A Dressage Critique

I am the owner and administrator of several equine websites. I am also the author of most of the articles published on these websites. This is the reason why I am publishing information about myself, for which purpose I’ve made this website available. Since many of my articles bring to light various controversial issues in the equine industry, I found it courteous to provide this information. Shortly said, I do not hide who I am and I stand behind my publications. All my work is voluntary and I make no money by doing it, nor I am promoting the interests of some organization or society.

This site aims to serve the more serious, sincere and honest horsemen – riders – trainers, who are seeking the truth, more understanding and knowledge about horses and their nature. It is designed to prevent horse abuse and to propagate the truth about horses through experience sharing. All that is published here is written for the well being of horses as well as for the people that truly care about them, and it is without any prejudice against any particular equine organization or a breed. Much of the published material is not and will not be popular in the horse world today, as some of it may “sting” a little or even offend some folks, though keep in mind that the latter was unintentional.

Ludvik Karel “Lee” Stane

Today, the dressage is one of the most misguided riding disciplines of all times. I have not seen so much nonsense written, and inconsistency in writing about anything in reference to horses as when I read about dressage on various websites and books these days. Most claim that dressage has its origins in preparation of a horse for military campaigns, which is of course nonsense, though it does attract new comers to the sport. It also came to my attention that the Lipizzan’s shows in the US are claiming about their horses, that they are war horses, which is of course self contradictory, since their entire training revolves around shows and none of them ever seen a battle field. One of the most preferred and required qualities in any military horse was speed and endurance. I can hardly imagine any of today’s Lipizzaners (or other dressage horses) as fast running horses, nor it would be very hard to believe that anyone would prefer a white horse on the battle field.

We can trace the “dressage” purpose of riding to the Greek culture, in the age of Sparta and Athens. Xenophon already describes some of the figures and moves of the dressage, mainly the piaffe and levade. However, these had nothing to do with the battlefield, but these movements were trained for a parade, to show off a military leader on a high-spirited horse that is “trotting” in a place (piaffe) or one can see the bottom of the belly of the horse e.g. high collection, levade etc.

When we approach the baroque style of arena riding, it is again more or less for the same purposes, as in those days the high stepping horses were in fashion. It was all primarily for appearance sake, as you can see in various paintings where most of them are in the levade, supposedly displaying the ruler (noble man) on a high spirited horse, hence showing the authority and leadership of the ruler. That type of riding was not only a part of parading but it was a part of fashion. Once, when the rider was able to carry firearms this type of riding, as well as the type of horse, quickly disappeared, because they became “handicapped” on the battlefield. Another obvious fact is that the training of the various figures in the High Spanish School takes many years, and if they would truly have a military purpose, it would be impossible to replace theses horses during the war. Well, one fact is obvious, that the Spaniards had very poor cavalry, in comparison with other European countries, hence it is a poor example to look for correct riding in the Spanish or the Baroque fashion, not to mention that the training methods were to some points relatively cruel those days. To put it into laymen’s terms, there are two poles in the riding arena, which serve to a simple training method. I’ll let you imagine the rest.

If one truly cares to learn about genuine warhorses, one should look at the “Hell Riders” as the Mongols were called, whose horsemen never lost a battle. Guess what? They had no dressage, and rode little (in English terms ponies) “ugly” hairy horses with their “heads up in the air”, against the “mighty” knights cavalries, which they always demolished. The training of their warhorses involved primarily various games from which we have adopted the polo; hence the polo ponies’ performance is the closest to the training of a military horse today and not the dressage.

We can speak of the campaign dressage, where the military training of the western battle horse included the basic principals of balanced riding for better maneuverability and control of the horses. However, the speed and fitness of the animal was crucial, hence the dressage test in the military (three day test, two day event) was on the first day, presenting a fit horse “on the toes” (no lungeing before) well under control by the rider. The whole purpose of the military dressage was to quickly develop well trained, well balanced, long lasting, easy maneuverable and most of all fast and reliable horses for the battlefield. The dressage today presents no such thing, nor does the eventing horse present a military horse with his jumping ability, speed and reliability in an unpredictable terrain and situations for which the three-day military test was intended.

The Question remains; “What is today’s dressage about?” First of all, when you will read the books on regulation and requirements and compare them with the performances of the best dressage folks, you will see that they do not at all support each other. In other words, the books say one thing and the riders and judges do completely another, hence the title “misguided riding”.

Here are simple and undisputable facts that today’s dressage is not about anything that it claims to be. In the parade, the rider needs to sit on a horse that appeared high-spirited, so called on the toes. A horse with his head down will hardly do that. A willing, alert and happy moving horse has his head up, not down as in today’s dressage. Whether the dressage was used for military purpose or for the parade it always emphasized the head UP and not down. No “proud” horse walks or runs with his head down and only a complete idiot would charge against his enemy on a horse with his head down. It is no surprise that many folks believe that once a horse is trained in dressage he will not jump, and it is the truth in most cases, since the horse cannot see well once when he has his head on the desired vertical position and drops it below the impulsion (hip) line. We have published articles on the impulsion line, which is not welcomed by many of the “want to be top riders”, who will actually claimed that there is no such thing, mainly because it does show their incompetence even to the non-rider. Articles like the “impulsion line” are designed to show other less experienced horsemen and riders the incompetence of the top riders of the world today, who are to be blamed for most of the horse abuse today, because the less experienced horsemen will have tendencies to follow their examples.

The parade riding of the Greeks presented a horse above the impulsion line, with his head flexed at the pole, but not completely on the vertical. The Spanish riding school presents a horse above the impulsion line, in higher erection level, (hence head closer to the vertical position), achieved over several years of training. The military horse of modern age cavalries, the kazaks, the hussars, the dragoons, the medieval cavalries of the Mongols they all present horse above the impulsion line, because horses cannot move freely in a higher and faster gait with their heads down below the impulsion line. Hence all riding disciplines that present a horse moving with his head below the hips will have inevitably a large amount of sore and lame horses, not to mention somewhat dangerous to ride. The knights during the middle ages were riding heavy western horses, who traveled often on the forehand with their heads down, who were hard to control and simply ran over anything in their way. That type of riding and horsemanship was one of the worst ever in the history of mankind. From the rider’s perspective, the knights were the worst riders ever and the only thing that led to success was their appearance, which often intimidated the opposition. When the “head up” horse of the Mongols met the “head down horse” of the knights, there was simply no competition. The knights got wiped out every time!

Today, dressage should be a style of riding that not only presents, but also represents a horse that is well balanced for the rider, not for the appearance sake but for the sake of the horse. The dressage should pride itself in sound horses, because it should show people how to ride and train a horse with the least amount of abuse to the animal. It should present a happy, willing and free moving horse that does not need severe aids like spurs, whips or curb bits to perform. This should be the primal criterion of the dressage and not some head on vertical nonsense. This is not a science, and the expression of the horse, with his alertness and interest to work should be the primal criteria of the dressage judges, rather than some politics of ever changing appearances according to the contemporary fashions. The free running horse should serve as a model for the movement in dressage and not some famous rider/teacher’s theories.

The dressage today must be one of the most contradictory and confused riding styles of all ages. It looks like some witch brew and mixture of modern theories mixed with various old and out of date training/riding values. First and foremost, the old (classical) dressage, as well as the more modernized style of the campagne style based dressage, were to some point aimed for the use in the military of its age. Just in case you have not noticed, there is no longer any use for the “so-called” warhorses. So, the question is simple; “What are we doing when we are riding dressage and what is it about?” Well folks, you may run into many answers by the dressage participant and if you are open-minded you will see, that their justification is as corrupt and confused as the entire dressage society. Why? Well, it is so simple that even a small child would see the answer. Once, when my family and I were watching the Olympic games dressage competition, one of my children (then four years old) asked me with her innocence: “Daddy, why are the riders looking so stiff and grouchy?” I said, it is because they are, as well as their hearts are hard as stones”. One would think that this may be a cruel statement, but here is a simple enlightenment. The dressage folks preach a freedom of movement and a willingness to work on the part of the horse. Well, if it so, why to hell do they need all the garbage like curb bits with brutal chin chains that increase immensely the pressure on the horse’s mouth and why to hell do they need the spurs for a willing and refined horse? In the time of battle, these severe aids may have fulfilled their purpose, but in riding for a pleasure and entertainment it is down outride absurd. On top of it is the wide spread theory that one has to drive (push) his horse forward (the one that is supposed be willing to do so), just puts the toping on the cake. We cannot preserve the warhorse type of training, since the warhorse is made by the battle and not by the training alone. Hence, comparing the dressage horse to a warhorse is like saying that one is a good soldier without being “christened” by a battle. The battle makes soldiers as well as warhorses. What we have in dressage today, are mostly people who are looking for fame, money and an easy ride. The whole dressage is so corrupt, that in today’s world it is nothing else but a parody of what it once was.

Another example in the abuse of horses in the hands of the “dressage” people is that they started so many levels for the greenhorn rider and relatively green horses, completely forgetting that these young and green horses are incapable working in such confined areas as is the dressage ring. On one hand, they say that a ten-meter circle is for the more advanced horse, while at the same time they are asking from the young, green horse, that is not collected at all, to ride out the corners of the relatively small dressage ring. Just how stupid and contradicting is that?

Folks it is an absolute joke to have an unbalanced horse enter a dressage ring, yet it is done mainly in things called “training level”, “first level” and then it remains tolerated in most of the higher levels of dressage as well. This of course leads to immense pounding of animals in the confined areas day after day, till the horse is finally crippled because he is forced to move into relatively tight turns while out of balance and on hard surface. One cannot go ball dancing without knowing how to dance, one cannot show a dressage horse in the dressage ring unless he has one! Hence, the dressage level starts at the campagne level, which any riding horse should master before he enters any riding ring, let alone a dressage arena.

I came to the states in the early seventies, at which time I was involved primarily with racehorses, since the money was easier to earn than in other riding disciplines. One day I had a farrier come to shoe some of my horses, while I was stabled in the country getting the young stock ready for the track. I asked him in what riding discipline he finds most sore horses. I expected that he would say in the thoroughbred racing, because when coming to the states I was shocked with the amount of lame/sore racing horses in the states. Previously to coming to the sates, I was employed as a feed-master – rider – groom by one of the champion trainers in “West” Germany, where over the span of three years and about 100 horses, I came across only three lame racehorses. (On account of my dressage education, the trainer often used me to get the stiffness out of some horses that presented it, (correct implementation of the basic school will often help horses to get sound that showed some mild forms of stiffness or soreness)). When the farrier replied, that most sore horses he found among the dressage participants, I was speechless. For a moment I thought he was making fun of me, since dressage was also part of my riding practices and education. It was simply inconceivable that in the type of riding as in dressage there are any lame horses at all, let alone a majority of them. Dressage is supposed to show a well-balanced riding horse that can serve safely and sound well to his advanced years. The whole concept of balanced riding is about the horse, his safety and mainly his longevity in the service. How can this be, that the dressage is one of the leading disciplines in sore horses? Folks, do not be misled, because a horse does not bob his head (limps) it does not mean that he is not sore or in pain!

If my schooled horses were willing to perform the required work, why would I need severe aids like spurs and a curb bit, let alone a whip? Why would I “drive” or “push, push” the horse forward if he is willing to go? The old and obsolete (classical) dressage evolved from a relatively brutal form of training. It eventually developed more human principles in the campaign based style riding, when the rider achieved everything through riding and without the help of the work from the ground, but it was short lived.

The term “war horse” has appeared more and more in the last decade as a tool for propagation of breeds and various riding disciplines. (People just want to OWN and ride a “WAR HORSE”. Different generation! “Mommy, I don’t want your ‘Black Beauty’ anymore, I WANT A WAR HORSE”!)

Horses were at one time bred and trained for military purposes, but that did not make them war horses! Once when the horses took part in a battle, then they became “war-horses”, that is if they did not freak out from it or got killed. One of the main qualities of the latter “war-horse” was the ability to run away from or to pursue the enemy, if needed; hence the speed was of the essence, as well as endurance. Have you ever seen today’s Lipizzan or a dressage horse in full run? I believe that most of them have never done it with a rider, and if they would I think they would for most part look ridicules, looking like a clumsy fat man on a treadmill. If you would serve in the cavalry, would you like to ride a white horse when the enemies had rifles? The best war-horses had the Mongols and I assure you that they hardly practice anything similar to dressage, since dressage has its origin in the west (Greece). The Mongols were not called the “Hell Riders” for nothing. They were the best horse-rider-warriors of all time, riding just “little ponies” (by the English standards) and completely demolishing the knight cavalries of the Europeans. Did you know, that the Mongol horse could gallop with a rider for four hours straight? How many dressage horses do you know, that could do that?

So, if you believe that today’s dressage training is some sort of military training of horses, just imagine what would happen if one would fire a shotgun next to the show ring where the horse is performing, or if another horse would run in full speed straight at him. Hence, the formal western military horse training can justify the use of severe aids; as against the show “dressage” today cannot, especially when preaching about freedom of movement and the willingness of the horse to perform the required tasks.

In basics, the dressage riding today for most part draws the kind of people who want to show horses (dress nice, look pretty, make pretty moves, socialize etc.) but are afraid to do the disciplines that require more courage, thus it opens the doors for the faint hearted and becomes down outright an insult to the term “war horse” (on which ground they base their riding/training theories), because the folks that participate in this discipline in this age, would for most part be the least type of warrior on a horse. These people ride horses on nice even terrain, in slow speeds, supposedly balanced and yet most of them somehow manage to get their horses sore. Ludicrous, extremely abusive and corrupt! Further more, if the judges would exclude horses out of balance (on the forehand) they would have hardly any one to participate, no dressage shows and of course no money. Therefore, the today’s dressage riding is not about horses or riding, but it is about the dressage societies and the participants, which in reality represent some form of comedians, rather than genuine riders and their well-balanced and willing horses. Remember, that it was the circus people who quoted: “The show must go on” (despite the consequences, especially when it comes to the animals).

The major points of abuse in so-called dressage are:

  • Riding horses out of balance in extremely limited space (dressage ring is that).
  • Forcing (driving – pushing) the horses to perform the requested tasks.
  • Unnecessary use of severe riding aids (spurs, curb bits (chains), whips)
  • Working the horses on too hard surfaces.
  • Too much training by most folks in the limited riding spaces.
  • The use of unsuitable horses for dressage/riding e.g. coldblooded horses or too heavy and/or too tall warmbloods. Improvement suggestions:
  • The elimination of the lower levels of dressage preformed in the dressage ring, and/or creating larger rings for the less balanced horses.
  • Increased attention on the forehand riding, the disqualification of riders that fail to meet the collection level as well as the balanced level in the appropriate dressage class (0 points!). Any horse that puts his head past the vertical any one time during the performance should be disqualified in any level (no points!)
  • No severe riding aids! If your horse is willing, you don’t need them. You are not on the battle field!
  • Deeper surface in the riding rings. A horse with good impulsion and cadence will not kick out any dirt, nor will he trip (in front or rear), as against the off balance (sore) horse will tend to do one or both of them, which will then show his incorrect going.
  • The propagation of training of the dressage horses in open spaces (on grass fields etc.) The dressage horse should not work in the limited ring more than once or twice per week.
  • Making mandatory riding with and without saddles (blanket with girth only – do less and do it better!) in all levels of dressage. This will eliminate the “fake” riders, thus improving the higher riding level in dressage, to which the rest of the dressage folks look up to.
  • Approving the suitability of horses for riding purposes by setting the limits on height and weight (as well as the relevance to each other), which will lead to more appropriate and suitable breeding of horses for modern purposes. (To hell with preservation of breeds for which there is no longer use, for which they were originally bred. The horse is a living creature and not a collector’s piece! The preservation of unsuitable horse breeds will only lead to more horse abuse. Separate issue, article coming up soon.)
  • Any special shoeing, other than simple flat, light riding plates, should be disallowed, no pads, no bars, no wedge pads etc.

Any horse that enters the dressage ring sore should be excluded from performance for life and the rider should be expelled from the dressage society. Same thing if there is any foreign substance found in the horse’s blood. If you own, ride or train dressage horse that gets lame from his work, you should be down outright embarrassed and ashamed of yourself. Don’t blame the trainer or the rider, you own the horse and only you are responsible!

Dressage today should be about “dancing” and not about war, while we should make simpler regulations and enjoy it more, the latter includes the horse as well. It is not about submissiveness, obedience and discipline, but it is all about harmony between the rider and the horse, which cannot be faked or purchased.