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Classical Dressage - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Bay horse and rider performing the Levade. Classical Dressage Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below.

All too often these days, the modern discipline of dressage is falsely referred to as classical dressage. When it comes to those riders who win on a national or global level in dressage, it is automatically assumed that they are riding classical dressage, and they themselves usually claim to be doing just that. However, the modern sport of dressage is far from classical.


The discipline of Classical Dressage mentions certain historical masters of the art of dressage, most of who lived in the Middle Ages, more specifically, in the 15th, 16th, and 17th century: S. de la Broue, A. Pluvinel, the Duke of Newcastle, and R. de la Gu rini re.

Particularly the French de la Gu rini re (1687-1751) is considered an icon of the classical art of dressage, and his teachings are referred to as classical. His book Ecole de Cavalerie (= School of Riding) was the first systematic training book, covering the process from early beginnings to advanced maneuvers. This work, still held in high esteem by classical dressage riders, was translated into many languages.

This old master also found the correct seat for the rider which allows a balanced ride and correct aids, and is still taught today, and he invented a saddle to serve the same purpose


Modern dressage not only varies from the classical school in the execution of certain maneuvers, but the emphasis has changed to such a degree that it is as far removed from it as other segments of the riding world.

King Louis XV’s Riding Master, Francois R. de la Gu rini re, taught the shoulder-in and the half-pass differently from modern dressage. In classical dressage, for instance, the horse’s hind legs stayed stationary in a pirouette, while the horse loped around its rear end. In modern dressage, the horse executes the pirouette in loping a small circle.

In classical times, the horses were schooled as war horses, and the ultimate goal was to control them with one hand in all the various maneuvers, while the modern dressage is based on two-handed riding.

The most drastic difference however is that, in the classical way of schooling and exhibiting a horse, a lightness was aimed for which even the dressage world champions of today hardly ever exhibit. Classical dressage was designed to develop and advance a horse until it was more beautiful, more expressive than when moving naturally besides teaching maneuvers like the pesade, levade, terre a terre, or capriole, which all were useful and critical in combat. And the unique philosophy was that it should all be achieved without any force, but by developing an attitude of willingness and cooperation in the horse. True collection and lofty moves were the goal, performed with minimal and preferably invisible aids and cues from the rider.

Modern dressage is a very specialized event made possible by specially-bred horses. In contrast to classical dressage, great emphasis is placed on a huge, ground-covering trot, which the horses are bred to have naturally. The judging system makes it possible for horses to win which lack in lightness, collection and expressiveness of piaffe and passage, but they shine at the trot! Flying lead changes at every stride for which there is no practical reason  to spoil the walk.

The born dressage horse for the classical kind of dressage, the Iberian (Andalusian and Lusitano), which can be brilliant at piaffe and passage, has no chance in modern dressage, its trot is not huge enough which indicates how far classical dressage is now removed from modern competitive dressage!


Today’s judging system accommodates the modern sport horse, the modern sport horse is bred according to what wins under the current judging system.

All this has led to a renaissance of the dressage horse of classical times. Because modern dressage enthusiasts tend to claim the word classical not rightfully, as we have seen , followers of the old, classical school looked for another term to describe their dressage. As the period when the classical kind of dressage was having its heyday was during the Baroque era, one now often uses Baroque dressage for classical dressage.

In some countries, a small Baroque dressage circuit has emerged, in which Baroque horses actually have a chance Baroque horses meaning horses of the type that was fashionable during the Baroque period not only to show their stuff, but to win. It is mostly the two main Iberian horse breeds which excel, but also Lipizzans, Kladrubers, Knabstrupers, plus some Friesians and old-style warmbloods horses with some Iberian blood, and even some crossbreds.

Hopefully, these efforts will prevail and ultimately lead to renewed activity in that field and a new, broad-based appreciation of Baroque-type horses and what is really and truly classical dressage.

The kind of dressage that is genuinely classical is not just defined by certain maneuvers, but is a training philosophy that relies on knowledgeable development of the horse’s abilities by way of natural and soft aids, which ultimately improves the horse, and for lack of a better term makes him proud of himself. It leads to a suppling of the horse that makes him a better athlete, and improves his soundness and longevity. It is the opposite to the exploitation and quick fixes most are looking for nowadays, a holistic approach to riding and horse training.

Charles de Kunffy said about classical dressage: “To be an equestrian in the classical sense is not just to be a rider. It is a position in life.”

Lipizzan displaying the classical dressage piaffe. Iberian exhibiting ability for collection. Western dressage, front view, as foreleg crosses over. Iberian performing classical dressage, collected canter. The shoulder in movement.
Photos left to right.

1) A Lipizzan doing the piaffe, on a loose rein, and with the hindquarters dropped and under the horse.

2) The Iberian horse is the classic horse for classical dressage, with its in-born talent to collect and proud movements.

3) Classical dressage is not so much a matter of certain airs and movements, as it is a training philosophy to improve the horse naturally, to ride in harmony, with subtle aids, and to supple the horse. This principle can be applied in all equestrian activities, irrespective of the outfit.

4) Once again displaying the Iberian horse as a natural for classical dressage.

5) Francois Roubichon de la Gu rini re is usually credited with inventing the shoulder-in, as demonstrated here by a rider of the Escola de Arte Equestre, the Portuguese equivalent to the Royal Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria.

The Photo at the top of the page shows an Alter Real horse performing a levade.

Article © HorseShowCentral.com. Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos © Oelke or Oelke Archive. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

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Also of interest is the page about Dressage and pages of information about a few of the breeds still involved in Classical Riding:

Lipizzan Horse
Alter Real horse

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