Horse-Riding: A Brief Overview of Dressage

“Dressage” is a French word we continue to use, for lack of a suitable English equivalent, in connection with the improvement of a horse. It is a word denoting more than training. Rather, a total improvement of the horse is implied, both mental and physical. It means something qualitatively different from education, for it is a more intimate and less formalized method. Increasing numbers of equestrians are now riding their horses according to classical dressage principles.

In the past, horses were the most useful of our partners and the knowledge of horses and their effective training have been an all-important aspect of human existence. Horses were beasts of burden, extensions and enlargements of our muscle power and energy. For centuries, horses were the fastest means of transportation, both civilian and military, which made them as important as jets are in our day.

Dressage has a written tradition, which can be traced back over two thousand years to the writings of Xenophon, a Greek general. Over the millennia, as a consequence of the importance of the horse, every conceivable training method has been tried and that which succeeded in improving the horse has been retained. Since neither the physique nor the mentality of either horse or rider has changed substantially throughout the ages, the traditional principles of dressage remain relevant today.

While the utilitarian value of the horse has declined, its value in sports has increased, as we find ourselves reluctant to give up contact with nature and abandon such fine companions. To accept traditional principles in the art of riding calls for a degree of wisdom and humility, because we are part of a culture that experiences technological changes so rapid and dazzling that we tend to think that our forefathers were primitives in most endeavors and that nothing endures. Also, we are constantly encouraged to believe that change is synonymous with improvement, for, indeed, in technology, only that which is an improvement warrants change. But when it comes to the art of riding, we must remain scrupulously relevant and not allow ourselves to believe that principles applicable to technology are so applicable to riding. No tradition that developed over millennia should be discarded.

I am not advocating rigidity, however. We all know that any art form relies heavily on innovation, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and creativity. Good dressage riders possess and use these attributes. However, they must be used within the general boundaries of the well-formulated classical principles of dressage, those principles that have ensured equestrian success in living practice for centuries.

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