The Rich Traditions of Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship

By Michael Guerini (www.dunmovinranch.com) and Kimberly Bench (www.Benchmark-Farm.com)

Both Classical Dressage and Western Riding (Horsemanship with a Western Saddle) have rich traditions and long histories.  In this series of essays, Kimberly Bench and Michael Guerini have come together once again to share perspectives from the Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship worlds.  As we all embark on this journey of Western Dressage (WD), it is important to  know that each of these two disciplines that are coming together in WD arose from the need of people to perform activities on horseback and that these  needs have traditions and ideas that are 100’s of years old.  It is important that when considering WD and Classical Dressage we take the time to look at the original intentions, trainings, and look/feel of Classical Dressage since the principles and philosophy of the discipline arose from the teachings of the Classical Masters.  Likewise, the reason behind Western Horsemanship is rooted in lessons learned in the past on the backs of the Cowboy/Vaquero working horses.

Although it can be argued that classical riding has been the foundation for all other riding, our modern competitive dressage may look quite different from its original roots.  Through this journey, we must also look at both Classical Dressage and Modern Competitive Dressage and see that differences exist in these two forms of Dressage.  Likewise, some of the Western event competitions seen today have more flash than the traditional American Cowboy would display during his working day.

In both cases, the foundation and principles of the training method are first and foremost of importance to both Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship.  Secondly, the traditions of mannerisms, tack, and language (words/meanings) handed down through these two riding disciplines are celebrated parts that complete the philosophy of the teachings.

The goal of any Dressage program, whether Traditional or Western, should be that the principles shared by the Classical Dressage Masters be learned, shared/taught, and celebrated.  The goal of any program that includes Western Traditions is to develop a horse that is capable of performing work efficiently, athletically, and with minimal effort. Through Western Dressage, these two traditions can work together in harmony to develop horses and riders that our ancestors would admire.

Our journey will cover the following topics and we realize that for the most part, we will be providing a very cursory overview of the available information.  There are large books written on many of these subjects and our intent is to not re-write what is already written but rather to consolidate and provide a summary of ideas, histories, and thoughts to help develop a deeper awareness for the knowledge and traditions of both Traditional Dressage and Western Riders.

Article I – The rich traditions of Classical Dressage and Western Riding 

Article II – Modern day Dressage and Western Riding

Article III – The tools of the trade

Article IV – What we both seek in a horse

Article V – The silent crossover that has occurred the last 25 to 50 years

Article VI – The birth of CD and WD

Article VII – Onwards and to the future

For thousands of years the horse was the pinnacle of transport.  As well as being a mode of transportation, the horse’s most demanding role was in warfare.  In essence, the horse was a tool used to help the rider accomplish a great many tasks.  Although used as a tool, horses were highly valued partners and the health and soundness of the horse was of utmost importance.

Classical Dressage Traditions

Classical Dressage can be traced back to four Classical Dressage schools, which include –the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, the Cadre Noir of the French National Riding School in Saumur, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, Spain, and Lisbon’s Portuguese School of Equestrian Art.

The knowledge of how to train the horse for its role in warfare was refined by specialist trainers, often referred to as the classical masters, over hundreds of years.  Some of these wrote down their techniques and these were passed on for others to develop further but all were interested in three things:

  • Training the horse to carry a rider.
  • Training the horse to be obedient to the rider’s commands.
  • Improving the horse’s athletic ability through balance and fitness so that it could more effectively perform its role.

Classical dressage is the art of riding in harmony with, rather than against, the horse and this evolved from cavalry movements and training for the battlefield.  Cavalry mounts had to be fit, supple, obedient, and instantly responsive to the lightest of commands from the rider.  The horse understands rider aids and the rider understands the horse’s mind and ability.  In Classical Dressage, horse and rider would perform a variety of movements with a progression of these movements that fit both the skill and rider abilities, never exceeding the level of horse and rider until both were ready.  The measurements of the individual movements developed into the Dressage tests that are used to evaluate the skill and training progression of both horse and rider.

Classical dressage is the development of a mutually respectful and harmonious relationship between horse and rider.  In classical dressage, rather than disciplining the horse because his conformation did not allow perfection, the rider accepted his horse’s best on that given day.  Continuous work and proper conditioning was put into the horse to improve carriage and ability.

As with the horse, not all riders were capable of performing perfectly at the highest levels.  The training brought each horse to his own maximum potential.  Classical dressage is all about taking the appropriate amount of time to allow for a proper progression of both training and fitness.  Both the horse and rider must be conditioned over time.

Kimberly Bench stresses that “conditioning is as necessary as the training itself.  The horse is conditioned through correct, consistent, and progressive training.  Dressage is a discipline, not merely a sport and to achieve true success both the rider and the horse must train as any athlete.  A horse and rider must train progressively and regularly, increasing as the work becomes more demanding.  Many years ago, I had a horse that had been ridden and shown at third level.  When I purchased him, he had been turned out to pasture for several years.  Even though he knew the “language,” his body was not capable of performing at his previous level.  With regular work, he was able to achieve a certain level of athleticism but a soundness issue prevented him from progressing further.  So in addition to the training, fitness, and soundness are equally as important.”

The rider must understand his/her abilities and limitations.  A rider must achieve self-carriage (independent balance) in order to help the horse develop self-carriage.  Harmony only occurs when the rider has an effective, balanced seat and body position, independent hands, moves with the horse’s motion, and delivers the aids timely and correctly.

All horses and riders following the classical training scale will make some degree of improvement in condition and athleticism.  Please note, this does not mean all horses are able to achieve the most advanced movements or the level of expression we see in modern competitive dressage.

Western Riding Traditions

Western Riding, just like classical dressage, can be traced back to Xenophon around 400 years B.C. Xenophon spoke to the basics of riding a well-schooled horse that would move based on rider weight transference, away from leg pressure, and be supple through its head, neck, shoulder, and rib cage and hip.  This has been interpreted by some to describe a horse that would be so light and responsive that it could be ridden one handed, and yet perform correctly enough that a man’s life could depend on that horse working with his rider as a harmonious team.  Western riding is a style that evolved from the ranching and warfare traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors.

Introduced to the America’s between the early 1500’s and the 1700’s from the Spanish, this style of riding has changed over time but the foundation training is still the goal of the western horse.  Most importantly — this style of riding lends itself to use in numerous practical disciplines.  By the late 1700’s, the equipment and riding style of western riding was heavily influenced by the Spanish vaqueros.  Both the equipment and riding style evolved to meet the working needs of the cowboy in the American West.

American cowboys needed to work long hours in the saddle over rough terrain and still be comfortable and able to use the limited equipment available on horseback for many uses.  It is important to understand that much of today’s western styles of riding were born of necessity to survive, earn a living, and feed a family/town/region.

Michael Guerini emphasizes that in the traditions of the American cowboy, the horse was an equal partner for without his mount, the American Cowboy would never have been able to survive at work.  Western riding of the past goes beyond being a discipline and certainly was never promoted as a sport in the early days; rather Western riding and the ways of the American Cowboy and Vaqueros were a lifestyle for these men and women.  Success was graded on survival of the horse and rider, getting livestock to market, getting home to see family or visiting friends, and getting to new places for work.

The American cowboy often had a string of horses that he used in his work.  Some of the horses were considered advanced and others were young stock in the early stages of development.  Those Cowboys that were fortunate enough to have a string of horses continually worked to cultivate the horse to be the best, capable of helping the Cowboy perform his duties.  The American Cowboy would ensure the young horses worked with balance, and had cadence, timing, and tempo.  A horse with smooth transitions that was responsive to light touch was the goal of the cowboy training.

Because of the necessity to control the horse with one hand and use a lariat with the other, western horses were trained to neck rein, that is, to change direction with light pressure of a rein against the horse’s neck.  A cowboy trying to rope a cow so that it could be doctored or branded, needed to be able to guide his horse with one hand.  This would free the other hand to rope with.  One of the most important points to understand is that a good cowhorse quickly picked up the idea of moving away from rein pressure on its neck.  Horses were also trained to exercise a certain degree of independence  in using their natural instincts to follow the movements of a cow, thus a  riding style developed that emphasized a deep, secure seat, and training  methods encouraged a horse to be responsive on very light rein contact.

Summary

Both styles require riders to have a solid seat, with the hips and shoulders balanced over the feet, with hands independent of the seat to avoid jerking the horse in the mouth and interfering with its performance.  To the classical dressage rider of ancient times and to the Western Cowboy, the horse was a cherished belonging, a source of pride or status, often more important than money.  For with the horse, these people could work, wage war, and move across distances with relative ease.

Horses for warfare needed to be stout, capable of carrying significant weight of battle armor yet they also needed to be agile, balanced, reliable and obedient.  Horses for Western riding need to be quick, agile, have some natural instincts for the work being done, and have a certain amount of independence.  In both cases, self-carriage and balance by the horse and rider were two important elements of the relationship.

Kimberly Bench is a clinician, instructor and horsewoman specializing in Classical Dressage.  She owns and operates Benchmark Farm in Hudsonville, MI.  She has developed a program she calls “Practical Dressage” which is designed to teach riders of any discipline how the classical training scale can work for them.  Find more information at www.Benchmark-Farm.com.

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).

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The Rider – Clinician Relationship in Horsemanship

The Rider – Clinician Relationship in Horsemanship

By Dr. Mike Guerini (www.dunmovinranch.com) and Kimberly Bench (www.Benchmark-Farm.com)

This is the third in a series of blogs on how we as owners interact with the different professionals that we rely on in the horse world. For this blog, we have brought together Kimberly Bench and Dr. Mike Guerini. Some of these interactions in the horse world include:

Horse Owner – Horse Trainer

Rider – Riding Instructor

Rider – Clinician

Horse Owner – Veterinarian

Horse Owner – Farrier

Horse Owner – Stable/arena owner/manager

Dr. Mike discussed the Rider – riding Instructor relationship in the last blog. This time we are looking to the Rider – Clinician relationship and things you can do to help this interaction be a success. Many thanks to Kimberly Bench for adding her expertise to this discussion.

Kimberly Bench comes from a classical dressage background and Dr. Mike comes from a western performance background, so in this blog you are getting the advice from two distinct backgrounds — but you are also getting to see that we have many similarities and shared perspectives.

The rider – clinician relationship is different from that of a rider and riding instructor. Often, the relationship with the clinician occurs only once or infrequently. The rider – riding instructor relationship is one built for the long term with goals and objectives.

The importance of the clinician/owner relationship and how this compliments owner/trainer relationship.

Many riders have successful careers by taking weekly lessons, formulating plans with an instructor, and following through on those plans. Other riders learn from multiple/different instructors and/or a clinician(s) visiting the area that can provide an opportunity for additional learning. For some riders, learning from a trusted trainer and clinician is the optimal combination.

It is important that you take the time to evaluate different clinicians and choose those who will challenge you as a rider, teach you something new, or help you overcome an issue with your horse. If you are working routinely with an instructor, discuss with him/her why you feel that you will benefit from attending the clinic.

Kimberly Bench describes in detail how her farm operates with respect to continuing education and advising students on clinicians. At our farm, continuing education is a big focus so I try to provide outside educational opportunities for both my students and myself regularly. Last year we had an FEI coach/rider come in monthly – this spring we are lucky enough to be hosting her as a guest instructor for weekly lessons.

I pick clinicians that will compliment my program and enhance what my students are learning at home. Continuity is important, especially in newer/less-experienced riders. I try to go be as involved as possible with my students’ education, and I find that attending clinics with them not only allows me the opportunity to learn as well, but also helps me further explain and reinforce the material at home.  I will also often speak with the clinician about “homework” for my student after the clinic, which helps make the clinic beneficial to the rider longer term.  More seasoned riders may feel confident trying many different clinicians who will offer them a broader perspective, but I find that often times the newer rider is overwhelmed and confused by too many different approaches when it comes very early in their education. It is a great benefit to the rider if the at home instructor attends the clinic with the student, either as a participant or as an auditor. 

It is also a good idea to observe (audit) a clinician before participating as a rider. Often times a clinic sounds good but when you get there you realize the ideas presented are completely contrary to what you believe or perhaps the instructor has a teaching style not suited for your learning abilities. It also gives you the opportunity to be introduced to the material and have a little time to prepare yourself mentally for what you may learn. See how the clinician interacts with the students, the auditors. Is he/she willing to get the horses? Does his teaching approach compliment your existing educational program, your goals? Is the clinician open to questions about why they want you to do something and is he/she willing to break it down if you need further explanation? Is she patient? Does he work well with all levels of riders or is he better with specific groups?

Dr. Mike says, “As an instructor, I encourage my students to attend clinics with other clinicians a few times a year. This helps my riders grow in experience and reinforce or deepen what they are learning at home. After a student attends a clinic, we speak about what he or she learned and how it applies to what is happening on our regular lessons.”

One of the benefits of the rider – clinician relationship is that the rider gets to hear the clinician discuss principles and concepts being spoken about and taught by the regular riding instructor. There is a true harmony between the clinician and riding instructor if the clinician is chosen wisely. As is often said “There are many roads to Rome” but you need to find professional horsemen and horsewomen who will compliment your goals. A clinician may do things differently or discuss something from a different perspective but it is important that it make sense with respect to what you are doing with your horse.

For example, Kimberly Bench recently attended a clinic that presented some material that contradicted what she believes about classical riding.  Several of the horses became increasingly tense and resistant during their sessions. Kimberly determined that some of this clinician’s techniques may have worked for certain horses and riders, but overall it was not an approach she would adopt in her own training/teaching. She was, however, still able to find some valuable insight and a few good idea’s to take home, reinforcing the idea that everyone can teach you something – sometimes it’s what not to do – but even that has merrit!

Both Dr. Mike and Kimberly want to share a moral of this story. As professionals, we often attend a variety of clinics and can find something to learn from the experience. New and less-experienced riders can be caught up in something that doesn’t/won’t work for them but can’t get past the “but I saw it at this clinic and…”.   Having an educated professional with you at your clinic can help you sort through all of the information and incorporate what is appropriate for you, your horse, and your goals. 

Dr. Mike says, “As a clinician I present in areas I have never visited and have no connection to any of the riders or trainers in that location. Because of this, it is very critical that I spend time on the phone or on email with riders or auditors so that I can share my philosophy and approach and let them know the goals of the clinic. I also welcome, at no cost, local instructors to audit my clinics. I want the local trainers, many of whom might have a student attending my clinic, see what I am doing, and ask me questions — it enhances the learning for all. My Dr. Mike’s Horsemanship series highlights what I teach and these books, along with my website and blogs help people understand who I am as a clinician. It is also important to ask EVERY student throughout the day — “Do you follow what I am teaching?

How to be a successful rider in a clinic (preparation and how to be active and learn there).

Be prepared for the time commitment of a clinic. You and your horse both need to be physically able to take part in whatever clinic format (discussed later) you have chosen to attend. You and the horse must be up to the demands of more difficult work, therefore, if you have serious goals, you must dedicate the time necessary to reach the level of fitness required to reach those goals in the clinic.

Talk to the clinician about the warm up policy. Some clinicians like to observe the horse and rider in warm up because it can give valuable insight to the horse and rider relationship. Other times a clinician may expect that you have already warmed up and are ready to work so it is important to discuss this with your clinician or clinic organizer before the start of the clinic. Also, ask if you will be allowed into the ring for your warm-up while the rider before you is finishing up. (If you need to lunge your horse also ask about opportunities to do that.)

For your attendance at the clinic, minimize the number of distractions during your lesson time. When you cannot pay full attention to the lesson, you and your horse are not optimally prepared for learning. Distractions can keep you from focusing on the task and this leads to a situation where you or the horse can get hurt. Also consider the other riders – bringing young children, pets, or other distractions may not only distract you, but the clinician, horses and other riders as well.

Make sure you take the time to email or communicate with the clinician or his/her team about your background and goals. A good clinician should be able to help you grow as a rider and push you to excel and you need to accept or discuss with them how much they might be pushing you. Be honest with yourself as well as the clinician as to your level of commitment to reach those goals.

Clinic formats and how to decide what works best for you.

Multiple clinic formats exist and are utilized throughout the US and the rest of the world. We will discuss three formats most commonly encountered.

In every clinic, regardless of the format, it is important for the clinician to adapt to the needs of each rider on that particular day.

As Kimberly Bench said,

The clinic plan needs to be flexible. I always have a rough idea of what I’d like to work on, however, I have to work with what is in front of me that day. Perhaps the horse is a little distracted because snow is sliding off the arena roof. Maybe the rider had a tough workout at the gym and has a stiff back and is having difficulty sitting the trot. A few weeks ago I taught a clinic; one of the riders had emailed me in advance to tell me she wanted to improve her horse’s connection at the canter.  I believe she thought we would spend the lesson in the canter after the warm up. What I found when I began the lesson was that the horse was not forward and therefore was behind the bit and on the forehand. He was also dull to her leg aides. We went back to the basics of sending the horse forward into the contact, we worked on leg yielding in and out on a circle and then on a parallel line. I also adjusted her position as the way she was sitting had her seat bones facing backwards, restricting the horses desire to swing through in the back. The majority of the lesson was spent in the walk and trot. However, near the end of the lesson when I asked them to canter again the connection problem had resolved.

If I had restricted myself to a detailed lesson plan, we could have spent 45 minutes of cantering poorly. Cantering itself does not improve cantering, just as asking for 100 flying changes does not fix a problem with the flying change. It is my job to identify what issues need to be addressed; guide the horse and rider through exercises that help improve the work and instruct them on how to achieve the desired results. It is also my job to help the rider understand the bigger picture and strict lesson plans are often detrimental to the overall goal.

Similar experiences have been encountered by Dr. Mike who says, “It is the job of the clinician to adjust and adapt to accommodate each student’s learning style and to help make sure a strong foundation exists. Once that foundation exists and is the basis for good fundamentals, many problems are solved.”

Format #1 — Multiple riders over a single day or multiple days — the group option.

In the group format, anywhere from 5 to 30 riders may attend a clinic and take instruction. For some people this works well because they have frequent break periods while the clinician is working with someone else on a particular issue. Also, for some people, learning is easier when they see everything done by someone else and can process what they are learning   simultaneously. This type of clinic may run 1 to 4 days and can be a lot to take in for some riders and horses.

Format #2 — Riders scheduled one at a time with auditors — the one-on-one option.

With private sessions, one on one time is set and the clinician works with riders independently. Other riders and auditors may watch and learn. Often times the clinician will stop and ask if the auditors have any questions about what was covered in between riders.  This format allows the clinician to give more focused feedback and works well for rider who want a more detailed, intense lesson.

Format #3 — Group lesson in the morning and then private sessions with each rider in the afternoon.

This format can provide the benefits of the two previously mentioned formats where the group session introduces the concepts and then the individual sessions can fine tune the application of them.

In summary:

1) Find a clinic and clinician that will help you move forward with your goals. Make sure the clinic format works for you and that you and your riding instructor (if applicable) have discussed the right clinician for you.

2) Be prepared to learn. By this you need to be physically fit, not distracted, and devoted to the learning opportunity.

3) As always — have fun and practice safe horsemanship.

Kimberly Bench is a clinician, instructor and horsewoman specializing in Classical Dressage. She owns and operates Benchmark Farm in Hudsonville, MI. She has developed a program she calls “Practical Dressage” which is designed to teach riders of any discipline how the classical training scale can work for them. Find more information at www.Benchmark-Farm.com.

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com. Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).