The history of dressage dates back to a period of more than two thousand years. The object of dressage is the harmonious development of physical ability of the horse, resulting in a calm, supple, flexible animal, both longitudinally and laterally. The horse should be confident and in perfect understanding of his rider.
All work in dressage should be free, light, aesthetically beautiful to the observer, and the horse should remain on the bit. The ancient Greeks were the first to practice dressage in preparation for war. It was this culture that believed nothing could be obtained correctly or harmoniously without the strict adherence to the laws of the universe. This is what truly defines classical dressage--the horse should submit himself happily and proudly to the will of the rider, without any disturbance in his natural way of going.
To understand this, compare that of art and music in the classical sense. Art, in the classical sense, is conveyed in realism with beauty, always reflected with respect to balance, light, symmetry, and logic. The same can be said of classical music, also governed by rules of tonality, resolution, and symmetry.
When dealing with the horse, we are still bound by the laws of nature and physics in a more primal sense. The Greek Commander Xenophon, born about 430 BC, wrote the earliest obtainable work on training horses, titled Hippike, translated to The Art of Horsemanship. The Greeks did not use a saddle or stirrups, but historians are convinced that they used a jointed snaffle.
Remarkably, most of what Xenophon wrote in his book still holds true today. Xenophon's men rode stallions into battle because they were thought to be braver showing more aptitude for pirouetting, leaping, turning, and moving sideways. Xenophon did not approve of the chair seat adapted by the nomadic tribes of Asia. Because Xenophon spent much of his time in battle, he was exposed to many different styles of riding from various cultures.
Although nothing remains in print regarding early Roman horsemanship, there are references made to various breeds and veterinary matters. Historians are sure that the Romans enjoyed charioteering with the small swift horses from the plains. After Roman foot soldiers were seriously defeated by the Carthaginians who were mounted on Iberian horses and by Hannibal's armies mounted on North African horses, the Romans adopted the Iberian ways of combat; thus the transition from infantry to cavalry was successfully made.
The Iberian-Celt form of combat adopted by the Romans included the use of similar horses ridden with a curb bit and light armor. Like the Greeks, the Romans rode with a very classical seat creating engagement with the horse well back on his hocks. The Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC and inherited much of their aesthetic love of beauty and symmetry shown in the pottery, mosaics, equestrian statues, bridges, and aqueducts.
It is interesting to note that the great riding masters of our century still refer to the Romanic school as a term to indicate a highly collected, agile form of riding based on lightness in hand. This form differentiates itself from that of the heavier style of Germanic or Prussian influence. It is important for the reader to realize these styles reflected the actual types of horses ridden.
Classical dressage fell into a great lull when Rome fell at the hands of the barbarians in 410 AD. During the Dark and Middle Ages, Europeans rode about on heavier, thick, cold-blooded types with heavy armor vying for power and supremacy. Every kind of bit for control imaginable was used. Naturally, the maneuverability of the horse was lost, and there was no time to adequately dress a horse. Ironically, it was the change to firearms that brought back the use of the swift hot-blooded charger.
The Renaissance period, originating in Italy and spreading across Europe, brought dressage back to its recognition. With the introduction of small firearms, cavalry leaders needed to regroup their approach to battle in order to be successful. The Spanish, the Barb, and the Lusitanian horse held preference over other breeds because of their ability to perform the classical airs.
The piaffe lent itself as a spring for sudden advance; the levade, a highly collected half-halt for reaching down with a slash of the sword or aim of the pistol, or an evasion tactic. The pirouette could be used to wheel away from or towards the enemy. The courbette, which towers a horse high into the air, could easily disperse foot soldiers. The capriole, a giant leap into the air, was an effective means of escape over the heads of the infantry. Flying changes were an absolute necessity to keep the horse handy and mobile in the battlefield.
Despite the invasion of the Arabian-riding Moors and their subsequent occupation of Spain and Portugal, the Romanic school influence remained intact. This struggle spanned some seven centuries, and though the sharp contrast of style with the Moors was prevalent, it did not infiltrate the gineta mode of riding (upright body, bent knee, and balanced seat), that is used today in the modern dressage arena.
The most notable influence of the Romanic school on the Iberian Peninsula is the tradition of bullfighting and the high school training of the horse for performance in the bull ring.
Between the 14th and early 16th centuries, the problematic heaviness of the Italian warhorse contributed to schooling problems and led the Italians to use more force and powerful training equipment. In 1502 the Spanish brought their horses to Italy. Within fifty years of their arrival, the Neapolitan horse became lighter, sleeker, and a more tractable mount, and with the Spanish came the gineta style of riding. The Romanic School had traveled full circle and was home again.
The School of Versailles was a name given to the French Court of equitation promoted in all its splendor by Louis XIV. During his reign, the masters who were known as ecuyers published many great works. Of all these masters, the most notable was Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere whose book ECOLE DE CAVALERIE was published in 1729.
In this book, la Gueriniere defines his practice of using the shoulder-in on a straight line to engage the horse's inside hind leg and the use of the half-halt with yielding of the rider's hand to lighten the horse's forehand and keep the horse's mouth happy. A contemporary of la Gueriniere, the Englishman William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, practiced manege riding (a highly collected form of indoor riding) and outdoor riding during a turbulent political upheaval between England's aristocrats and middle classes. Ironically, England's greatest contribution to dressage came from their love of racing and hunting the Thoroughbred.
The ecuyer en chef of the French Calvary school at Saumur was a most coveted position and one that caused strife and differences between Count D'Aure and Francois Baucher. The position was granted to Count d'Aure, the first to promote the medium and extended trot paces, jumping, and other outdoor dressage work. Baucher's philosophy was more of the collected manage riding of the Versailles School and turned to performing the haute ecole in the circus. He enjoyed the challenges of dressing the English Thoroughbred, wrote several influential books on Equitation, and invented the flying change at every stride. It was from Baucher that the lovely expression comes, "Equitation in bedroom slippers." Interestingly, James Fillis sought the same coveted position at Saumur and was also turned down. Fillis was an apprentice of one of Baucher's students and also turned to a life in the circus. While touring Russia, he so impressed the Grand Duke Nicholas that he was offered a position to instruct the Russian Cavalry which contributed largely to the Russians' success in the Olympic Games in the '60s.
The marriage of the two most powerful families in Europe during the Baroque period secured the future of dressage. This dynasty became known as the Spanish Hapsburgs. The Iberian horse gained a foothold and was in demand throughout Austria, Germany, and the Holy Roman Empire.
Bear in mind that the Iberian horse was the only available hot-blooded horse in Europe. The wars with the Turks prevented the import of Arabians, and the Thoroughbred did not appear until much later in the mid-eighteenth century.
In 1580, the Imperial Austrian Stud began importing Lippizanners from Spain. From this stock, the Spanish Riding School was developed and finalized by Charles VI in 1735. His portrait hangs in their school to this day.
The strong classical heritage of the Germanic school was intrinsically linked to that of Austria and Hungary since they were under the same Imperial Crown. Germany was in political upheaval during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), and the need for a superior cavalry horse inspired the Germans to use more hot blood in their breeding program.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the Germans decided the requirements of the cavalry horse were as follows: speed, for attacks at the gallop; obedience, for collection and agility in face-to-face single combat; and safety over cross-country terrain. The culmination of this process resulted in the descendants of the modern day warmbloods.
It was this commitment to campaign riding that Germans developed a highly organized, systematic approach that attributes to their enormous success in today's competitive dressage arena. The cherished advice to "ride your horse forward and straight" comes from Gustave Steinbrecht (1808-85).
America's earliest roots in dressage began with the Spanish Conquistadors and their gineta mode of riding. This style directly influenced the western seat and stock saddle. Native Americans quickly adapted their own style of riding by sitting upright in the walk and trot and using the forward seat in the gallop.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, it began to become all too apparent to military commanders that a new method of cross-country riding would be needed to accommodate vast number of unskilled recruits and horses. Manege riding was just too time consuming. The solution came when Italian officer Frederico Caprilli introduced the school of forward seat riding.
There was plenty of confusion in English speaking countries while the general riding public grappled with new ideas such as Caprillis', the fashionable but outdated English backward seat, and how much classical training was required for ordinary outdoor riding.
Curiously, the last two countries to accept forward seat riding were England and Ireland where a passion for racing and hunting predominated.
The first Olympic Dressage games were held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1912. These equestrian games were only open to cavalry officers, and the dressage test consisted of collected and extended gaits, rein-back, turn on the hocks, four flying changes on a straight line, and jumping five small obstacles, one of which was a barrel rolled towards the horse.
The United States Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas, exchanged ideas and instructors with the schools in Europe and won an Olympic team bronze in dressage in 1932. U.S.Captain Hiram Tuttle also took an individual bronze medal. This was also the year that the 20X60 meter arena with letter markers was introduced.
The notable U.S. Army General George Patton is credited for protecting the Spanish Riding School and rescuing Lippizzaner mares from becoming absorbed into the communist bloc in WWII. After the U.S. Cavalry disbanded in 1948, the focus of dressage for military purpose shifted to civilian competition and sport and began to gain momentum.
With the help of many dedicated immigrants, the United States began its attempt to "catch up" with the Europeans, and the United States Dressage Federation was founded in 1973 to promote, educate, and recognize achievements.
In closing, it is interesting for modern dressage competitors to reflect that Alois Podhajsky and Nuno Oliveira, two great masters of the twentieth century, were deeply concerned that the structure of competitive tests, subjective judging systems, and marker accuracy pressures demote from the art in its most classical sense. The important voices of Xenophon, Gueriniere, and Baucher echo over 2500 years of experience and skill and that the only way to achieve lightness, balance, and harmony is to progress methodically, humanely, and keep the horse happy and proud in his work.
Bibliography: Loch, Sylvia. DRESSAGE, THE ART OF CLASSICAL
1990. North Pomfret, Vermont, Trafalgar Square Publishing.