(aka Confessions of a True, Traditional, Classical Dressage Queen)
This photo and text, which I stumbled upon somewhere in the mists of time, pretty much sums it up. However, for those who'd like a little more, I will carry on below....
"My horses are my friends, not my slaves."
- Reiner Klimke, German Master
We dressage riders are often thought to be a stuffy, boring, pretentious lot. Especially we classical types. I like to think I am neither stuffy, boring nor pretentious, rather I am passionate and devoted and enjoy having fun, but I guess it's all a matter of perspective. Anyhow, I will try to not be any of those things in what follows, but I make no guarantees, and you may be the judge...
I have often thought that horsepeople, like doctors, should be required to take a hippocratic oath. You know, do no harm and all that. And just like doctors, we could swear all we want, and do our very, very best every day, and still, we would not have a perfect record. Why? First of all, define harm. Secondly, we're not infallible, nobody gets through life scot free, we hurt unintentionally, great intentions not withstanding. But at least we would have stated an intention to do our best to do no harm, and perhaps placed that foremost in our mind for the duration. And that is why I am obsessed with 'real' dressage. It allows me to follow my innate need to ride while adhering to an equally innate need to heal and harmonise.
Simply put, every time I work with a horse, my intention is for him to feel better after our session than he did before. This, by the way, in no way diminishes my ambition to develop a high performance horse. On the contrary. I just don't enjoy watching a high performance horse perform in a braced, uncomfortable manner that suggests he is performing in spite of his training, not because of it, so why would I want to ride one?
People often suggest that non-competitive dressage riders have no ambition, don't understand and don't really take the training seriously. I beg to differ. As a former, ardently competitive rider who couldn't imagine training just for the joy of it, I can attest to the fact that I take the training more seriously now than ever before. If anything, my approach to training now has considerably more depth. I don't need the carrot of a showdate or a ribbon dangling in front of my nose to push me to do what I do, I do it because I love it and could not imagine life without it. Day after day, I work out, limber up and then go out and work three to five horses. Not because it's a job, but because I want to. The fact that I train while strictly adhering to principles now thrown to the wind by many a trainer, and thus amateurs not to mention most top competitive riders, to the detriment of the well being of their horse, only underscores my commitment to the horse and passion for the discipline, not the lack thereof. A commitment to a type of training that improves the overall wellbeing of my horse, day after day, from the ground up.
This is what sets true Dressage apart from all other disciplines. No other discipline can claim to do what real Dressage does. Which is why Dressage used to be a safehaven for horses, a place of healing and a place they would return to when they needed a break from more stressful sport, or needed a retirement that allowed them to still be ridden and even competed. People used to say, oh, he just needs a few months of Dressage and he'll be right as rain. Not so anymore. But Once Upon a Time....Dressage was a highly esteemed sport, the standard by which all other's were judged, and all horses were returned to for respite.
Because Dressage at it's best not only attempts to do no harm, but actually will undo past errors in judgment or the effects of accidents, injuries and abuse, by rehabilitating body and mind, even spirit. Dressage at it's best is a holistic approach, putting physical therapy and rehabilitation before technical prowess, providing the horse with as natural a life as possible, while benignly and harmoniously developing their natural abilities as human companions and partners. Dressage at it's best flowers into a horse that is sublimely relaxed and confident while powerfully engaged in body and mind, supple and agile, capable of great feats of gymnastic athleticism, and full of pride at his own ability. Because Dressage at it's best develops and cultivates the movements a horse naturally exhibits when feeling full of pride, fun and playfullness, touched by that otherworldly grace we all fall in love with. We are inspired to practice Dressage because we humble humans want to ride that and know what it feels like to ride the wind at it's most playful and emboldened.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying all other equestrian disciplines are bad.
I'm not even saying all competition is bad.Though some are worse than others.
I'm saying Dressage, done right, is especially special. I'm saying I visit other sports but live in Dressage. I love to jump, to ride cross country, to hack down the road. I love watching others do the same. I love watching horses run a good race and I also know that some horses, like some people, could care less about the wear and tear on their bodies. They are the Ironman triathletes, the boxers, the marathon runners, extreme sports fanatics that just love to push their bodies to the boundaries and price be paid, be damned. I've known horses like that. Who am I to say they shouldn't play polo, event, run a race, jump puissance - you can just see the hunger and want in their eyes and they don't care. They come alive in the face of an extreme challenge. I think it was Dr. Hilary Clayton who said the difference between the very top horses and the 'almost theres' is their capacity for enduring pain. I bet you know some people like that, too. I'm fine, I'll just pop an aspirin and go swim that mile. Or ten. Show me that six foot jump and I'll take you along for the ride!!
And while Dressage done well will benefit almost any horse, not every horse cares to practice Dressage. They'd rather run, jump, walk down the trail. So no, I am not saying all other disciplines are very naughty and bad for existing. Not at all. I'm just saying this is why I, Susannah Cord, love True, Traditional, Classical Dressage.
Now, the next question is, what kind of Classical Dressage are we talking about here at Torchlight Training? German, French, Iberian, Italian, Renaissance? Oh yes, there's more than one. Well, that one is easy. All of them. Because no two horses are alike, and no one system will fit every horse. Well, I take that back. One system will, and that is the system of the Portuguese Master, Nuno Oliveira. Why does his system fit all? Because, while he is often dismissed as a Baucherist (in other words, French Classical, a very intellectual and at times, controversial, philosophy and approach), he in fact was an ardent student of all systems, known to often quote the German heroes like Steinbrecht. He read all the books, was a student of equestrian history, and incorporated all equestrian philosophies into his day to day work. He rode whatever came his way, any horse, (few of them very talented), different breeds and yet he consistently turned out horses that resembled one another in terms of their supreme relaxation, suppleness and agility. He perhaps can be said to have started as a Baucherist, but down the road he not only incorporated German techniques and ideas, he openly warned against the pitfalls of the Baucher method.
Why? Because he was a true horseman who was not stuck on being right or proving his system infallible, only interested in developing astonishingly beautiful athletes, but in doing so in the best way possible for the horse. And funnily enough, in so doing, while stating he does not ride "with any system in mind", he in fact developed the most wonderful system. And I am so very fortunate to have found in his student, Stephanie Grant Millham, a mentor who will teach it to me.
The philosophy is simple - do what is right for the horse in front of you.
Remember that the different systems often reflect the type of horse ridden at the time the system was developed. Riding a warmblood is, in fact, not the same as riding a Lusitano or a Thoroughbred. Ride the horse that showed up, not the one you rode yesterday or thought would be there today. Maybe he slept badly. Maybe you did. Take into account any possible chiropractic issues, past injuries.
Strive for rhythm and relaxation above all else, and remember that while modern day Dressage constantly confuses tension with power, relaxation does not in fact equal the lack thereof.
Nor does compression equal collection, or bracing equal expression. Remember that the job of Dressage is to remove any brace and replace it with relaxation, while refining balance, creating engagement and ultimately, collection. Add power to that, my friend, and you will ride a panther at your beck and call. And remember that every green, injured and tense horse will brace when you sit on his back and develop strange habits, stiffnesses, imbalances and inabilities if not addressed. You'd do the same if you were suddenly saddled with a 150 pound backpack. He's not doing it to ruin your day. He is trying to tell you something.
Horses weren't born knowing how to carry a human. That is what Dressage is for.
In the Master's own words:
"Dressage is not to have only the movements, to show half-pass, shoulder-in, flying changes, passage and piaffer. Dressage is to have the horse relaxed, with a good feeling, and if dressage is good, the horse becomes better balanced for other things, such as jumping. That's Dressage. The body is relaxed because the mind is relaxed. Both things are important."
(From the book 'The Legacy of Master Nuno Oliveira' by Stephanie Grant Millham, available from Xenophon Press.)
Funnily enough, German Master, Klaus Balkenhol, said something very similar:
"It lies in the hands of every single rider whether horse and rider feel relaxed. It must be every rider's supreme aim to create relaxation of mind and body."
I guess it must be true, then. And just as Classical Horsemanship begins and ends in Classical Dressage, so Dressage begins and ends in this relaxation of which Nuno Oliveira was indeed, the Master, and which is at the heart of Torchlight Training's Philosophy.