What springs to mind when you think of “classical training”? Dressage? Andalusian or Lusitano horses? Airs-above-the-ground? The Spanish Riding School of Vienna? People dressage up like Napoleon in traditional tailcoats and funny hats or outdated uniforms?
Whilst these things are not, necessarily, wrong. They most certainly are not the whole truth...
There are lots and lots of different definitions of classical training, and finding one that I really, truly liked was a little challenging. In the end, I came up with my own definition. I think its simple enough for most to understand, and I hope that it might give you some sort of clarity if the question “What does ‘classical’ even mean?” has been troubling you.
Classical training is the methodical training of a horse, which seeks to improve the horse’s natural athletic ability by utilising progressive gymnasticisng exercises; to improve balance, suppleness, engagement, and collection. This is characterised by a lifted back, the hindleg stepping under the horse’s centre of gravity, biomechanically correct gaits (no diagonal advanced placement, positive or negative), free movement, with the head on or slightly in front of the vertical.
In addition, the horse’s training should produce a confident, relaxed, obedient, and attentive horse who is highly sensitive to the rider’s subtle seat, weight, leg, and hand.
All of this combines so that true lightness and harmony can be achieved. Of course, this also requires that the rider can maintain exceptional balance, and a correct, independent, classical position.
Of course, these principles do not apply exclusively to dressage. They have as much influence in the show jumping arena as they do between the boards!
P.S. The horse's welfare should absolutely be a priority - but I'm sure you could have guessed that. There are times when a rider may need to be fractionally more 'committed' and ride more 'strongly' than they would like, particularly in the case of older horses who have been schooled incorrectly in the past. My physio once had to really, really lean on my knee to help get movement back into after surgery and, whilst it wasn't pleasant, it was short-term, 100% for my best interests, and the only option that didn't include more invasive surgery. Sometimes with the horses, a similar situation will occur and that is life. 'Stronger' forms of riding should only be used when absolutely necessary, and only if it's for the horse's benefit, not for the purpose of winning a competition.
P.P.S. Competition is not forbidden! Classical riders can go to shows too!
I am a dressage trainer and general equestrian coach in Surrey, Sussex, and Berkshire. I teach dressage lessons, and hold a range of riding and equestrian clinics around the UK, and use my blog to share horse training tips, advice, and resources.