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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.

The Tao of Horsemanship - Chapter One
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2005 All Rights Reserved


Tao te Ching (1):

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
Arise from the same source.

Many riders are dazzled by advanced movements and flashy gaits, without necessarily looking closely enough beneath the surface, at the quality of what is being ridden. They admire riders who can produce "tricks", regardless of how correctly or incorrectly they are executed, without asking themselves whether the movements flow effortlessly into the arena or look labored, and without stopping to think whether the riders demonstrate a quiet, balanced seat with invisible aids, or whether their equitation looks vulgar and offensive, due to excessive aids and involuntary body movements. Their fascination creates a desire to emulate upper-level riders. So they try to teach their own horses these movements without the proper, systematic preparation. In the most extreme cases, the rider or horse owner completely lacks any understanding of the gymnastic process and the demands that each movement makes of the horse, as some for-sale ads demonstrate in which very young horses (only 2 to 6 years old) are offered who are already “high school trained.” The ignorance of the responsible owners and “trainers” leaves any educated dressage rider speechless.

This type of “speed training” must be rejected, because it violates Nature, or the Tao. However, the oldest and most important premise on which classical horsemanship is founded is that it must follow Nature, and never go against it. By the same token, following the Tao also means respecting and following Nature. Compare several quotes below by classical authors from the 4th century BC, the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries AD, respectively, with a brief excerpt from the Tao te Ching and a quote by Alan Watts about Taoism.

Xenophon, The art of horsemanship, 4th century B.C.:

”So when he is induced by a man to assume all the airs and graces which he puts on of himself when he is showing off voluntarily, the result is a horse that likes to be ridden, that presents a magnificent sight, that looks alert, that is the observed of all observers.”

The Greek general Xenophon, who served under Alexander the Great, wrote the first preserved treatise on dressage. In the paragraph above, he outlines one of the main goals of classical dressage that has remained valid and unchanged until the present day. As classical riders and trainers, we see our task in developing the horse’s strength, balance and agility so that he can easily and happily perform under the rider’s weight all the gaits, turns, and movements that he shows at liberty. Although these movements may be easy for him when he is on his own, the addition of the rider’s weight presents quite a challenge. It takes several years of careful training to enable the horse to execute them correctly without injuring himself.

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, A General System of Horsemanship:

“Tho’ art should always follow the dictates of nature, and never thwart her, since she is mistress of the world, and ought to be obey’d.”

William Cavendish, the First Duke of Newcastle (1592-1676), is the most influential 17th century author alongside Antoine de Pluvinel. His book appeared first in French in 1657, when he lived in exile in Antwerp. The first English edition followed in 1667. Due to the author’s acute understanding of horse psychology and his many valuable practical observations and discoveries, it is one of the great milestones of classical equestrian literature. Many of the training principles he describes are truly timeless, and even modern riders are well advised to take his experiences seriously. Although Newcastle lived almost 1900 years after Xenophon, he continues where his famous predecessor left off, when he says repeatedly that Nature must dictate the course of the horse’s training. This implies not just which movements are taught and how they need to be executed, but it also includes the individual rate of progression for each horse. Nature alone determines when the horse is strong enough to learn each new exercise. Any training that violates Nature in terms of how movements are ridden or in terms of the speed with which the horse is expected to progress cannot be considered classical.

François Robichon De la Guérinière, School of Horsemanship:

“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.”

François Robichon De la Guérinière (1688-1751) has become the most revered master of classical dressage. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna adheres to his book as its official training manual to this day. The sentence above contains in a nutshell the answer to the frequently asked question: “What is classical dressage?” It is a training system whose principles are derived from Nature and whose goal is to aid and perfect the horse’s natural gaits through equestrian art. If the horse’s gaits deteriorate, or if the movements that are shown are unnatural, the training cannot really be considered classical any more.

Alexis F. L’Hotte, Equestrian Questions:

“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.”

General Alexis François L’Hotte (1825-1904), écuyer en chef at the Cadre Noir in Saumur, was one of the greatest French authorities of the 19th century. He is especially interesting, as he was a student of both François Baucher and his arch rival, Vicomte d’Aure, bridging the gulf between the old royal school of Versailles and Baucher’s revolutionary new method. L’Hotte echoes the words of his famous predecessors. He also postulates that classical equitation must respect and follow Nature, and rejects “extraordinary” and “eccentric” movements, such as the canter on three legs, or the canter backwards, which circus riders like James Fillis e.g. practiced.

Alois Podhajsky, Die klassische Reitkunst:

“A ruthlessly condensed training only leads to a general superficiality, to travesties of the movements, and to a premature unsoundness of the horse. Nature cannot be violated.”

Colonel Alois Podhajsky (1898-1973), former director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, focuses especially on the aspect of the duration of the training that Nature requires. Strengthening the horse’s musculature, building stamina, and developing agility and suppleness under the rider simply take time, even with the best training system. If the rider rushes the process, the horse will pay the price with his health.

There is a clear common thread that runs through these brief excerpts from two thousand years and four different countries. Love for the horse and respect for the laws of Nature have formed the backbone of classical horsemanship in all the countries that share the classical culture, from the beginnings of its documented history to the present day. Riders who lack these qualities cannot claim to be “classical.”

Tao Te Ching (21):

“The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao; that is what gives her her radiance.”

It may not appear immediately obvious, but these two lines from Lao tzu’s Tao te Ching describe the same mindset as the great European equestrian authors. We can easily make this quote relevant to the practice of dressage. The dressage artist rides and trains in harmony with Nature - at one with the Tao -, which gives his horses and his work radiance and expressiveness. The converse is equally true. Where the laws of Nature are violated, beauty is lost, and horse and rider become caricatures.

Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way:

“Thus the Tao is the course, the flow, the drift, or the process of nature, and I call it the Watercourse Way because both Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu use the flow of water as its principal metaphor.”

It is interesting that the flow of water is used as a metaphor for Nature in Taoist literature, because the old dressage masters taught that each exercise has to flow smoothly and harmoniously into the next one, like one river flows into the next one.

When the what becomes more important to the rider than the how, when riding advanced movements is valued more highly than the quality of the basic gaits, or when the training process is condensed and rushed, the rider has most definitely lost the Way, because the horses then have to go through the motions of dressage movements in spite of their lack of the strength, balance, agility, impulsion, straightness, and collection that are necessary prerequisites.

When the gymnastic foundation is missing, the exercises lose their value for the horse's education. They can even become harmful, since a persistent lack of balance and suppleness throughout each work session causes unnecessary wear and tear for the horse's body. The back, the hocks, the rear fetlocks, and the front navicular area are the most vulnerable body parts, which tend to break down first, if the rider does not take care to make balance and suppleness his highest priorities.

"Free from desire, you realize the mystery." A deeper understanding of artistic horsemanship can develop when the rider's thinking is not dominated by superficial trappings of success and progress, such as "levels", shows, ribbons, and medals, when he no longer cares about how others view his work. The “mystery” of dressage reveals itself to those who are not driven by ambition, but who try to connect with the horse's heart and mind, who lose themselves in the present moment. A truly classical rider seeks to deepen his understanding of the basic principles. He strives to improve his basic skills and chooses the exercises and movements he rides based on the horse's current needs, instead of their entertainment value, or the prestige they bring him. In other words, he rides in accord with Nature and has left his attachment to ego and status behind. He does what he deems necessary for his horse, right here, right now. That is all that matters.

"Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations." As long as the rider is still driven by ambition, ego, and vanity, he will be forever stuck on the surface. Dressage movements are then viewed merely as prestige objects, while their gymnastic function is neglected. This mindset leads the rider on a path toward trick riding, where movements are produced as hollow gestures, devoid of gymnastic value, and the structure of the ride lacks inner logic. In other words, neither the choreography of the lesson as a whole nor the execution of each individual exercise contributes very much toward increasing the horse's strength, suppleness, straightness, balance, impulsion, and collection.

"Yet mystery and manifestations
Arise from the same source." Both riders that I described in the two previous paragraphs are superficially connected. Both of them perform the same movements and patterns. They use the same terms - yet they live in parallel universes. The same words seem to have very different meaning for each of them. If you listen to a rider of the second variety, he may use all the right words. Yet if you watch him ride, the soundtrack does not seem to match the visual impression at all. His focus is too narrow and too undifferentiated. He is too preoccupied with superficial catchwords, while the deeper causalities completely elude him. He seems to view the horse as a commodity, rather than as a friend and partner.

Both worldviews arise from the same historical and cultural root. But they are each shaped by very different philosophies, expressing themselves in different priorities and goals, and these in turn manifest themselves as very different seats and types of riding and training. The common root from which they spring is the traditional tripartite system of Elementary School, Campaign School, and High School.

Elementary School is the foundation of the horse’s training. Every horse has to pass through this stage, regardless of whether his future career will be that of a dressage horse, a jumper, three-day eventer, or trail horse. It consists of the natural gaits walk, trot, and canter, on a single track without any significant degree of collection, and relatively large turns and circles. The focus lies on establishing good thrust, in a regular tempo, on correct arena patterns. Gustav Steinbrecht’s famous advice “ride your horse forward and make him straight” is behind these demands. Riding forward – without rushing – keeps the horse honest and teaches him a good work ethic. It makes him safe and reliable. The even tempo leads to longitudinal balance. Correct arena patterns help to focus the horse’s attention on the rider and the work. On the one hand, they teach both horse and rider discipline. On the other hand, they require the rider to adjust his horse’s hips and shoulders precisely on the track he has chosen. Correct patterns, i.e. round circles, round voltes, straight diagonals, center lines, quarter lines, whole school lines, etc., are possible only if the horse uses both sides of his body symmetrically - in other words, if he is functionally straight. You could also call it laterally balanced. Together, longitudinal and lateral balance lead to true relaxation and impulsion, and prepare collection.

The more thoroughly this foundation is laid, the more smoothly the following training stages will unfold. No amount of time that is spent on it should be considered a waste of time, as Alois Podhajsky wrote . It is beneficial to return to this stage periodically even with more advanced horses in order to reconfirm – and possibly improve on – these basics.

Campaign School equitation, which is erected upon this foundation like a second floor of a building, comprises all the demands made of the cavalry horse. It teaches the horse all the skills he needs to be safe and reliable outdoors under any and all circumstances. Straightness and impulsion are addressed in a more direct fashion, and collection can now be introduced, after the Elementary School training has prepared the horse by developing the thrust. The horse’s balance is refined and his musculature is developed evenly on both sides of his body, so that consequently all four legs carry the same amount of weight. Campaign School equitation is the historical ancestor of modern competitive dressage.

Campaign School contains the lateral movements at the trot, turns on the haunches, the reinback, as well as the collected trot and canter, along with the medium trot and canter. The extended trot seemed to play a much smaller roll in the very pragmatic training of the military horse than it does today. Instead, the carrière, an extended canter in two beats, was used when the rider had to move fast.

High School equitation as the ultimate refinement of classical horsemanship forms the third floor of the edifice, and was practiced mainly as a royal pastime at the courts of Europe during the Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo eras. After the French Revolution, the more exciting, fast-paced equestrian sports of foxhunting, steeplechasing, and thoroughbred racing began to replace the quiet, methodical, meditative art of haute école in popularity. Due to lack of interest and lack of funding, riding academies were closed one by one, indoor riding schools at the European courts stood increasingly empty, until only a handful of institutions worldwide continued the artistic and cultural legacy.

The High School dressage horse has become so supple and strong that he is able to support his body weight more with his hind legs than with his front legs for increasing periods of time. The purity of the gaits reaches its climax here. Suppleness, self carriage, lightness, permeability, impulsion, and collection are developed to the highest possible degree. Only a small percentage of horses are talented enough to enter this stage.

In terms of movements, we distinguish airs on the ground and airs above the ground. The airs on the ground comprise the so-called school walk, school trot, and school canter, the piaffe, passage, and the advanced canter movements, such as half passes and pirouettes, as well as the tèrre à tèrre (a haunches-in movement in two beats) and redopp (a four-beat school canter in the haunches-in position, in which the inside hind leg touches down before the outside front leg). Tempo changes in the canter were virtually unknown during the Baroque period. They were invented in the 19th century, and due to their negligible practical value, they were never introduced to military equitation. Instead, they found a permanent home in the circus and later on in the present day in upper-level dressage tests. Some of the classical high school movements on the ground, such as the redopp and the tèrre à tèrre, were never included in the competition tests, and are consequently almost entirely forgotten. The degree of collection expected from a modern Grand Prix horse in the collected walk, trot, and canter is also lower than that of the classical “school horse”.

The airs above the ground consist primarily of the levade, the courbette, and the capriole. The Spanish Riding School considers the pesade to be a failed levade, and the croupade and balotade to be failed caprioles.





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