Dressage
(Present State)

A bronze statue of a Greek school horse from the 5th century A.D. The form shows a similarity to a Lipizzaner. This form is hardly found in today's dressage presentation. Note the good flex at the poll and the head is not on the vertical position and well above the hip.

The whole concept of the parade style dressage "framed up"  horse was the presentation (parading) of a high official (general) before the public. It was mainly practiced in the royal courts stables and not so much by the common campagne horse. It was adopted by most of the western world cultures. The statue presents a noble, athletic and balanced picture of a horse and rider of the same attitude. (Compare with photo at the bottom of this page) Note, much smaller in size than the horse below and the head is not on the vertical, despite the extreme high collection.

An other common appearance in the dressage today are oversized and too heavy horses which would be unsuitable for the latter military campaigns, clumsy and lacking required temperament for the parade. The polo pony has a practical use for bandaging to protect his legs, but on the dressage horse it is down outright silly.

The polo horse performance is today the closest to the formal military horse. Unfortunately most of these horses do not have the basic campagne balance, hence many of them retire prematurely, lame and used up.

The Mongol horse, one of the best military horses of all times. He is durable and small, hence the out of balance riding has very little negative effect, as against by  the larger warmbloods the balanced riding is of the essence, though often difficult to achieve. The Mongol horses are also much quicker and easier to maneuver than the presently popular oversized and unsuitable warm-blooded "klutz".

The Cossacks, one of the best cavalries ever, presenting medium size horse (Don Horse). Note the simple head equipment with a simple snaffle bit. If the horse could be controlled on the battle field only with the snaffle bit, just how silly the dressage horse looks performing in a show ring requiring spurs and curb bits.

 

 

    Today, the dressage is one of the most misguided riding disciplines of all times. I have not seen so much nonsense written, and inconsistency in writing about anything in reference to horses as when I read about dressage on various websites and books these days. Most claim that dressage has its origins in preparation of a horse for military campaigns, which is not quite accurate, though it does attract new comers to the sport. It also came to my attention that the Lipizzaners shows in the US are claiming about their horses, that they are war horses, which is of course self contradictory, since their entire training revolves around shows and non of them ever seen a battle field. One of the most preferred and required qualities in any military horse was speed and endurance. I can hardly imagine any of today's Lipizzaners (or other dressage horses) as fast running horses, nor it would be very hard to believe that anyone would prefer a white horse on the battle field, unless there is a bunch of them in the regiment or smaller unit.

   We can trace the "dressage" purpose of riding to the Greek culture, in the age of Sparta and Athens. Xenophon already describes some of the figures and moves of the dressage, mainly the piaffe and levade. However, these had nothing to do with the battlefield, but these movements were trained for a parade, to show off a military leader on a high-spirited horse that is "trotting" in a place (piaffe) or one can see the bottom of the belly of the horse e.g. high collection, levade etc.

     When we approach the baroque style of arena riding, it is again more or less for the same purposes, as in those days the high stepping horses were in fashion. It was all primarily for the appearance sake, as you can see in various paintings where most of them are in the levade, supposedly displaying the ruler (noble man) on a high spirited horse, hence showing the authority and leadership of the ruler. That type of riding was not only a part of parading but it was a part of fashion. Once, when the rider was able to carry firearms this type of riding, as well as the type of horse, quickly disappeared, because they became "handicapped" on the battlefield.

     Another obvious fact is that the training of the various figures in the "Spanish High School" takes many years, and if they would truly have a military purpose, it would be impossible to replace theses horses during the war. Well, one fact is obvious, that the Spaniards had very poor cavalry in comparison with other European countries, hence it is a poor example to look for "correct" riding or training values in the Spanish or the Baroque fashion, not to mention that the training methods were to some points relatively cruel those days. To put it into laymen's terms, there are two poles in the riding arena, which serve to a simple training method. I'll let you imagine the rest.

     If one truly cares to learn about genuine warhorses, one should look at the "Hell Riders" as the Mongols were called, whose horsemen never lost a battle. Guess what? They had no dressage, and rode little (in English terms ponies) "ugly" hairy horses with their "heads up in the air", against the "mighty" knights cavalries, which they always demolished. The training of their warhorses involved primarily various games from which we have adopted the polo; hence the polo ponies' performance is the closest to the training of a military horse today and not the dressage, but it is a hardly a realistic example.

   We can speak of the campagne dressage, where the military training of the western battle horse included the basic principals of balanced riding for better maneuverability and control of the horses. However, the speed and fitness of the animal was crucial, hence the dressage test in the military (three day test, today event) was on the first day, presenting a fit horse "on the toes" (no longeing before) well under control by the rider. The whole purpose of the military dressage was to quickly develop well trained, well balance, long lasting, easy maneuverable and most of all fast and reliable horse for the battlefield. The dressage today presents no such thing, nor the eventing horse presents a military horse with his jumping ability, speed and reliability in an unpredictable terrain and situations for which the three-day military test was intended.

   Question remains; "What is today's dressage about?" First of all, when you will read the books on regulation and requirements and compare them with the performances of the best dressage folks, you will see that they do not at all support each other. In other words, the books and regulations say one thing and the riders and judges do completely another, hence the title "misguided riding".

    Here are simple and undisputable facts that today's dressage is not about anything that it claims to be. In the parade, among other things, the rider needs to sit on a horse that appeared high-spirited, so called on the toes. A horse with his head down will hardly do that. A willing, alert and happy moving horse has his head up, not down as in today's dressage.

    Whether the dressage was used for military purpose or for the parade it always emphasized the head UP and not down. No "proud" horse walks or runs with his head down and only a complete idiot would charge against his enemy on a horse with his head down. It is no surprise that many folks believe that once when the horse is trained in today's dressage he will not jump, and it is the truth in most cases, since, among other things, the horse cannot see well once when he has his head on the desired vertical position and drops it below the impulsion (hip) line.
   I have published article on the impulsion line, which is not welcomed by many of the "want to be top riders", who will actually claimed that there is no such thing, mainly because it does show their incompetence even to the non-rider. Articles like the "impulsion line" are designed to show other less experienced horsemen and riders the incompetence of the top riders of the world today, who are to be blamed for most of the horse abuse today, because the less experienced horsemen will have tendencies to follow their examples.


    The parade riding of the Greeks presented a horse above the impulsion line, with his head flexed at the pole, but not completely on the vertical. The Spanish riding school presents a horse above the impulsion line, in higher erection level, (hence head closer to the vertical position), achieved over several years of training.
    The military horse of modern age cavalries, the kazaks, the hussars, the dragoons, the medieval cavalries of the Mongols they all present horse above the impulsion line, because horses cannot move freely and safe in a higher and faster gait with their heads down below the impulsion line. Hence all riding disciplines that present a horse moving with his head below the hips will have inevitably a large amount of sore and lame horses, not to mention somewhat dangerous to ride.
   
    The knights during the middle ages were riding heavy western horses that traveled often on the forehand with their heads down and were hard to control and simply ran over anything in their way. That type of riding and horsemanship was one of the worst ever in the history of mankind. From the rider's perspective, the knights were the worst riders ever and the only thing that led to success was their appearance, which often intimidated the opposition. Once when the "head up" horse of the Mongols met the "head down horse" of the knights, there was simply no competition. The knights got wiped out every single time! Kind of difficult to ride a horse on the battlefield that is hard to turn around.


   Today, dressage should be a style of riding that not only presents, but also represents a horse that is well balanced for the rider, not for the appearance sake but for the sake of the horse. The dressage should proud itself in sound horses, because it should show people how to ride and train a horse with the least amount of abuse to the animal. It should present a happy, willing and free moving horse that does not need severe aids like spurs, whips or curb bits to perform. This should be the primal criterion of the dressage and not some head on vertical nonsense. This is not a science, and the expression of the horse, with its alertness and interest to work should be the primal criteria of the dressage judges, rather than some politics of ever changing appearances according to the contemporary fashions. The free running horse should serve as a model for the movement in dressage and not some famous rider/teacher's theories.

    This picture on the left shows submissiveness of the horse and the dominance of the rider.

    This is not about harmony but about power and want to win, in which case it truly reflects our society that seems to be obsessed with power and control, especially when it comes to the modern female world.

    This frame is neither noble nor it is practical for any riding purpose. It shows nothing but an obsession to control the horse, hence there is no obvious harmony between the rider and the horse, which can be seen in the backward leaning seat of the rider contrasting all the pictures above.

Related Article:
What Is Dressage?

Dressage - Abuse
Rollkur
 What is it and where it came from?
Related Correspondence:
Dressage - There is not such thing today. 
Finding a Dressage Instructor

Written by Ludvik K Stanek a.k.a Lee Stanek