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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.

Baroque Horses in Dressage: A Resurgence in Interest
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2007 All Rights Reserved

Most cultural and artistic trends of the last 50 years have started out on the West Coast of the United States and made their way eastward. It usually takes them several years before they arrive in Europe. In dressage, the opposite tendency can be observed. Most major developments start in central Europe and gradually move westward, until they arrive in the US. This mechanism brought the 17+ hh giant warmblood and the bigger is better attitude to this country after Christine Stueckelberger’s Holsteiner gelding Granat won the individual gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. It brought the return to the lighter, medium sized warmblood after Nicole Uphoff’s first Olympic individual gold medal on Rembrandt in 1988. Training trends like the Rollkur typically begin with successful European competitors and consequently become imported to the US. Not all of these trends and imports are desirable. Luckily, they too will pass, eventually.

But the latest one is entirely positive – and long overdue. It’s the growing popularity that the Baroque horses - Andalusians, Lipizzaners, Lusitanos, and Friesians -have been enjoying in Europe for the last few years. You can recognize the trend by the growing number of books and videos on Baroque horses and Baroque riding culture. The Spanish national dressage team with its Andalusian and Lusitano stallions is the crowd favorite at all the international competitions and won the team bronze medal at last year’s WEG in Jerez, Spain. The location of the hosting city of the 2002 WEG is in itself recognition of the importance of Iberian horses in the history of horsemanship. Spain’s Real Escuela del Arte Ecuestre was welcomed enthusiastically by European audiences when they put their horses and their equestrian heritage on display in performances at major international competitions, such as at Aachen and Stuttgart.

This buzz that surrounds Baroque horses on the international scene has started to show its effects here in the US as well. Baroque horses are appearing more frequently and more successfully in dressage competitions. Photos of Baroque horses are featured almost regularly in equestrian publications these days. There is a steadily growing stream of imported Andalusians, Lipizzaners, and Lusitanos from Europe and Latin American countries. And well known competitors, such as Hilda Gurney and Michael Poulin have been training and showing Andalusian, Lipizzaner, and Lusitano stallions in recent years – and raving about their intelligence and rideability.

To those of us who have been working with these breeds for a long time it comes as no surprise that dressage riders would like the Iberian horses – after all they have been bred consistently and specifically for dressage longer than any other type of horse. From the Italian Renaissance until the French Revolution, they were considered the very best dressage horses in the world.

William Cavendish, the First Duke of Newcastle, wrote in 1667: “The best breed of horses is in Andalousia, especially that of the king of Spain’s at Cordova.”

François Robichon de la Guérinière elaborates in 1734: “All authors have given preference to the horses of Spain and have regarded them as the best of all horses for the manège, by reason of their agility, their strength and the natural cadence of their gait; and for processions and parades, due to their proud air, grace and nobility; and for war on a day of battle because of their courage and obedience. Some people use them for the hunt and for the carriage, but it is to be regretted that such noble animals should be sacrificed to this usage.”

Dupaty de Clam paraphrases in 1777: “It is in Spain that the best horses for the manège are found. They have brilliant shoulders, haunches and hocks full of springiness, strength, and a generosity that is rarely found in other breeds.”

On the other side of the Rhine, Baron von Eisenberg, echoes the same thoughts in 1739: “Experience shows abundantly that the Spanish horse is the most suitable of all for equestrian art, not only due to his beautiful shape, but also because he is swift, strong, and trainable, so that he will learn everything and execute it with the utmost precision, if you guide him with reason and patience. … In one word, it seems as if Nature had made him specifically for equestrian art. At the very least one has to say that no other horse surpasses him when it comes to heart, nobility, and fire.”

On the topic of breeding, Newcastle has these recommendations: “The best stallion is a well-chosen Barb, or a beautiful Spanish horse, well marked, that the same may remain in the breed. He had better have too much courage than too little, since the colt he produces will be apt to inherit the same imperfections in a greater degree.” … “In the choice of Breeding-Mares, I would advise you to take either a well-shaped Spanish one, or a Neapolitan.”

European breeders obviously heeded his advice, because entire breeds such as the Lipizzaner, the Kladruby, the Friesian, and the Knabstrupper owe their existence to a cross between Spanish stallions and local mares. According to Sylvia Loch, even the Hannoverian, Holstein, Oldenburg, and Dutch warmblood were improved through the use of Spanish stallions in their stud farms.

Before the French Revolution, the focus of dressage and the European breeding programs for dressage horses was very much on extreme collection and agility. The extended trot, on the other hand, was considered to be more of a carriage gait, not something that was practiced under saddle. As a result, the dressage horses of the Renaissance and the Baroque eras excelled at the piaffe, passage, pirouette, and the airs above the ground, while they did not possess an equal ability to lengthen the stride in the trot, in particular. When the rider needed to go fast for a short distance, the carrière – a two beat gallop – was the gait of choice.

During the 19th century, dressage as an aristocratic pastime had become so rare that it was almost a thing of the past. Instead, Campagne School dressage, military equitation with its emphasis on longer, flatter strides, and greater adjustability of the horse’s frame between varying degrees of collection took the place of High School dressage, where the horse was ridden in high collection most of the time. At the same time, French aristocratic emigrants who had flown from the guillotine brought a fascination with steeple chases, flat races, endurance races, and a love for the thoroughbred horse back from England that swept the continent in the following decades. This fashion trend became so popular all over Europe that concerned horsemen warned against the neglect of gymnastic training that this so-called “Anglomania” entailed, because they feared that it would destroy the art of dressage and greatly diminish the military value of the cavalry, due to the declining quality of the training of horses and riders.

The first dressage competitions were held by the military around the turn of the century. Since they originated in a Campagne School, instead of a High School, environment, medium and extended gaits became an integral part of the dressage tests, whereas most of the ultra collected High School movements, such as the redopp, the terre-à-terre, and the airs above the ground were absent.

A horse who does not have good extended gaits has little chance of being competitive nowadays. So the breeders of baroque horses around the world have been breeding more and more horses in recent years that have more suspension and a greater ability to extend, without losing any of their collectability.

As a trainer, I am happy to help students with every conceivable type of horse. But for my own enjoyment, I cannot imagine riding anything but a Baroque stallion. The deepest connection, the closest bond I have experienced with horses has always been with stallions, and it was always either a Lipizzaner, Lusitano, or Andalusian.

I am often asked which of the Baroque breeds I prefer. The truth is that whatever horse or breed I am working with at the moment tends to be my favorite. One of my teachers, former Spanish Riding School chief rider, Karl Mikolka, still favors the Lipizzaner, after more than 40 years of training horses of every breed. He told me once that he would never want to own anything other than a Lipizzaner stallion, because, he says, they are “intelligent, good-natured, human oriented, healthy, hardy, and surefooted.” Mikolka also points out the significance of the fact that the Austrian empire with all its wealth chose to breed the Lipizzaners – rather than any other breed - especially for high school dressage work and parades.

The Pacific Northwest is an excellent place to shop for Baroque horses. We have a larger concentration of Lipizzaner breeders than probably any other area in the country, producing some of the highest quality horses. The largest Lusitano breeder in the country is located in the Northwest as well. And our PRE (Pura Raza Española) and PSL (Puro Sangre Lusitano) breeders have bred a number of national champion stallions and mares.

For more information on Lipizzaners, Andalusians, Lusitanos, and Friesians, as well as contact information of breeders, contact the following organizations:

United States Lipizzan Registry (USLR)
707 13th Street SE, Suite 275
Salem, OR  97301
phone: (503) 589-3172  fax: (503) 362-6393

  Lipizzan Association of North America (LANA)
P.O. Box 1133
Anderson, IN  46015-1133
phone: (765) 644-3904  Fax: (765) 644-3361

  International Andalusian and Lusitano Horse Association (IALHA)
101 Carnoustie N. Ste 200
Birmingham, AL 35242
Telephone: (205) 995-8900 FAX: (205) 995-8966

  Friesian Horse Association of North America (FHANA)
P O Box 11217
Lexington, KY 40574-1217
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