"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. The teachings of equine experts such as the American, Pat Parelli and others, must be also be considered by the horse owner trainer when trying to get the best out of a 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."
I'd suggest this book by Littauer:
The goals of 'classical riding' had more to do with circuses and costume parties than having a sound, comfortable and reliable horse.
Francois de la Gueriniere
Notice the ample presence of footmen with carrot sticks...I mean, whips.
Littauer argues the style didn't jump the channel for so long because the average Englishman was more interested in the hunt than in the arena, and the classical style is ill-suited for traveling long miles efficiently. If the goal 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
", then training a horse to lift weights (the rider) up instead of forward may be unhelpful - unless the goal is a horse who prances well.
And there is nothing wrong with that goal. It is as valid a use of a horse as jumping fences or going for a stroll down a desert path
. But it is
a specialized goal, and the methods used to reach it are only helpful when it is
For example, something we now know that was unknown in 1650 is that a horse's vision is limited. It has some vision almost everywhere, but its binocular vision comes in a limited range, and it requires the horse to move its head to adjust what it is looking at. The horse's eye also has a small area of high resolution, and the rest is low resolution. Once you put the horse 'on the bit', and limit its head movement, you also limit its ability to see well.
"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 horsefs 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 understood by the instructor. A piece of paper does not necessarily signify a good instructor. It is time that the British got their act together and read what the continentals have been reading for 400 years.
Those who compete in competitive dressage already look carefully at the conformation and temperament of their horse, and also...well, I actually doubt many read the original writings of the last 400 years. Most are expensive to buy, and their training methods have happily disappeared into the past - although not that far past, since Littauer was taught riding and schooling using those methods in the early 1900s.
I admire the sport
of dressage. I'd love to see a real competition someday, and I enjoy watching videos. Like jumping and reining, I am in awe of what both the horse and rider achieve.
However, as a training program "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
", it is an utter failure. It is hard for the rider to learn and to perform well. It is hard for the horse to learn and perform well. Once you put the horse 'on the bit', you are working toward an objective that is not needed for "a well mannered, quiet, supple, obedient & responsive horse which by its smooth movements is a pleasure to ride
". Indeed, since it limits the horse's vision in a way that is harmful outside of a controlled surface, it not only is not needed, but a step backwards.
One of the challenges of modern horses is what to do while riding them. Arizona still has room for significant riding away from cars and people. In England, or parts of the eastern US, or even a place like California if near a city, where can you safely ride? And what will you do while riding? Dressage is certainly an option. It was born in the arena. And the challenge for both horse and rider gives the rider something to work on essentially forever.
If riding is to be popular in an era when keeping a horse can cost a small fortune, or even a large one, perhaps we need to think about ways to incorporate both speed and the social aspects of riding into an arena-suitable 'game'. Or perhaps we need to put more emphasis on breeding horses suitable for mixing with automobiles.
I guess there is enough of a 'natural horsemanship' part of me that I'd like to see more thought on how to make the horse a willing partner who enjoys the 'game' as much as we do. I don't doubt there are horses who would enjoy dressage, but there are many who probably do not - just as all riders do not.
I went from riding bitless only to riding only with a bit, but I think the bitless craze is driven by the desire to let the horse be a horse as much as possible while riding in the modern world. Since I'm a fan of western curbs, it might surprise some folks that I share that goal...but then, the goal of a western curb is to use it sparingly, and as lightly as possible. Ideally, I would be able to ride Mia for several hours without ever moving my reins more than a few inches, or ever fully removing the slack.
Instead of rejecting the bitless approach, perhaps modern riding needs to embrace it as a goal. Or at least to have goals like self-carriage, natural balance, natural headset and an eager horse. I dislike seeing the word 'bond' in the same sentence as 'horse', but it reflects the reality of what a lot of recreational riders desire - social interaction with their horse as a friend instead of a servant. I would argue he must be a servant before he can become a friend, but I think the future of riding involves finding ways to training a riding a horse as a near-equal partnership.
And I have no idea who it will all play out! I'd be curious to how others think riding in a modern world might evolve. Will it go back towards the 1600s, or take an entirely different approach?
BTW - Joe reminds me of a larger version of our 13 hand BLM mustang (with my 5'2" wife):
He's a little tank. He a darn good horse on a trail, and he doesn't seem to mind carrying my weight, although I'd guess that (with saddle) I'm around 30-32% of his weight. I almost never ride him, but I'd kind of like to start. He's stubborn, willful, opinionated, determined and a bit suspicious of human's good will. For the last, I need to point out that he has had at least 6 previous owners, and the person who gave him to us thought the total number might be higher. But he seems to be the sort of little horse who, if he gave you his trust, would make a heck of a riding partner!
But if so, I need to find a different saddle that fits him. This is trying to be light on his back while in a saddle that does NOT fit me at all, going up a hill (notice the horizon). The saddle may fit Cowboy, but I find it almost painful