Classical versus Modern Dressage

Hello. My great passion with horses is dressage. This may surprise some of you but as always, it’s about approach and application.

There is little difference between a classical dressage rider and a competitive rider in the hands of a master, but the methods of training are very different. The two methods are different from the standpoint of how to develop lightness and self-carriage.

At this time in history the classical school of dressage is very strong and is suffering little conflict in their theories and methods of training. However, the competitive world is suffering greatly. There are a lot of horses that are being rushed through the process because of the desire to compete. They are ridden with new methods of training to shortcut the old methods through the rider’s talent to take a horse falsely to the FEI levels.

Currently there is an upsurge in the classical methods helping the competitive world. I have had a lot of personal success using these classical principles and theories with riders and horses. I would like to suggest a book by Sylvia Loch, The Classical Rider. It points out that dressage riders in the top levels of competition, even at the Olympic levels, are utilizing classical methods to achieve lightness and self-carriage in their performances.

How I compare the difference between the competitive and classical methods is that the competitive school focuses on riding the horse into the contact with forward expression of the horse’s gaits while the classical method focuses on lightness of aids and contained expression of the gaits in self-carriage.

My Methods of developing a competitive performance resonate to the theories of the classical school. I prefer the classical methods of training because they focus on developing the dressage horse through the fundamentals of procedure, ground training, lightness of aids, harmony and unity. I also believe that the classical method provides the competitive rider with more support in developing the rider’s skill in horsemanship for dressage. All the problems that are occurring in the competitive world could be corrected by using the classical methods of dressage.

If you think about it, once you put the leg and rein aids on the horse correctly, the horse is like a piano. A piano is a generic instrument. You can play classical music or jazz on the same piano. The only requirement is that the piano be in tune.

There are many ways of developing the dressage horse. My interest is to use the lightest aids from the beginning to create the maximum performance in each horse. I find that taking the time to develop the horse through the fundamentals of the classical methods builds the horse’s understanding and willingness to perform. In the end it is the fastest way to create a fully schooled dressage horse. Using the principles of the classical school of dressage, no horse or rider is put to a task that they can not achieve.

In unity there is harmony. Dressage is the practice of unity between horse and rider. Unity is an art, the formula of practice, and the first and last step in dressage. Getting the resistance out of a horse when the horse is resistant is not dressage.

It is important to remember to keep the philosophy of dressage in the act of riding and training your horse. One rule that should never be broken is to never ask your horse to perform any movement before he is prepared and willing to try.

Hope you found that interesting.
Enjoy your weekend


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inge - 6 years ago Reply

i like the AND way “art of natural dressage” it is a non competition way of working with horses.
The way the horse teach us and we follow.
It is better for the horse to do some dressage because he stay longer healthy when we humans sit on their backs. It is a kind of must do.
But you can do it with a happy horse without any force.

Brenda - 6 years ago Reply

I love the classical dressage too, and I read a lot about it. My feeling is that the differences within the classical methods are primarily about the development of ‘pushing’ or ‘carrying’ force in the hindleg, which is of course historically grown. The more ‘northern’ schools use longer warmbloods, that move more easily forward than the baroque horses of the south, that are more able to carry. I like those movements the most, but that’s probably a matter of taste. I think it would be nice to find out what effect the different methods have on the movements of the horse so that people would be able to pick the methods that suit him or her best for I do believe that some methods are better than others. It does require a lot of study. I’m currently reading Bent Branderups book, very good. Heurschmanns book ‘Tug of War’ is also interesting but not classical. It’s about the biomechanics of competitive dressage (and the problems that malpractise can cause). Does anyone have any other tips (not already mentioned)? Thinking about what’s best for the horse, isn’t that what classical dressage is all about?

stephani - 6 years ago Reply

I think that your liberty method and learning process of bonding with the ‘present’ horse blends beautifully with classical dressage. your method has helped me tremendously with my endeavors at becoming a better rider/friend of my horse.
Christian,, if I may, there is only constant contact with horse when your horse looks for your contact – via the reins, you will be there to receive him. this is another difference of classical from modern. Modern dressage takes up contact and pulls hands toward body where classical keeps hands in front of pommel at all times and waits for horse to find them, helping the horse find its balance through the entire body with different exercises and then magically the horse lifts and fills your hands. and you give,give, give, never take.

farah - 6 years ago Reply

There are several sub groups in classical dressage as some people have said here. I like to have knowledge of all so I can draw from a base where the horse says “yes I think this school works for me” or a blend of more than one school. I had a lovely ride on horse today someone brought me to evaluate for bad behavior and bucking. I watched the owner ride and observed her style to be disconnected and dominant. She asked me to ride and normally I don’t like to just ride but during the lesson the horse literally kept coming to me as and ally and saying hello. I connected to him the best I could in the short time I had. I asked him how he liked to be ridden and what he knew how to do. When he did the slightest thing right I stopped and praised him and told him what a wonderful horse he was. He DID not put a foot wrong the whole ride. I told her he was awesome and her reponse was ” I wish he could have achieved more during the ride”
My point is, This horse was being very obedient with his rider she couldn’t see it. She never once told him he was good. And he started to protest. I rode him in a style he liked and he performed flawlessly. it was not german or french or spanish. It was the way he wanted to be ridden. We were doing some low level dressage. Just some thoughts…

Pamelaa - 6 years ago Reply

I studied Sylvia Loch’s work when I first got my horse and knew nothing about dressage. I think she has a wonderful attitude towards the horses (which is one of the first things I look for in any horseperson) and excellent skills/knowledge. I’ve also studied Philippe Karl’s work and am currently studying Anja Beran’s work. So far Anja is the one I relate to the most and have gotten the most out of watching. My horse repsonds quite well to her classical methods – always working within the limits of the horse, not beyond. I like the way she works from the ground with whomever is riding a particaulr horse and assists the rider. I am incorpaorting this way into my lessons with my trainer right now. I don’t beleive in and don’t use any sort of auxillary reins, don’t use a flash on the noseband, and keep the bridle on the loose side, never tight. Alot of the competetive dressage folks use side reins, spurs before they’ve been earned and can be used properly, and push their horses “forward” too soon – and the trainers support this way of riding for the most part. I have been through all of that and my horse was very unhappy. Now, I take my time, understand that forward thrust can take years to develop, and am learning the art of lightness with my hands/reins. I have a TB who really doesn’t respond well to heavy hands, short reins, harsh bits, tight nosebands, or spurs being used by someone who doesn’t have the experience to use them correctly. A calm rider with good thoughts goes very far with him which is something that I beleive the classical school supports. Their is an attitude out there of riding being more of a sport than an art and I think that is where the aggressiveness and pushing horses beyond their limits comes into play. I’m not too fond of “The Training Scale” that is used to train the modern dressage horse either nor do I relate to the differnet levels of showing. I think the classical school makes for a better adjusted horse and rider – wish I would have know of Anja Beran or Philippe Karl years ago, and thank God I studied Sylvia Loch’s work when I did.

Anne - 6 years ago Reply

To Christian:

My horse and I have a close bond (closest when we are camping together or spending every day together). Recently we have started riding with contact. She seeks the contact and follows my direction. I am not “giving her a task”, we just go do it – sometimes it is hard to tell where I end and my horse begins!
Occasionally I feel like we achieve “true unity”. It is incredible!

Nicole H - 6 years ago Reply

Great article, I agree with what you wrote!!
I am starting to do dressage with my horse (in a halter right now). 🙂 I love Classical Dressage and it seems like there is a lot more horsemanship in Classical than in Modern dressage.

I would also like to know what kind of classical dressage you prefer. 🙂 I like how in the French Classical the contact with the reins seems to be lighter. But I am not sure which one I think is best. I guess it would just depend on the preference of each horse and rider. I am learning from Karen Rohlf’s ( book and dvds right now to learn the basics. 🙂


Kathryn - 6 years ago Reply

There are many classical schools, all some what different. There is French Classical which uses jaw flexions to release the jaw and create lightness. The french achieve lightness, then add motion. There is the Spanish/Portuguese variety which uses serretas to lunge the horse. The there is the Spanish Riding School which uses a form of German Classical or La Guérinière.

I love classical methods too, but as I research them more and more, I am finding their differences… So which do you prefer?

Christian - 6 years ago Reply

This interests me very much because I struggle conceptually and in reality with the contradiction between your liberty work (giving the horse the chance to get away, not even working in a round pen where there isn’t really a feel of escape for the horse) and dressage with constant contact (legs on, rein contact, seat) and the horse has no chance to just disconnect. I find even classical dressage to be a form of micromanaging of the horse that seems to contradict the liberty work. Often it feels like a nagging to me, a “go go go” “do this, do this, do that”, instead of giving the horse a task and trusting that they will do it and correcting later when they don’t. Is it clear what I am saying??

stephani - 6 years ago Reply

i agree, love classical dressage…the Klimke’s they are classical in principle yet they are very successful in the showring – olympic golds, etc… i had a lesson with michael klimke a couple years ago and he instructed me to do nothing other than longand low forward work for 3 months…he demanded me to allow the horse’s throatlatch open and keep the mouth/jaw supple, he was constantly saying” give the reins, give the reins” what an eye opener. he often would take crank bands off fellow students’ horses.

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