Over the centuries, starting with Xenophon in 350 BC, classical horsemanship training principles and methods have developed that successfully maintain the mental and physical health of the horse. First and foremost, classical principles encourage the rider to maintain the natural movement of the horse and to develop a willing partnership between horse and rider. The goal is for the horse to be able to carry the rider without the loss of natural movement. To be able to do this the horse needs to carry themselves in a healthy posture or frame. Healthy posture or frame for the horse needs to have a neutral back (not dropped) that is relaxed and flexible. In classical riding, the horse is encouraged to move and engage impulsion from “back (the haunches) to front (soft contact in the hand)” in order to improve efficiency and performance. Classical principles teach riders to support forward impulsion using “following hands”.
A horse’s healthy posture needs to be created from the inside out and is developed by relaxation of the topline, the forward thrust (impulsion), and balance. A round frame that is created from the “outside in” by pulling backward or down with the hand is created under tension and this pulling on the reins hinders the horse’s ability to push from behind. Under tension the horse is unable to efficiently use their back movement muscles and thereby impede the efficient forward movement of the horse. If the frame of the horse is created by “front to back (backward or downward)” pulling or by artificial aids (example: draw reins or side reins) behavior and soundness issues can arise. The horse will travel with stiffness and tension which is undesirable for the horses’s health.
Classical methods form the basis of a training program that includes systematic mental and physical development of the horse’s aptitudes and gymnastic abilities. The training program is set out in a series of progressional phases that develop a horse’s well being and creates an obedient and pleasurable riding companion.
The classical training program consists of a training scale that includes three phases and seven sub phases. These phases include:
- Preliminary familiarization and riding training – the foundation
- tacking up, lunging, and backing
- rhythm & tempo
- Contact and acceptance of the bit
- development of the forward thrust (Impulsion)
- relaxation and looseness
- Development of the carrying capacity (Collection)
- collection & elevation
All of these phases together develop suppleness and throughness or “letting the aids through”. Each phase of the training includes specific exercises and movements to develop the healthy equine athlete over time.
What type of horse and rider benefit from classical riding principles and training?
Horses and riders in all disciplines from reining to jumping to pleasure activities benefit by training within the principles of classical riding. A horse that is balanced and through and is free to naturally move is a pleasure to ride. The classical exercises and movements increase the gymnastic abilities of the horse and develops the rider to be more mentally attuned to the horse and improves the rider’s connection to the horse’s movement.
The training scale sections that guide the training decisions
What is meant in riding by rhythm and tempo?
Each gait of the horse moves within a fixed footfall rhythm or pattern. For all horses: the walk has four equal beats, the trot two equal beats with the legs traveling in diagonal pairs, and the canter which is a three beat “waltz” rhythm. Gaited horses have additional gait rhythms. It is important to maintain the purity of the natural rhythms of the gaits and that the rhythm stays regular throughout the training sessions. At the walk, it is healthy for the horse to cover the same amount of ground between each step and at the trot and that each diagonal step covers the same amount of ground. Tension and fatigue can disrupt the natural rhythms of the footfall. Tense and fatigued gaits include: the 4 beat canter and the lateral walk.
The tempo is the speed at which the rhythm repeats. Each horse has their own natural tempo and finds their own natural pace in the same way as people who “find their own stride”. This natural tempo is steady and efficient. If a horse is asked to work outside of their natural tempo, tension and fatigue arise what can create behavioral or physical problems.
Why is a giving contact of the rider’s hand to the horse’s bit so important?
A giving contact with the reins is a soft and steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. If the contact is hard or uneven, the horse’s forward movement is impeded and the horse may develop behavioral problems while being ridden. Examples include: flinging their heads, opening their mouths, grinding their teeth, and leaning on the bit.
The contact is established by the horse seeking the bit and the contact. As the horse reaches forward and/or downward with his head and neck, the rider lets the rein form a soft contact. The goal is to maintain the horse’s head in the center of his chest and to have the contact even between both hands. If the horse moves it head from side to side or up and down, soft contact is maintained with the following hand, but the hands work in concert to bring the head back into position by allowing one hand to weigh more. Example: If the horse looks to the right, then the left hand follows but now has more weight in it than the right hand. The horse feels this weight on the left side of his mouth and brings it head back to the left. The key is to keep the hand soft and following and not to jerk or pull the head back to the left. Any backward or stiff bump with the reins may cause the horse to resist the bit.
Another important goal is for the horse to ride with a flexed poll. This flexion creates a positive tension on the topline musculature system. When under positive tession, this topline musculature system helps the horse to carry the rider. To create this tension the horse needs to be able to give in the poll and to do this the horse needs to come “onto the bit”. To be on the bit with a snaffle bit, direct contact is maintained. With a leverage bit (curb bit in western riding), the shanks of the bit and the weight of the reins creates this same contact and encourages the horse to be on the bit.
Relaxation, Relaxation, Relaxation!!!
Why is relaxation so important?
Relaxation is paramount to all riding and to all disciplines. Only a mentally and physically relaxed horse is able to perform to his fullest potential. Any tension under saddle brings about a stiff unpleasant ride and the horse’s muscles fatigue much quicker. For a horse to physically relax, it must first be mentally relaxed. To keep a horse mentally relaxed, it is important the the horse is only asked to do what feels confident doing and then to systematically increase the levels of difficulty and performance over time.
Indications of a relaxed horse include:
- A soft eye
- Head and neck goes forward and down
- The tail swings softly from side to side
- The barrel swings side to side
- The back muscles are pliable and the back is swinging
- The horse blows or snorts
Relaxation is one of the most important foundation pieces to encourage a horse to find a healthy posture from the inside out.
Why is straightness important?
Most horses travel crooked – with their haunches either to the left of to the right. A straight horse can be defined as a horse whose poll, spine, and tail are all in alignment (its longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curve track it is following).
Straightness is essential for the following:
- To evenly distribute the horse’s weight on both sides to avoid excessive wear and tear on one of the limbs
- To have the horse push equally and effectively with both hind legs, thereby increasing the efficiency of forward energy
- To have even contact in both reins
- Helps the rider keep the horse on the aids (horse is not leaning or pulling to one side)
- For a horse to attain collection, he/she must be able to equally weight both hind legs
Crookedness in horses in created by the horse having a stiff side and a more supple side. Horses are naturally “left” or “right-handed”. Most horses seem to be stiff going to the left and are usually heavier in the left rein/lead line; these horses travel with a hollow right side. A handler can see this from the ground because when the horse travels to the left on the lunge, their head faces to the outside and the barrel is counter-bent on the circle (barrel is curved inwards towards the handler). If the horse is stiff going to the left, he/she will usually travel around the circle leaning in with more weight on the left shoulder. The head and neck counter-balance the shoulder, thus they are turned to the outside. This stiff, counter-bent way of going is due to contracted muscles on the right side and overstretched muscles on the left side. When going to the left, the right side is stiff and the barrel cannot swing to the outside. When the barrel does not swing to the right, the left hind has a hard time coming through and the horse travels stiffly around the circle.
When the horse goes to the right (if he is hollow on the right side), he can easily swing his barrel to the left (overstretched side), the head comes in towards the handler, and the contact becomes too light on the rein/lead line. It is easier for the horse to travel on his hollow side because the inside right hind has a place to go when the barrel swings to the outside and the horse can come through.
The horse’s shoulders are narrower than the hindquarters and when ridden on the rail this can encourage crookedness. This encourages the horse to travel with the inside hind to the inside of the inside fore. The result is that the inside hind has to push forward more while the outside hind is required to carry more weight and to bend more. The inside hind carries less weight and over time can become weaker. It is important to align the horses spine with the rail to prevent this crooked way of going. To do this the shoulders need to be farther off the rail then the hindquarters.
Straightness can be accomplished through lateral suppling exercises and the stretching exercises listed below.
The exercises used in dressage in-hand work include:
- shoulder- in, shoulder-out
- turn-on the forehand
- longeing on a circle
- haunches in
- haunches out
What is impulsion and why does it matter?
Impulsion is the development of the pushing power or thrust. Impulsion is created by the hindquarters (the horse’s engine) and the pushing power is transmitted into all of the horse’s forward movement. By pushing off energetically form the ground, that horse is able to swing his legs forward. Within a gait, the more pushing power the longer the stride. To achieve impulsion the horse needs move whith a relaxed back and soft contact.
Impulsion is only found in the trot and the canter. The walk has no phase of suspension and therefore no impulsion.
What is collection and why is it important?
A horse that has shifted his weight onto the hind legs and bends more in the stifle and hock lowering the haunches is said to be in “collection”. The horse has shifted his weight off of his forehand and is carrying more weight on the haunches. With less weight on the forehand the horse has more freedom in his shoulders for turning. The result is a horse that feels like it is traveling uphill.
Collection helps to maintain sound front legs in the horse. In disciplines where the horse needs to turn quickly, it is healthier for the horse to turn on the haunches and unweight the front legs.
“Letting the aids through”
A horse that is trained with classical methods will be able to do well in all disciplines and riding activities. Classical training leads step by step towards the holistic supple, balanced, straight horse. The training develops through interdependent levels that honor the mental and athletic ability of the horse. A horse that is trained slowly with care to the highest levels will be able to perform for many years.
To read more about the classical principles and the training levels:
- The Principles of Riding, 2005, German National Equestrain Federation, Kenilworth Press
- Advanced Techniques for Dressage, 2003, German National Equestrain Federation, Kenilworth Press
- The USDF Guide to Dressage, 2006, Jennifer O. Bryant, Storey Publishing
- The Gymnasium of the Horse, 1995, Gustav Steinbrecht, Xenophon Press