Laura Tomlinson: My thoughts on the classical vs modern dressage debate *H&H Plus*


  • I found the feature in H&H’s dressage special (6 February issue) on the classical vs modern debate very interesting. I totally agree with Gareth Hughes’ comments that sport develops and adapts, and that the horses we ride now are so different from those stereotypical classical pictures people often allude to.

    We can’t assume the horses in those pictures are always happier than those we ride today — many of those ridden in a very classical style are tight over their backs. It’s also worth noting that being above the bit can be as bad as rollkur for a modern horse at top level.


    As was sensibly commented, it depends who is riding and the horse underneath them as to what fits. Yes, the scales of training are the aim, but modern dressage is meant to look quite different from the Spanish Riding School programme, at least in parts, because we perform some different movements with very different animals.What is frustrating, as Carl Hester pointed out in his column in the same issue, is when people use the word “classical” against riders. Gareth commented that we are all doing our best in the ring but sometimes we have to adapt to what we are feeling underneath us and have to make a compromise, not on the welfare of the horse, but on the picture.

    Some critics, however, feel that if a rider compromises on the angle of the nose by an inch, they are torturing their horse. Some people do get it wrong, and I agree consistently riding your horse overbent in a forced manner is an offence, but if it happens for a moment due to circumstances, it is not.

    I have noticed that when top riders post a training clip online, most people are excited to see it and positive, but there are always some who assume your caption reads, “Look, I am perfect!” and feel the need to tear you apart.

    As Carl wrote, nobody rides the perfect test; we are all still working on it and very few are out to get it wrong or do harm to their precious horses.

    A slippery slope

    I do believe, however, that modern dressage has gone through phases in which it has lost its way, when riders don’t keep to the scales of training and the true “modern” FEI guidelines.

    There have been instances when horses that are not representing those guidelines are rewarded with high scores, above horses with relaxed, swinging backs. This becomes a slippery slope to a riding style that is not very horse-friendly.

    We must be positive and look forward, but must remain self-critical as a sport. This shouldn’t be via online critics trying to catch a snapshot of a rider trying to do things right, in the one moment where it looks bad, but by keeping the conversation open.

    We must take note of where dressage has deviated from modern guidelines, which are there to fit with our sport but also to ensure spectacular-moving horses don’t get pushed beyond what is fair.

    Next week I am off to France for my first big outing of the year, and I will do my best to combine the best parts of “classical” and “competitive” dressage to fly the flag for our country, where welfare of the horse has always been paramount.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 13 February 2020