The classical or competitive dressage debate *H&H Plus*

  • Has competitive dressage deviated from its classical roots, and on which side of the fence do you sit? In our dressage special issue of Horse & Hound, Alice Collins investigates what divides and unites the two forms

    Classical dressage was born from the fancy footwork required of horses on the battlefield, which then evolved into an art form and a show, particularly when horses moved from necessity to luxury with the rise of mechanisation. But we no longer ride horses bred for battle and the dressage landscape has changed.

    Has the modern, competitive version of the sport embraced the founding principles showcased in the courts of old and evolved and refined them, or has it deviated from its roots in a way that should concern riders and fans?

     Gareth Hughes, who was the top-scoring member of the British team at the 2019 European Championships in Rotterdam — finishing 10th with plus-80% aboard Classic Briolinca — believes it is more a question of adaptation rather than separation.

    “All sports evolve over time, and dressage is no different,” he says. “The breeding and type of horse we’re on has changed, but most of us still respect the classical principles and use them to help us guide our training.”

    So what exactly is classical dressage?

    “Different people have different ideas of what being classical means,” continues Gareth. “Personally, I think of the horse’s carriage and mechanics, but others may think of something else, such as the nose being in front of the vertical. Classical just means correct. And that’s the impression we, as competitive dressage riders, are trying to create throughout all the movements in any test.”

    There have been instances where a single photograph or a short clip has been lambasted online for its deviation from classical principles. But today’s dressage riders have more horse power beneath them than ever before, and this natural abundance of power can lead to excess energy, particularly when coupled with the pressure and atmosphere of the competition arena. Ugly riding will always exist, but those who have reached the top of the dressage tree are, by and large, extremely concerned with horse welfare and acutely aware of the need for humane and fair training.

    Olympian Richard Davison says he has been criticised on occasion for not being classical, but he has spent years training on his warmblood competition horses at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. He feels that the term “classical” is not a particularly helpful label.

    “Even between the various classical schools there were massive fundamental differences and disagreement on where to focus training,” explains Richard.

    “For example, the French school focused on the position of the head and neck, while others focused more on working the hindquarters to take the weight.

    “There were fierce arguments and they criticised each other so, in that respect, debate is nothing new. It’s flawed to think there’s one single classical training method; they were very disjointed. And maybe it would be more helpful to use the term ‘historical’ instead.”

    The major difference between the early days of the sport and now is that there is a framework — a rulebook — from which competitive dressage as a global entity works.

    “Now, there are far more common methods,” adds Richard. “We have regulated and unregulated dressage. Regulated dressage has rules it has to conform to, bringing the training pathways and methods of the competitors closer together. The fundamentals — the theories — haven’t changed, it’s just that the practicalities have.

    “Competition dressage started in a classical way and competitive dressage is an evolving sport but, crucially, it’s also transparent and out in the open for stakeholders to make and shape rules. On the other hand, in non-regulated, non-audited dressage, anything goes. I’ve seen plenty of examples of ‘classical’ nosebands with spikes on the inside and very long-shanked bits. What happens in the classical schools isn’t always correct. Personally, I’d rather have it regulated, be accountable and keep making things better.”

    ‘Things have improved enormously’

    Among the names to crop up most often with regards to classical dressage is Sylvia Loch, a long-time trainer, author and classical proponent. She is quick to point out the tremendous difference between riding a smaller, lighter Iberian horse and a large, extremely powerful modern warmblood.

    “With a naturally big-mover, the rider may struggle to hold in the power and may need to take more of a hold for safety reasons, or simply to get round the tight turns and corners,” she observes. “For a horse with really big paces, the arena is small and the rider has to compensate for that; sometimes it doesn’t look so pretty.

    “Things have improved enormously at the high levels thanks hugely to riders such as Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin — they are exceptionally talented and able to train lightness, responsiveness and adjustability into the biggest-moving warmbloods. But the average rider doesn’t have the knack to be so light in the hand, so sometimes finds themselves being harsh to control the power. Often it’s not their fault — they’re dealing with the horse underneath them as best they can.”

    Sylvia believes it’s possible to get a bit too comfortable riding the lighter breeds of horses.

    “I think most classical riders who only ride Spanish, Portuguese or Arab horses would struggle if you put them on a big-moving warmblood,” she says. “I think they’d struggle to reproduce what they can do easily on a lighter horse.

    “You have to be a better rider to produce a horse that is light in the hand at top level if riding a warmblood than if you’re on a Lipizzaner or a Lusitano — you don’t have to struggle with all that forward thrust as they were bred for collection. Ultimately it comes down to whether you want to drive a juggernaut or a nice MG.”

    And for those riders who choose “a juggernaut”, the challenge is to train them to perform the movements with apparent lightness and ease. But under the pressure of competition, knowing your horse can mean choosing to deviate from the perfect path, as Gareth explains: “In the grand prix, we have to do 15 one-times, and if I know my horse will go hollow then I might put the poll lower to make sure I get them without mistakes, even though he’s slightly behind the vertical; it’s a trade-off. Or if my horse over-sits in the piaffe, then I might have to lower the neck beyond what’s ideal, but I’m doing what I have to do to keep my horse relaxed and supple and happy.

    “If you take a photo in those moments, it won’t be classical. But if I have to make a trade-off like that, then I’m only using it to train towards not having to do it in future; it’s a way to prevent a worse mistake on the day, but the aim is not to have to ride like that in a test.”

    The term classical seems to be bent to conform to the intended meaning of the person using the word — detractors of modern day competitive dressage use it to drive an unnecessary wedge between the two factions, while fans use it to praise riders they admire. Ultimately, all anyone wants to see is good, correct training and riding, which is at least one thing everyone can agree on.

    The international judge’s view

    With her extensive competitive judging experience and wealth of training through the Spanish Riding School, Isobel Wessels is well placed to comment on the division — or unity — between classical and modern competitive dressage.

    “Like anything competition-based, you have to have rules, and there were none in the old days,” she says. “Now we have them to safeguard the welfare of horse, which is why you won’t see huge ‘pastry cutter’ spurs or sharp, harsh bits. Wars and the subsequent classical shows didn’t have rules on horse management, but the competition element formalised the rules with the horse’s welfare as the cornerstone. Things have changed to accommodate today’s rider and horse type and the fact it’s a competition.

    “In a test we have to show extended paces, which they never did in classical shows because it was all built around collection — so they had no impulsion as it was all collection — but now we have to show all the gears and the demands are higher.”

    Even though Isobel believes the founding principles for both branches of the sport are the same, she would not use the term “classical” on a competitor’s sheet.

    “We are given vocabulary from the FEI and making comments about whether something is classical would not be helpful. Instead, we stick with the FEI terms for clarity; we are dealing with people from all countries and many languages, so we’re really just looking for harmony, good riding and a happy horse, which are words everyone can understand. We don’t talk about classical, we talk about the training scale, and praise riders who influence the horse in balance and with small aids — which I think is pretty classical!”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 6 February 2020

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