When I first started learning the intricacies of classical riding my instructor (Linda LeGrande), bless her patient heart, repeatedly, for each of 6 – 7 monthly lessons, asked me to release my inside rein. This was one of many directives but was the most persistent and the one, that once achieved, never needed reiteration – this was due to the exceptional results such a simple yet difficult action created in my horse. Previous instructors, none of which came with the same level of accreditation, never addressed this and even worse did nothing other than to ask me to drive my horse forward into an unyielding contact – “to make the horse accept the bit!!!!” This approach was useless and incorrect – unyielding contact does nothing but hinder the horse’s ability to comply with whatever other requests are being made. Thankfully my horse would have nothing to do with such a constricted frame, which led to my quick realization of just how incorrect and ineffective such an approach could be.
Once found this enormously patient instructor opened up an entire new view of horses and training. As my wonderful horse and I progressed through our grueling and enlightened lessons many defects of gait, balance and suppleness slowly diminished and we found ourselves working on lovely and straight walk, trot, canter, piaffe and passage. This particular horse was a 15 year old Appy that was deemed, by every other so-called trainer and instructor as difficult, stiff, piggish in attitude and all in all not a great dressage candidate – well within 6 months of working with someone that truly knew what she was doing we laid those nasty descriptions to rest and with great aplomb - he developed a jaw-dropping levade for a horse that was educated so late in life. He was reborn to a life of harmony and soundness – this despite some of the worst front feet I have ever seen – contracted heels, ringbone, sidebone, which then fractured, and a predilection for shoe-pulling that challenged my farrier to the day he (the horse) retired.
Despite the amazing results obtained by correct application of long-utilized classical aids today’s knowledge reveals that we, as conscientious riders can do even more – releasing that is – a release of both reins, legs, seat, as well as releasing many old-school ideas. Thanks to science and the well-thought out interpretation of such science by prominent trainers, riders and experts in equine biomechanics, such as Jean Luc Cornille, we now know that when it comes to the reins that even less is better. Subtle shifts in how we hold our bodies can effect more efficient changes from our horses than we ever thought possible. These shifts in posture and position are felt and interpreted by our horses, not only when we are mounted but from the ground as well – we align our spines and they follow – sometimes we fail to align correctly and they then lead and teach us – if we are paying attention that is.
Some of the great old masters knew this intrinsically. Their unobtrusive aids and beautifully connected equine schooling produced light and sound animals. They learned this by spending hours and hours in the saddle while attending the school of hard knocks. Some were educated by those that came before but others had nothing but their wits and horses, or more accurately royalty’s horses, to help confirm or dispel the value of the application of their aid system. Those that showed some sensitivity to the animal’s needs worked through the misconceptions and egos of those that laid the groundwork bringing many toward similar conclusions that we now can prove by way of technological advances.
The masters of not-so-long ago such as Oliveira, Seunig, Podhasjsky and Baucher, among others, studied the tomes and texts of those past masters and re-worked and re-thought all, creating what we had, until recently, come to know as Classical Riding or Dressage. These innovative and intuitive thinkers were ahead of their time and brilliant in their work with horses. Today those of us with average ability can and must take advantage of what has come before as well as what is currently backed by science. Science can make our road far easier – but you first must realize that the answers are there – in black and white and bay, chestnut and gray - guessing and holding tight to tradition is no longer necessary.
Several years ago after attending a Jean Luc Cornille clinic I walked away with a thought that I continue to pass along to all of my students, friends as well as anyone else that may be willing (or not) to listen. Although not a direct quote he said, “We are the first generation of riders that has access to scientific proof; that what we are doing with our horses is correct or not.” If we continue to ride our horses in the old school, or in contrast, in the more competitive and damaging methods of dressage today without confirming, through modern advances, that our system of aids first, does no harm, and then does indeed accomplish our schooling goals then we may as well be beating a dead horse.