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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.

Foundations and Goals of Training Dressage Horses
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2006 All Rights Reserved

“The horse’s beauty lies in his nobility, his grace, in his proud appearance, in the harmony of his movements, their brilliance, their energy. Equitation that is beautiful, delicate and tasteful, seeks the development of this beauty by relying on the very gifts of the horse and not by rendering them unnatural. It is nature that this equitation takes as guide and not the extraordinary or the eccentric that is sought.”
A.F.L’Hotte (1895, in: H.Nelson, 1997, 195).

This article is a brief reflection on the core values that have proven to be of central importance for the successful training of dressage horses during the 2500 year long history of dressage. It is helpful for all riders to reflect from time to time upon what their own training goals are, as well as what the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of their training methods are. What constitutes good, successful training? What is the purpose of training? What is the end result supposed to be? Why do we even ride horses at all? Every rider may come up with different answers to these questions, and these answers shape the way each rider approaches his horse as well as his choice of training methods, stabling and care, choice of trainers, etc. You could write down your own answers to these questions on a piece of paper and pin them to the tack room wall, or any other visible place, as little reminders to help you stay on track.

The classical literature provides us with some insights into what the old masters thought were important goals and precepts of successful training. Here is a selection of quotes from some of the most important authors of the last four centuries. Pluvinel (1628, 5, translation: TR): “Because, as a rule, the horse must take pleasure in his work. Otherwise, he and his rider will not be able to accomplish anything graceful.” Pluvinel (1628, 40, translation: TR): “The horse is perfectly trained, if he is in the hand and on the heels, and if he allows the rider to guide him with ease.”

W.Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1728, 163f., translation: TR): “It is a very general rule that art never contradict nature, but follow the latter and restore it to order.”

W.Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1743, 105): “The whole therefore is to make the horseman and his horse friends, and bring them to will the same thing.” la Gueriniere (1733, in: 1994, 78): “Theory instructs us that we should work from a foundation of sound principles, and these principles, rather than going against nature, must serve to perfect it with the aid of art.”

L.Hünersdorf (1800, 301, translation: TR): “We work by two main principles on which the entire system of equestrian art, i.e., all movements and all rules, is based. These are balance and flexibility. From balance follow mobility and lightness, and out of flexibility develop skillfulness, obedience and with it submission.”

E.F.Seidler (1837, 30, translation: TR): “In order to accomplish the correct education of the horse with certainty, it is necessary to follow the training schedule step by step, and not to move on to more advanced movements before the horse is sufficiently confirmed in the previous ones.”

E.F.Seidler (1846, 84, translation: TR): “The basis of a principled education of a horse is: to achieve a goal in each lesson, whether it is the calming of the temperament, or the physical training; the horse must never leave the arena without taking a progress with him.”

F.v.Krane (1856, 284f., translation: TR): “Again, the rider must always try to form a companion through the dressage training, and must not degrade the noblest animal of creation either to a slave or to a machine!”

O.v.Monteton (1877, 186, translation: TR): “Equestrian art merely asks the horse to learn to perform an exercise correctly, alone, and independently, without the rider’s support.”

P.Plinzner (1888, 1f., translation: TR): “Dressage is a systematic gymnastic training that the horse has to undergo in order to be useful as a riding horse.“ O.v.Monteton (1899, 47, translation: TR): “The principles of the training method are based on trust and respect, achieving obedience with the horse executing willingly the rider’s slightest “aids” and performing his duty to his last breath, without being helped by the rider. Methods that do not lead to this goal are useless.“

P.Spohr (1908, 6, translation: TR): “Love for the horse. I postulate as a universal maxim for the entire process: Strive to make your horse your best friend!”

P.Spohr (1908, 7f., translation: TR): “Only those who have the friendliest relationship with the horse will achieve the most.”

P.Spohr (1908, 13, translation: TR): “The horse must not only show perfect obedience towards the rider’s aids, but even joy in obeying, i.e. a keen desire to fulfill the rider’s will: happy obedience.”

A. Schmidt, (1909, p. 106, translation: TR): “Riding always ought to remain within nature’s boundaries. Wherever one asks the horse to do things that are outside of its natural abilities, one descends into artificiality that is worthless for life and unaesthetic for an educated eye. We must never try to get more out of a horse than he is capable of. Being able to do this with every horse is the highest achievement of a rider.”

W.Seunig (1949, 236, fn. 87, translation: TR): “A dressage training whose final result is not at the same time preservative has no raison d’être and ought not to be attempted at all.”

F.Mairinger (1983, 123): “Dressage means the realization of nature’s wisdom by re-establishing the horse’s natural balance with the additional weight of the rider on his back. That is the essence, the fundamental requirement of dressage.”

K.Albrecht (1996, 107, translation: TR): “Obedience is the most important one of all training goals.”

In this random selection you can see that there are certain recurrent themes that are especially important to the authors, such as obedience and trust, a good relationship with the horse as a friend, the preservation of the horse’s soundness, the systematic gymnastic development of the horse’s athletic abilities, nature oriented training methods, restoration of the horse’s balance under the weight of the rider, respect for the horse’s natural limitations. These training precepts are so fundamental and of such universal applicability that they should form the underpinnings of any equestrian discipline, not just classical dressage. Wherever the trainer violates these universal principles, the horse will suffer for it, and the training success will at least be compromised, if not completely destroyed.

The list above is not complete, of course. In the following paragraphs I will try to give a brief outline of the philosophical framework within which my teachers “raised” me. They ingrained these “laws of training” so deeply in me that I have come to take them completely for granted, and I’m always baffled when I meet somebody who either does not know or does not care about them, since they are so logical and so important.

Perhaps the most important and most fundamental precept was that:

  1. everything you do with the horse has to serve the horse’s physical and mental well-being. Everything else must be subordinated to this demand.
  2. Everything we do with a horse, every interaction, every aid we apply, every exercise or movement we ride is a learning experience for the horse and either makes him better or worse. There is no middle ground. Therefore, everything must be aimed at improving the horse in some way.
  3. The training must make the horse increasingly more reliable, obedient and responsive to the rider’s aids, regardless of the setting in which the horse is being ridden.
  4. Trust and obedience are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other.
  5. Dressage is a systematic gymnastic training process that helps the horse to carry the weight of the rider with the greatest possible ease so that he moves with the same range of motion and brilliance under saddle as at liberty.
  6. Each new step in training must be prepared and explained to the horse, so that he understands what is asked of him and is capable of executing the request.
  7. The horse determines the speed of the progress, since each learning step must be confirmed and the horse must be comfortable with it, before it is safe to move on to the next step.
  8. The training must preserve, or even improve, the horse’s soundness.
  9. The rider must be sensitive to the horse’s individual strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, since not every horse is physically capable of reaching the highest levels.
  10. Each exercise and movement influences the horse’s gait and posture in specific ways. The rider’s responsibility is to select the right exercises for each horse, so that his natural gaits improve.
  11. Since (classical) dressage is supposed to be a nature oriented type of training, the movements that are taught to the horses must be either naturally occurring ones that horses show at liberty, such as flying changes, piaffe, passage, and airs above the ground, or they must be useful gymnastic tools that help to supple, straighten, balance and collect the horse, such as the lateral movements. Those movements that do not fall under either category should not be included in the training.
  12. Movements that are being ridden without regard for their gymnastic effects on the horse’s gaits are tricks and have no place in a systematic gymnastic training program.

The specific categories in which the rider has to look for shortcomings and make constant improvements are:

  • the fine tuning of the horse to the rider’s aids, so that he learns to respond within the same second that the aid is applied
  • the regularity of the rhythm, tempo and stride length
  • the precision of the arena patterns
  • the horse’s suppleness and agility
  • the horse’s permeability for the rider’s aids
  • the horse’s balance
  • the steadiness, evenness and lightness of the rein contact
  • the proper alignment of the horse’s hips and shoulders on the arena patterns (straightness)
  • the impulsion
  • the gradual weight transfer towards the hindquarters (collection)

I hope that the items on the list that I learned from my teachers are helpful to others as well. Each one of these basic training elements could easily be fleshed out and elaborated upon with a lengthy article in its own right, of course, because there is so much additional information that can be given. However, that would go far beyond the scope of the present article. But there is great value in reflection. Every rider should think about these training guidelines regularly so that we can evolve in our riding and in our understanding of our horse(s) and of dressage. Following these principles will help us in determining what each horse needs to work on in any given session, selecting appropriate exercises, and evaluating our work so that we can avoid getting stuck in dead-end roads. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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