David Pincus: Classical training vs. modern breeding in dressage *H&H VIP*

  • I was recently asked if I think that the old principles and theories of the classical school are still applicable today.

    The person asking the question, although not a rider, is very knowledgeable and involved with dressage — the photographer Kevin Sparrow. He wanted to know if guidelines given by books written by authorities such as Seunig, Podhajsky and others are still relevant today.

    My instinctive reply was a definite yes and may be even more so now than ever. There followed a long discussion.

    Classical dressage systems evolved over many years to facilitate the transformation of a wild animal — the horse — into a serviceable, useful animal to mankind for work and pleasure.

    The classical system is an accumulation of knowledge based on practical experience gained over many years by many people and passed on to future generations.

    In a nutshell, it has been proved that in training horses if one follows certain procedures in a certain sequence the outcome is successful.

    It’s important to remember that a horse in nature did not evolve to be ridden (as some think). A horse is not naturally meant to carry a rider and to perform the movements we expect from him for our benefit. It is only through a well thought-out and proven system developed over years that it became possible to turn a wild horse into a riding horse.

    The classical system enabled humans to turn a horse into something that nature did not intend him to be, without breaking him physically or mentally.

    Horses were successfully trained to perform difficult movements such as the piaffe, passage and pirouettes, while staying sound and sane, because the training was carried out according to accepted and proven practices.

    It’s important also to remember that purposely dressage-bred horses have become the norm only in the past few decades. Records, photographs and old videos show how limited horses of the past were compared with today’s, but due to the training methods employed — and in spite of these limitations — these horses trained and performed to an acceptable standard.

    Over the years with selective, targeted breeding the training process became easier. Undesirable characteristics were upgraded to better conformation, more athletic paces and a more amenable, trainable temperament.

    It fitted the phrase “trained by the stallion”, which means the horse is a natural in doing what is asked of him in dressage.

    It was also about this time that we noticed a demise of the classical training systems in the sport. People were gaining decent results in the sport with less and less intellectually proven systems; what was missing on the training side was compensated for by more capable horses and expressive, flamboyant paces.

    To put it briefly, in earlier times the system supported the limitations of the horse, but in recent times the qualities of the horse reduced the requirement of such a foolproof system.

    Modern horse challenges

    As breeding of horses is an ongoing process determined by fashion and commercialism, the transformation in the current horse type went even further.

    We are now breeding horses with bigger and more expressive movement at the expense of soundness, strength and traits that enable the horse to perform the sought-after collected exercises such as the piaffe and canter pirouettes.

    The modern dressage horse has many things going for it, but also comes with various physical and mental limitations that pose great challenges to trainers and riders.

    To achieve success in the sport they can no longer rely on the horse’s natural attributes.

    A carefully designed, purpose-built system is required to train these modern horses. Without this, they won’t reach their expected potential and may physically, mentally — or both — break.

    I believe the system most suitable for this situation is the proven classical system adapted very slightly to today’s horses and circumstances.

    Does that answer your question, Kevin?

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 17 March 2016