ClassicalDressage.com (a.k.a. ArtisticDressage.com) was formed in 1998 by Dr. Thomas and Shana Ritter as a means to educate people about the heritage and tradition of classical horsemanship. It is our mission to preserve and promote the both the technical knowledge, as well as the art, culture, and tradition of Classical Riding.
Classical Dressage was at its height in the Baroque era, when European aristocracy could devote their vast time and wealth to the endless pursuit of artistic equitation. Over the centuries since, classical dressage has entered a steady decline, and it is now in great risk of extinction. Many masters of equestrian art have died without leaving a successor behind. The remaining living masters are aging and few in numbers. Time is of the essence!!! This is why it is crucial that, together, those of us who believe and value the classical principles, keep the torch alight and pass it along.
Join us in this very important venture to preserve and promote the heritage of Classical Horsemanship.
From a historical and practical point of view, the purpose of Classical Dressage was to train a horse to be safe, reliable, obedient, and comfortable to ride under all circumstances. Horses also needed to stay sound for many years - for economic as well as ethical reasons, since good horses were always expensive and often hard to find, and because the training takes a very long time.
From a philosophical point of view, Classical Dressage is about training the horse purely for the joy of training - l'art pour l'art. In addition, it should benefit the horse's well-being. Anything in the training of the horse, that is not in the best interests of the horse's soundness, happiness, and spirituality is not classical. Classical Dressage is not about the spectacular airs, such as the levade or capriole, or the piaffe and passage, however beautiful and inspiring those are. It is instead about the day-to-day work of the horse. It is the "chopping wood and carrying water" of the equestrian disciplines.
At the heart of Classical Dressage is the spirit of establishing a connection with the horse. The horse is not a vehicle, either literally as a means for transportation, or figuratively, as a vehicle for success, prestige, and power. The horse is a living, breathing, and FEELING being, and it is of the utmost importance, in the training, to connect with this essence. This connection involves a careful balance between trust and respect. It would be idealistic to think one could achieve this simply through indiscriminate kindness to the horse, but if such kindness and softness are not balanced by sensible boundaries, the horse will never learn either respect or trust. Both go hand in hand. One is not possible without the other. The horse thrives in an environment of love, fairness, and consistency. It is the human's responsibility to provide fair and consistent boundaries in the horse's life. The horse, just like a child, can sense when he is treated with love and respect. He will accept any justified reprimand and even outright strictness, without losing his interest and love for the human, if it is fairly executed and balanced by reward and love. On the other hand, if the horse is treated without love and respect, he will withdraw in order to protect himself, and either become afraid or angry. It is our responsibility, as the caretakers and trainers of our horse, to see that his spiritual and psychological needs are met. If we are to train the horse in the spirit of Classical Dressage, this cannot be ignored, and the horse cannot be treated merely as livestock or assets.
True classical training is gymnastic training. It can even become physical therapy. It preserves and prolongs (and in some cases, even restores) the soundness of the horse. Classical training does not teach the dressage movements as tricks without the necessary gymnastic preparation. It ensures that each movement is learned and executed in such a way that the horse uses his body economically and efficiently by minimizing friction and wear and tear through balance and suppleness. In classical dressage, movements are not an end in themselves, but they are gymnastic tools that make specific muscle groups stronger and more supple. Such an approach to training as gymnasticization continually improves the horse's balance, suppleness, and straightness, which results in smoother gaits, less jarring, less bracing and resistance, and consequently greater soundness and longevity.
One of the main goals in the gymnastic training of the horse is to shift the combined body mass of horse and rider gradually towards the hindquarters. A sudden excessive weight shift would overburden the unprepared hindquarters and damage the hocks, the fetlocks, or the tendons and ligaments of the hind legs, because the muscles of the haunches are not yet developed sufficiently to support a larger share of the weight. The lower joints (fetlocks and hocks) are especially vulnerable to injuries, since they are not protected by large muscle groups, like the upper joints. For this reason, the powerful muscles that surround the hips and stifles have to be strengthened and suppled systematically over time, so that the flexion of the upper joints of the hindquarters can protect the hocks and fetlocks as well as the front legs.This ensures the soundness of the horse. The transfer of the weight towards the hindquartes culminates in the Levade, where the entire weight of the horse's forehand has been transferred to the haunches, so that the front legs lift off the ground and fold underneath the body, which is now supported exclusively by the hind legs.
This transfer of the weight (i.e. collection) can never be accomplished without the establishment of suppleness in the horse. Only a supple body can be compressed by flexing all its joints. Form follows function in Classical Dressage, i.e. the correct posture is always the result of balance and suppleness. Putting a stiff, unbalanced, and disconnected horse into a superficial "frame" and riding "tricks" with a "headset" is entirely without value and will make the horse lame in the long run. Balance front to back and left to right allows the horse to relax and stop bracing, whereas even the slightest imbalance will always lead to bracing in order to avoid falling down. Balance and relaxation lead to lightness, gracefulness, and elegance. In Classical Dressage, we don't strive for merely an outward appearance, but for a certain feel. This is achieved through carefully selected exercises that help the horse to develop his body awareness as well as his ability to shift his balance quickly and seamlessly from side to side and from front to back and vice versa, so that he can find the optimal balance for each turn, each transition, and each movement.
Classical Dressage is for every horse and every rider. One does not have to have a special breed or type of horse to do Classical Dressage. Because Classical Dressage is about making the horse safe, comfortable, maneuverable, reliable and keeping it sound, its principles can be applied to the training of any horse. Even such seemingly unlikely candidates as gaited horses can benefit from classical training. Every horse can benefit from better balance and straightness, even if it does not come from the typical "dressage" breeds. Whereas such "dressage" breeds can be quite enjoyable to work with and may progress further in their training because they are athletically predisposed to do Dressage work, it is not necessary to mortgage your house, take a second job, or get a loan to be able to afford a horse with which to do Classical Dressage. Any horse can benefit and every horse offers a learning experience for the rider. Classical training simply makes the horse better at his "day job", whether it is a trail horse, a jumper, a foxhunter, or even a Western horse, because it makes it easier to go forward, stop, turn, bend, move sideways and backwards. That's all any horse of any discipline ever has to do. Furthermore, one does not have to be particularly gifted or athletic as a rider to engage in classical training. One only needs a deep and unwavering love for the horse, knowledgeable instruction, and the willingness to do what is necessary for the greater benefit of the horse.
These days there are many misconceptions about what Classical Dressage IS and ISN'T, because the number of riders who grew up as a part of the living oral tradition is becoming smaller and smaller each year. There are fewer and fewer riders who have had first hand experience with the true classical tradition. That's why there are charlatans who use the label of Classical Dressage as a promotional gimick, without adhering to the classical methodology or philosophy. Their training methods don't meet the requirements of producing safe, sound, and sane horses who enjoy their work. On the other hand, there are well meaning but uneducated idealists who have taken the soft and gentle side of classical dressage to such an extreme that they are completely ineffective, because they reject the necessary equipment, such as bits, whip, spurs, etc. and they are afraid to make any athletic demands of their horse, so that the training of their horses gets stuck in its infancy. Both types of riders do a disservice to Classical Dressage out of ignorance. The only remedy is education. In the past, there were many riding schools and even universities that taught classical, gymnastic dressage. Today, there are only very few riders left who are a part of the living tradition and who truly understand the principles, the methodology, the history, and the culture of classical dressage. It is up to those individuals to keep the knowledge and the tradition alive as best they can - which is a huge challenge without sponsorship. The need to make a living and pay bills makes it very difficult to focus one's energies exclusively on the promotion of the classical riding culture.
Equestrian art is not about prestige, power, or ego. These are stumbling blocks that every rider encounters. They lure us away from the path, but following them actually leads to a deadend, an end of learning, an end of the rider's process of self realization. They have to be transcended in order to continue learning and growing as a person. The goal, the Way has to be to bring out the best in every horse, physically, psychologically, and spiritually - not to win acclaim and prizes. Only in this way can training be considered Classical. And only in this way can Classical Dressage lead each horse to fulfill its true potential.
Dr. Thomas Ritter
Why do we ride?
"We ride horses for the pleasure of `creating beauty' as the Master
Ecuyer (La Guérinière) said. We ride for the pleasure of feeling
ourselves transported into different attitudes, drowned into the
fluidity of a supple and tranquil back, rocked by the cadence of ample
and harmonious gaits. It is a long-haul work, requiring much patience.
It takes years for making a dancer or a pianist. It takes as much to
make an Ecuyer. But, this work with its disappointments, its
discoveries, its successes, is so enthralling that, in the ordinary
life nothing matters any longer when one sits on the back of a horse.
Classical dressage, when it is well understood, allows getting
progressively to the highest summits of this Art."
- Excerpt from `Equitation-La Tradition Classique by Cdt de Padirac
(Translation by Bruno Celard)
"The quintessence of horsemanship is always to place the interest of the horse above all other considerations, in his training as well as in his care."
- Dr. Thomas Ritter
"However, the art of riding must not raise a slave. The means of dressage must not become a chain that the horse tries to break, wasting all of his energy. On the other hand, dressage should not put the horse to sleep and make it into a machine. What can the rider expect from such a monkey-grinder, other than that it plays the tunes that are on the cylinder? He must not be surprised if the monkey-grinder falls silent as soon as he stops turning the cylinder, and if the whole harmony changes into discord, if one cog is missing.
Again, the rider must always try to form a companion through the dressage training, and must not degrade the noblest animal
of creation either to a slave or to a machine!"
- F.v.Krane, 1856
"Just as experience dictates to the ballet teacher the length of time necessary to train his students, so the horse, too, needs time to mature into a great four legged dancer. This fact cannot be obliterated by seeming successes that supposedly prove the opposite. For, even if someone should succeed in training a horse to high school level by the age of eight, this individual occurrence cannot shake the foundations of the classical art of riding, if this dressage horse is completely unsound and unusable by the age of ten."
- A.Podhajsky, 1965
“Because, as a rule, the horse must take pleasure in his work. Otherwise, he and his rider will not be able to accomplish anything graceful.”
- A.de Pluvinel (1628)
“Love for the horse. I postulate as a universal maxim for the entire process: Strive to make your horse your best friend!”
- P.Spohr (1908)
“Only those who have the friendliest relationship with the horse will achieve the most.”
- P.Spohr (1908)
“The horse must not only show perfect obedience towards the rider’s aids, but even joy in obeying, i.e. a keen desire to fulfill the rider’s will: happy obedience.”
- P.Spohr (1908)
"In all Arts, the artist learns the technique, all the details of that technique, and now he makes his masterpiece which is the result of all that technique with love."
"For what the horse does under compulsion, as Simon also observes, is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign."
- Xenophon, 4th Century B.C.
"It is art, not force, that should lead the horse towards the goal. Then, even a weaker rider will succeed."
- E.F.Seidler , 1837
"The horse’s beauty lies in his nobility, his grace, in his proud appearance, in the harmony of his movements, their brilliance, their energy. Equitation that is beautiful, delicate and tasteful, seeks the development of this beauty by relying on the very gifts of the horse and not by rendering them unnatural. It is nature that this equitation takes as guide and not the extraordinary or the eccentric that is sought."   - A.F.L’Hotte
"Theory instructs us that we should work from a foundation of sound principles, and these principles, rather than going against nature, must serve to perfect it with the aid of art."
- F.R.de la Gueriniere
“A dressage training whose final result is not at the same time preservative has no raison d’être and ought not to be attempted at all.”
- W.Seunig (1949)
"No-one will be able to train any horse completely, if he has not both, a precise understanding of their natural gaits, raising, advancing, and alighting of their legs, as well as a great knowledge of those that originate in art. It is a very general rule that art never contradict nature, but follow the latter and restore it to order."
- W.Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle
"Training a horse is above all feeling and trying, according to what you feel, to help the horse and not to force him."
- Nuno Oliveira
"A dressage training whose final result is not at the same time preservative has no raison d’être and ought not to be attempted at all."
"I do not subject the horse to a schedule concerning when he must be able to satisfy my demands. That depends on his forces and his age."
- Du Paty de Clam , 1777
"Bad impressions, caused by hurried training methods, oftentimes cannot be erased in months. With a few days of patience, they could have been avoided altogether."
- E.F.Seidler, 1837
"In training one always wants to go too fast. To arrive quickly, do not hurry, but be firmly assured of each step. Demand often; be content with little; reward a lot."
- F.de Kerbrech, 1891
"A horse, whose will has been broken by brute force and who is in a state of passive submission because of his ill-advised good nature, has lost any autonomy along with his spirit, and now expects the rider to dictate every step. It is easy to imagine the pathetic role such a horse, who has been reduced to working like a machine, an automaton, will play in a hunt field, and the embarrassing situations in which a rider can find himself who may be altogether innocent of his 'training'."
- W.Seunig, 1949
"The horse is the mirror of the rider; his character, his mood, his present frame of mind, his attitude towards his horse and the subject matter find their expression in the quality of the horse’s gait."
- Dr. Thomas Ritter
"Horse and rider should always be an aesthetic sight."
- A.Podhajsky, 1965
"What are two years in the realm of art? In such a short time you can at best open the door for the students and show them the vast realm of art, in order to awaken in them the desire and explain to them the formidable difficulty of how far and rough, but truly interesting, the road to art is."
- O.v.Monteton, 1877
"In order to control a living being, one has to learn to control oneself. Riding requires a good mood and calmness. A rider should never feel fear, impatience, or anger."
- U.Bürger, 1959
"Look for the best role models – those who are truly trained in accordance with the natural way of riding and who educate in accordance with these tried-and-tested rules. Love the horse and try to understand his nature so that he can trust you. Be happy about little progresses in yourself and in your horse, then you will achieve great things playfully."
"Xenophon was the first one to claim that horses can become only more beautiful with correct training, never uglier. I would like to add to this that if the horse becomes uglier in the course of his work, it is the unmistakable proof of incorrect dressage training."
- A.Podhajsky, 1965
"So when he is induced by a man to assume all the airs and graces which he puts on of himself when he is showing off voluntarily, the result is a horse that likes to be ridden, that presents a magnificent sight, that looks alert, that is the observed of all observers."
- Xenophon, 4th cent. B.C
"Nothing is more harmful for equestrian art than that its results take so long to become visible and remain so hidden for the eye of the uneducated person."
- O.v.Monteton, 1877
"One should honestly answer the question: Which type of perfection are we looking for in horsemanship: a cold-hearted computer-like perfection that approaches the measurements and rules and regulations as closely as possible, which is manipulated until the last bit of individual personality has vanished; or that type of perfection that does justice first and foremost to the personality, even if little imperfections have to be accepted in favor of a harmonious aesthetic overall impression, because of the belief that man had better preserve the glory of creation instead of fumbling around with it until he has succeeded in making it disappear."
"Artistic quality is too difficult to estimate objectively."
- U. Schramm, 1991
"It should be noted that in the nineteenth century, connoisseurs were already starting to lament the decline of the art of horsemanship. Now that dressage has become a competitive sport, it has to be admitted that artistic quality has declined even more."
- U.Schramm, 1991
"We should be aware that, just like in show jumping, it is not at all the case that the true artist always wins, and that the winner of a dressage test is not necessarily an artist."
- U.Bürger, 1959
"The love for the subject matter - passion - is the soul of any talent, of any sustained excellence. However, any art is so difficult, its road to the goal is so thorny, so rocky and long, until one reaches the summit, that it does not open its gates to the disciple without serious studies, no matter how great the love may be. Nowadays people do not want to engage in this seriousness, this quiet studying. They do not even read a book on horsemanship. I have, therefore, little hope of being read. If I wanted to see this wish fulfilled that lies buried at the bottom of every ink pot and is waiting for its resurrection, I should have chosen a different title, such as: "On the Art of Winning", in order to be picked up by the equestrian world."
- O.v.Monteton, 1877
"This implies that equestrian art is not determined by the degree of difficulty of certain measures, but exclusively by the degree of harmony between rider and horse and its visible expression. In one word, the same beauty with which every foal in the pasture captures the observer should characterize an equestrian performance, regardless on what level. Equestrian art is therefore inextricably linked to the rider’s skills and has nothing to do with the horse’s training level. The presence or absence of the rider’s artistic touch will have to be recognizable on all training levels."
"Today, however, few riders know their horses and the causes of their behavior. Everything has become superficial nowadays, except technology. With machines the physical laws may not be disregarded as we often disregard the laws of nature with our animals. The well-founded doctrines of the old riding masters are frequently rejected today with the remark that these methods are old-fashioned and not applicable in our present times, which demand quick success. And what is the result of this fast training? The standard has declined until the once so beautiful movements have become caricatures of what they were. And yet a performance of the highest standards must be built up step by step and on a well-founded basis. I have learned by experience that today’s riders may indeed rely upon the teachings of our predecessors, for they are of invaluable help in the reasonable development of this sport. If a rider thinks that he has found a new method he may be sure that if it is any good he has come upon it by instinct or by chance and that it was practiced long ago by the old masters."
"A horsemanship from which artistic equitation has completely vanished cannot be rebuilt - thank God it has not come to that yet, but we are heading in that direction. The teachers of equestrian art would then be missing, and it takes generations to educate new ones. Equestrian art is too difficult. You cannot learn it on your own. Without a teacher who helps them over the hill, everybody only gets stuck."
- O.v.Monteton, 1877
"The whole world worships progress, and the word “outdated” suffices to put the best thing down. Our fast paced time cannot wait for anything. It builds houses that fall down even before someone has moved in. How can such a time be expected to spend two years on riding a horse through, and the word “sport” makes it entirely impossible. For the word “sport” implies the concept of amusement. Equestrian art, however, is a very serious, difficult pursuit, that is not at all suitable to entertain the ladies or other ignorant people in a way that dazzles the senses, and “amusement” is inextricably linked with “not being able to wait” in the human heart."
- O.v.Monteton, 1877
"I was also asked whether I was able with my method to perform many of the main movements of equestrian art on a green horse, as some equestrian celebrities. My answer has always been: no! Since these tricks can only be performed by the one person who is doing them; they are not based on any particular system. What benefit could they possibly have for rational equestrian art, as they are not executed in accordance with specific principles, but depend solely on the physical energy of the rider and the forceful usage of physical strength. The rider practices these tricks only to dazzle people who lack knowledge in true equestrian art. The horse who is subjected to such violence initially obeys the unexpected demands, but soon wisens up and realizes his innate strength, and uses it entirely to oppose the force by suddenly throwing his head, neck and body against it. One then wonders how the horse refuses to obey the rider in the simplest demands which it used to perform easily and willingly. Simply awakened from its surprise, it is now taking the initiative and remains resistant, perhaps forever."
- F.Baucher, 1884
"If we are serious in maintaining the equestrian art as a fine art and not let it be degraded to philistinism and puppetry, there is only one way: we must try to follow the old masters."
- G.Steinbrecht, 1884
"Brutality begins where skill ends."
- E.v.Neindorff, 1972