Classical Riding – what’s it all about?

The Pas de Deux showing piaffe in true harmony - Photo by kind permission of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna

The Pas de Deux showing piaffe in true harmony – Photo by kind permission of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna


by Anne Wilson

Many grass roots riders ask this question – “What is classical riding? How is it different?”.  Well the short answer is that there is, or should be, nothing different about classical riding – it is correct riding. But this answer sounds far too glib and ‘holier than thou’.

Although classical riding is usually associated with the Baroque type of breeds such as Lipizzaners, Spanish horses, Portuguese Lusitanos, Friesians etc., the fact is that classical equitation can, and should, be applied to every breed and in every discipline. Dressage should be the basis of all disciplines. The word ‘dressage’ means to ‘dress’ or prepare the horse. Advanced dressage of course, is an aim unto itself, and a most wonderful, uplifting one at that. One activity compliments another; jumping and cross-country riding help the horse in his manège work, and vice versa.

It is the application of the age-old principles laid down by the great Riding Masters throughout the centuries, based upon the laws of nature, gravity, biomechanics etc.

Despite man’s intervention in the breeding of horses, they have not changed in any significant way over the last 2.5 million years or so. Yes, we now have a new breed of ‘competition’ horse with big, rangy strides, who have a propensity to exaggerated extended trots (which inexplicably seem to please the masses who don’t understand the harm they do, and to my mind are ugly to watch anyway) but they are still subject to the same laws of nature as their more Baroque type of cousins. Because the laws of nature have not changed, the continual thrusting forward and consequent hard contact with the ground often leads to strained tendons and joints, which do not stand up to the test of time. These horses unfortunately nearly always break down at a relatively early age, mainly because their trainers are not adhering to classical principles.

The levade, the ultimate in classical collection - Photo by kind permission of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna

The levade, the ultimate in classical collection – Photo by kind permission of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna

At the Spanish Riding School of Vienna (the world-renowned centre of excellence of classical riding) it is not unusual for Lipizzaner stallions in their late twenties to not only carry on working, but enjoy taking part in the outstanding displays performed all over the world. This is the best testament to the principles applied to their training which have been handed down throughout the centuries.

The first classicist to put down his thoughts on paper for us to have the benefit of today, was the famous Greek soldier and historian Xenophon, who wrote his book On Horsemanship in about 400 bc.

Since then there have been many great masters, one or two of whom have at some time in their career strayed slightly from the true path; only to return to it later in their lives. This gives even more credence to the correctness of classical principles which, in essence, cannot be improved upon.

So, if horses haven’t changed, and neither have the laws of nature, how can there be any ‘new’ riding or training techniques? The answer is that there aren’t any. There can only be new ways of explaining them or very minor variations here and there. There always have been, and always will be, minor disagreements between classical trainers on some peripheral issues, but they all (that is, if they are truly classical) agree upon the main principles.

It is very unfortunate, in fact heartbreaking to me and others, that many modern competition riders have strayed from these principles and even ignored the advice and teachings of the great riding masters. However, I was extremely heartened to see the concurrence and marrying together  of classical training with competition dressage training at the recent event ‘The Dressage Convention’ held at Bury Farm, Buckinghamshire last October. This event was organised by Carl Hester and Richard Davison and included the great dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin, with guest trainers Sylvia Loch and Miguel Ralão Duarte (who trained at the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art).

Carl, Richard and Charlotte have all embraced the classical seat and ride with enviable harmony. I am hopeful that this will become an annual event. A DVD of both days of the full proceedings can be purchased from  Members of The Classical Riding Club can take advantage of a special purchase price through the club.

I find it appalling that in some riding schools today there is no mention of weight aids and pupils are told to pull on one rein to make a turn. In fact many young instructors are completely ignorant of the existence of weight aids, let alone their importance. One of the main ways that classical riders achieve close harmony with their horses is by using minute changes of weight. To turn right one puts a little weight into the right stirrup, thus weighting the right seatbone. The result is that the horse will automatically move to the right to stay in balance with the rider. This slight change in weight distribution on the part of the rider involves no leaning or thrusting, and should be invisible to the onlooker, but the horse feels it. All horses (unless they are decidedly trying to unseat their rider) want to stay in balance and it is a natural aid which does not need to be taught by rote. When horses are used to being ridden in this way a closer harmony between horse and rider is inevitable, and it follows that the communication of the rider’s hand to the horse’s mouth becomes more delicate and discreet. There are many other ways in which the laws of gravity can be used in all spheres of riding. They are very beneficial whilst jumping or cross-country riding.

The All Important Classical Seat

The elegant, upright classical seat was not devised merely to look beautiful (although it does, as well as enhancing the beauty of the horse). It is a way of sitting on the strongest part of the horse’s back, whilst enabling the rider to communicate his wishes by the use of seat, legs and weight, and at the same time making it easy for the horse to carry out these wishes without damage to the horse’s back. It is also far safer for the rider. It is much harder to unseat a classical rider than, say, someone in a ‘chair’ seat. The upright position with expanded chest and strong abdominal muscles keep the rider much more stable and safe. It seems to be largely forgotten today that these same principles of the classical seat should be adapted to facilitate the faster paces. The centre of gravity is taken forward in the faster pace and this can be done whilst still adhering to classical principles. The classical jump rider has far better control on the ground, with much less interference in the take-off and landing phases of the jump, thus helping the horse rather than hindering him. The laws of gravity still apply.

The Preservation of the Horse

A big bone of contention between the classical horseman and the competition trainer is the age at which the young horse is backed and the speed with which he is brought on. I do understand that there are many financial constraints which drive this need for speed, but it is unquestionably at the expense of the horse. The stallions at the Spanish Riding School are not backed until they are around five years old, and around eight years is set aside for their training, before they are expected to perform. We hurry this process at the expense of the horse’s life and limb!

I quote from living classical master, Charles de Kunffy, in his Book ‘The Ethics and Passions of Dressage’:

“Here is my counsel to you: the horse is a living creature, and when he looks and behaves as if he were a Fourth Level horse ready for the double bridle, don’t believe him. He may be young and green, yet beautifully bred and nurtured. He may come to you as a three-year-old, spectacular in a way your ancestors never could have seen. He is not a peasant horse from a village square morning market, yet you still have to develop him, dressage him, as if he were. There can be no shortcuts; there are no tricks and no innovations in classical horsemanship.” He goes on to say “….classical horsemanship is therapeutic riding. It is aimed at the restorative functions of the horse’s natural balance. It is therapeutically concerned with the suppleness of the hind legs.” From this you will see that everyone who truly loves horses must ride classically as well as practicing the principles of classicism, which dictate that nothing should be forced. As Xenophon wrote in 400 bc, “Nothing which is forced can ever be beautiful”.

The Ethos of Classical Riding

Classical riding does not only consist of a set of instructions. It is a living art and requires virtues in the rider such as patience, humility, understanding and empathy, as well as hard work and perseverance. These are obviously virtues worth embracing for their own sake and are of benefit in any walk of life. Our journey on the path of classicism enhances these virtues and they are necessary in order to reach the goal of complete harmony with our horse. There is no room for selfish, self-promotional arrogance or temper. These negative emotions must be stamped out as soon as we begin to notice them. The path to beauty and harmony may not always be smooth, but is worth the perseverance. We don’t need the world’s approval if have the approval of our horse, and that will be evident for all to see when we ride as one with him.

Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:

See Anne’s book ‘Riding Revelations – Classical Training from the Beginning’ available from


Author: Features Editor

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