Starting a horse in the Classical system of training
To train with the Classical System, it will be necessary to understand the physiology and psychology of the horse. The rider should choose a horse suitable for the necessary work, with some natural impulsion (called in the trade “a good mover”), with acceptable conformation and temperament for Classical training. The horse should be of a proper size for the rider. Classical training begins with the very young horse in the stable long before he goes on the lunge line and mounted in the arena. It involves the attitude of the owner/groomer/trainer toward the horse – his knowledge and understanding of what a horse is and how to approach a creature with a totally different mentality from the human.
In Classical training we don’t begin serious training or mount the horse until he is at least three years old. Then he is given at least four months of schooling on a lunge line learning word commands and transitions on both reins. Only then is he ready for work in the arena. At four years of age he is still not completely developed and is still considered a youngster. Before beginning serious Classical Training the rider/owner/trainer should have studied at least one book on the system and have a general knowledge of the goals and posts along the way.
- take your horse to a place of unconstraint
- avoid false collection
- allow the horse to “come to the bit”
- straighten your horse and ride forward
- take your horse out of the arena
- skip any step in the horse’s training
- use your reins to pull your horse’s head and neck into a set frame
- confuse impulsion with speed
- attempt to train a horse without the help of a trained observer or trainer on the ground
- give up
Do take your horse to a place of unconstraint
You cannot teach a horse anything until he is in a state of unconstraint. To get him there he must be warmed up just as a human athlete should be. This is assuming that we have a horse ready to mount, one that has had his lunge training, knows the word commands and has been introduced to tack and rider. When you first mount, the horse should be ridden with a loose rein – on the buckle if possible to allow the horse to stretch his neck and back. Ten minutes of walk. Fifteen minutes of trot/canter transitions, both reins, and with reins as loose as possible for safety and control. Sit slightly forward, not deep in the saddle quite yet. Allow the horse to stretch his nose all the way to the ground if he will. He is stretching his back and relieving tension under the saddle and from your weight. He will begin to snort and blow through his nose. This is indication that he is ready to work.
Do avoid false collection
Ride from the back to the front. Impulsion is not speed or tempo. Impulsion is nothing but the energy and reach of the hind legs as they come forward under the horse’s belly. Our intention is to develop the horse so that he can reach farther and farther forward with the hind, without increasing his tempo – without running like a mouse in the attic. The whole premise of classical training is to develop the carrying capacity of the hind quarters; to redistribute the weight of the front more to the rear thereby shifting the center of gravity. This can be done only by working the quarters with regular transitions from trot to canter and back down. Its called “doing the scale.” These transitions should be done on both reins for equal time. After a few minutes of any work, allow the horse to stretch and relax his back (and mind).
Do allow the horse to “come to the bit”
It is useless to try to set a frame. You will only destroy the possibility of it’s eventuality for the horse will simply avoid your tugs and hands and go behind the bit and/or hollow his back in most circumstances. It is detrimental to “put” the horse on the bit before he is ready to “come of his own accord to the bit.” Light hands. Light contact. Ride direction with light seat and legs and shoulder torsion, instead of using strong rein control and pulling left or right. Allow the horse to reach forward for contact with the bit and hold it light and steady. As the months go by you will see the reins grow shorter and shorter and the horse will be lighter and lighter in front with a higher neck and he will still have that same light contact, with a lovely neck and head slightly in front of the vertical. Achieving the lovely dressage frame is a process that comes of its own will with proper work and gymnastic training.
Do straighten your horse and ride forward
Gymnastic patterns ridden correctly will develop your horse evenly. They will make your horse straight. They begin with simple, loose turns across the arena. Small circles or tight turns are for much later. Add true circles (not a many sided figure). Add figures of eight. There are many books that offer you the entire gamut of gymnastic patterns from beginner horse up to high level training. These are indispensable to correct training and the even development of both sides. Work on 20 meter circles each direction and teach the horse to accomplish this with only your seat and legs. Eventually the horse should be able to come to the complete circle with the buckle on his neck and your hands off the leather. Always remember to let your horse have a stretch/relax break every 5 to 10 minutes.
Do take your horse out of the arena
All horses need a break from daily grind of training. They need to get out of the arena for a good frolic and a trail ride with other safe equine companions. After five or six days of work, the horse needs this relief. Remember to allow the horse to warm up before work and give regular breaks while working. A happy horse is a beauty to behold. When problems occur, remember to check yourself first. It may be your position, your hands, your legs or your attitude, or that your horse needs a rest or break. Foundation work must be there before you can build on it to higher levels.
Do not skip any step in the horse’s training
Time should not be of the essence. Getting your horse ready for a certain level in a show should not be the criteria for his training schedule. Each horse is different; learns faster or slower; is more resilient or less; retains more or less. They have to be understood and dealt with as individuals. The basics should be so well learned that neither you nor the horse has to really think about them before you go to the next level of training, no matter how long it takes.
Do not use your reins to pull your horse’s head and neck into a set frame
Collection is developed from a long process that focuses on the development of the hind quarters carrying capacity, the horse’s balance with his center of gravity set farther back and the lightening of his forehand. If you pull on the reins to bring the head up and nose in in order to “get a dressage frame”, the horse will defend itself by going behind the bit, hollowing his back and taking shorter strides with his hind legs. This will also cause your horse to avoid the bit by pulling his nose toward his chest (going behind the bit). This is a definite no no. The nose must be slightly in front of the vertical.
Do not confuse impulsion with speed
Many untrained riders will try to demonstrate a lengthened or medium or extended trot and all that is happening is that the horse is running faster at his trot. His hind legs are reaching no farther under his body than when he is doing a natural trot. Impulsion, like collection, is developed by exercises, gymnastics and correct training. Like the dancer at the bar, muscles must be developed for strength and suppleness, tendons and ligaments must be stretched or made supple all at the same time that you are maintaining the correct tempo for the trot. Don’t ask for a lengthened stride until the horse is ready to execute it.
Do not attempt to train a horse without the help of a trained observer or trainer on the ground
The observer can correct your position when you are not right. He can see what is happening and convey it to you so that you can learn to feel what is happening. As he tells you that what you are doing is correct or not correct, you can feel that correctness or incorrectness. You must be very cautious in your selection of that observer/trainer if you are conscientious with this endeavor of learning classical riding and imparting that ability to your horse. In order for you to know if the observer/trainer is himself skilled, you must read and study books written by the old masters and some of our current world class riders. It is part of your responsibility as a student/rider to know what you are attempting to accomplish and not to depend solely on another. If you are being taught something that is against the Classical System, you will know immediately and will be able to seek another observer/trainer.
Do not give up
Learning the Classical System if you are a beginning rider or if you are an experienced rider who has learned another system, or none at all, will take time. You will feel at first that your position is all wrong because you will feel different from the way you usually feel. Much time is required to develop your seat and balanced position, your ability to understand what you are trying to do, how to deliver light and correct aids, and to learn how to ride with less rein and more body. It will take time for the horse to learn his response to your aids and for him to be able to execute what you require. Many hours in the saddle on the lunge line without reins or stirrups to develop your balanced seat and to free your need to hold on with reins will be needed. At least six days per week and at least an hour in the saddle each day (with warm up, work and cool down) is necessary. Long two hours walks to get your horse in condition can be one whole day of work and should be included whenever you can.
The Classical System of horse training and riding is based on over three thousand years of knowledge of the horse, its physiology and its psychology. It consists of a progressional approach with an emphasis on a solid foundation and not moving forward to more complex moves until the horse and rider are accomplished at the lower level. A foundation is necessary on which to build. The horse is happy and performs well and with enthusiasm when he is fit and supple, balanced and muscled to the point where, when the rider gives an aid with the slightest movement of his body, his horse is already doing it. The aids become so slight and delicate that no one can see them but the horse can feel it. Horse and rider are truly one.