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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

Classical Dressage is Accessible to all
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

Classical dressage is at the same time elitist and democratic, depending on what angle you are looking from. It is important to keep in mind that you don't need to be a Grand Prix rider in order to be a classical rider. The determining factor is whether someone rides in accord with the laws of nature and the classical principles, and that can be done at any level, high or low. The quality of what you are riding is much more important than how advanced the exercises are. Anybody who knows anything will always respect an honest, classical 1st level rider more than a "wannabe" Grand Prix rider who has all kinds of holes in his basic education.

As you progress along the path of classical dressage, the number of your peers and "superiors" decreases. If you are fortunate enough to rise to the level of the Spanish Riding School riders in the quality of your riding, you have become a member of the equestrian elite. At that stage you are one of the best riders in the world. The members of this elite distinguish themselves by an above average dedication to learning how to ride. They spill more sweat and tears than others. In addition, they usually also had access to outstanding teachers for a number of years. Since these teachers are few and far between, access to them is limited. Ironically, the best trainers are not always appreciated by those who do have access to them, for whatever reasons. There seems to be a tendency for appreciation to increase proportionately to the distance the clinician, e.g., has to travel to the student's barn.

Riding is eminently democratic as well, because a good seat, tact, feel, and a thorough understanding cannot be bought. They have to be earned. Have you ever noticed that the riders with the most talented, most expensive horses are often the worst riders? They are used to being able to buy everything they desire. So they buy an expensive horse and expensive tack. They board their horse at an expensive barn with an expensive trainer. Yet, they will never learn anything, unless they apply themselves wholeheartedly, and their horse will never learn anything, unless the expensive trainer is also a good trainer, which is not always the case.

Conversely, some of the best riders cannot afford to buy horses whose talent matches their own level of expertise. These "poor" but excellent riders then have to ride all the difficult horses that nobody else can fix - which makes them even better riders. But since this is very quiet, unspectacular work, it doesn't translate into fame and fortune the same way that riding fancy movements on superhorses does. Without a good horse, even the best rider in the world is just a pedestrian. That's why some excellent riders are completely unknown, although they may be better than most Olympic participants, simply because they were never able to "show off" on a talented horse with superior gaits. By the same token, mediocre riders sometimes are highly overrated, because they are lucky enough to ride horses that make them look good *in spite of* their limited equestrian expertise.

You may also have noticed that some of the most talented students never rise above mediocrity in their riding. Progress comes so easily to them that they never care enough to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the pursuit of classical dressage. They get stuck, and eventually stop riding altogether. On the other hand, those riders who want most desperately to learn to ride are often not very talented at all. But their perseverance and their almost "superhuman" efforts pay off over the course of years and decades, especially if they have the help of a good teacher. These less talented students then end up surpassing the much more talented ones, and some of them even go on to become highly accomplished riders and teachers.

Dedication is maybe the most important quality in a student. It can compensate for many other shortcomings in much the same way as a willing, generous disposition can make up for many conformation flaws in a horse. Often these seemingly less talented riders and horses can surprise you by surpassing all expectations.

The demographic representation of expertise is always pyramid shaped in any field. There is a large base of novices and a small number of true artists who combine dedication, talent, feel, and a superior education. These artists who form the elite of their field should serve as role models and as an inspiration to everyone who is involved in the field. Everyone who is serious about learning and becoming accomplished in this field should strive within his possibilities to reach this elite someday. The reason is that the higher we aim, the higher we will climb, and life has a way of forcing us to make compromises which tend to make us achieve less than we had aimed for. Even if we don't end up riding like Spanish Riding School riders, we will become much better riders that way than if we were aiming low to begin with.

In the end, all we can do is make an honest effort to do our best every day, whether it is at Training level or at Grand Prix. If we do that, we can be content with what we have accomplished. I often tell my students that the rider has to lead by example, that we can only ask of our horse what we are willing and able to do ourselves. In this case, we can say that the converse is also true. We can only ask of our horse to make an honest effort, no more and no less. Nobody is perfect, so we cannot reasonably expect perfection of ourselves or our horses. But that is precisely what the armchair experts often do. The less practical experience and expertise in the saddle someone has, the more critical he often is of others. Nobody is safe from the armchair experts. Even great riders like Podhajsky often found themselves to be their targets. In fact, they are probably more at risk, because they are more exposed, and personal envy is a powerful motivation. Podhajsky always shut all the ringside critics up by inviting them to get on his horse so that he might learn from them. Not a single one took him up on his offer. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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