What is Classical Horse Training?
Classical horse training is not limited to dressage, it encompasses all Western and English riding disciplines. Classical actually refers to the Greek and Roman era, not the Baroque period. The seeds of classical horse training can be traced back to the writings of Xenophon, a Greek nobleman, whose techniques, ideas and methods developed around what was beneficial for training and keeping a good war horse. Xenophon was one of the first great horsemen to write about working with the horse’s nature and psychology, using consistency rather than harsh methods to train. Xenophon’s agenda was to develop a sound, functional horse for work and war. The concepts outlined in his writings are still just as important, just as practical for modern riders, mostly because the anatomy and psychology of horses and riders has not changed much since 400 B.C.
If you desire to handle a good war-horse so as to make his action the more magnificent and striking, you must refrain from pulling at his mouth with the bit as well as from spurring and whipping him. Most people think that this is the way to make him look fine; but they only produce an effect exactly contrary to what they desire, – they positively blind their horses by jerking the mouth up instead of letting them look forward, and by spurring and striking scare them into disorder and danger. This is the way horses behave that are fretted by their riders into ugly and ungraceful action; but if you teach your horse to go with a light hand on the bit, and yet to hold his head well up and to arch his neck, you will be making him do just what the animal himself glories and delights in. 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.
Xenophon, 400 BC
The ideal of a supple and willing, yet strong, powerful, proud horse is as important now as it ever was. With training that is supported by science, this ideal is not so very difficult to achieve. As they say, many roads lead to Rome.
Training methodology for horses will always be reflected in the body and mind of the horse and there are many ideas out there that support healthy, sound development. There are also many ideas out there that do not support the well-being of the horse. Classical horse training developed between the Greco-Roman era and Renaissance-Baroque era, during a time when horses were scarce, expensive and much needed as the primary form of transportation in Europe. Most European countries have classical schools of riding that originally trained cavalry and turned training into an art form during the baroque era. The French classical school, Le Cadre Noir is different than the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. The Swedish school is very different than the Portuguese. But each country’s classical school of horse training was intended to pass along best methods and practices that preserved horses, worked with the nature of the horse and developed horses to the highest levels of performance.
In the United States we suddenly had a reverse situation with horses than what we had in Europe. As herds of wild horses thrived in the west, we found ourselves with plenty of cheap horses but not very many people. Cowboys had jobs to do and if one horse didn’t work out, then there were plenty more to choose from. Classical traditions to preserve horses became less important. Horse training specialists did develop at working ranches and retained classical methods of horse training. These specialists became known as Vaqueros. Very traditional cowboy methods of training are not so different from the classical training methods used at European schools. Why? Because methods that work with the horse and preserve the mind and body of the horse always work better for both rider and horse, no matter what job we ask the horse to do.