where else but Britain could they find an outlet for all of those cross bred horses, many of which have no pedigree whatsoever. Perhaps it is not without just cause that many continental horsemasters have said in the past that British horses are not for schooling to a high standard. As competitive dressage comes more into vogue, then perhaps the Brits must start to look at the quality of the national herd of horses. Neither is it good that most aspirant riders are taught to ride by rote - up on the horse’s back.
Unfortunately the theory of how horse and rider should come together is rarely discussed in depth even in the riding centre, often because the principles of riding are not better known by the instructor. A piece of paper does not necessarily signify a good instructor. It is time that we Brits got our act together and that we read what the continentals have been reading for 400 years. There is little to know about horse behaviour that our forbears did not learn long ago.
Not to be forgotten in this article is the example of myself, who nutures a pretty dapple grey Irish Draught mare with a divine temperament. She is not bred for haute ecole but there again neither is her master. Her role in my life is to be my companion and my reason for getting up early each day. She brings routine into an old man's life.
To summarize, Classical Riding Art is for the professionals, but the basic Classical Training methods used to train at the lower levels the haute ecole horse are for anyone who wants to learn how to get the best from not only their horse but also from themselves as a rider. It takes time to learn the techniques but in the end it can be worthwhile.