The Classical Riding Masters
The history of Dressage through the riding masters
Horses have been part of human life for centuries but it is not known exactly when the first horses were ridden. Ever since horses started to be used on battlefields the art of training them has evolved through different phases in history. Here the history of training horses is laid out through various historical masters.
Xenophon – the forefather of modern dressage
Xenophon is considered by most to be the forefather of dressage. The Athenian historian and soldier Xenophon lived around 430 to 354 BC and his work The art of horsemanship is the earliest written work about more gentle methods for educating horses that remains preserved to this day.
“For what the horse does under compulsion, as Simon also observes, is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.”
After Xenophon there are few written works about horsemanship or riding principles of greater importance for nearly two thousand years. One early work worth mentioning is that of the Portuguese king, Dom Duarte.
Dom Duarte lived between 1391 and 1438. His book Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela, now translated to English under the title The Royal Book of Jousting, Horsemanship and Knightly Combat, was released posthumously and deals with how to handle various situations and how to conduct oneself on horseback. Amongst other things the book speaks about how to handle the fear a powerful animal like the horse awakes in the human and how to control that fear:
“A man who is not afraid of riding has the capability to stay strongly mounted, maintaining a posture that reflects his strong will and simultaneously shows off how safe he feels”
– Dom Duarte
The Renaissance and its Grand Riding Academies
During the 15th century, Italy was the cultural, artistic and economic centre of Europe. It was to the Italian academies that noblemen sent their sons to study fishing, art, dancing and horsemanship. Classical texts were popular under the renaissance and Xenophon’s texts and methods influenced the the Neapolese masters. Today, what is sometimes called the Neapolese School has its roots in several academies around southern Italy, central for these were three horsemen: Caesar Fiaschi, Giambattista Pignatelli and Federico Grisone.
Federico Grisone (Mid 16th century). The Neapolese Masters all created written material about their methods, but the work of Grisone was far more widespread as his book Gli ordini di cavalcare, The Rules of Riding, first published in 1550, was translated into several languages. Although Grisone derived from Xenophon when it came to the rider’s position and aids, his methods were often very harsh and even cruel when it came to dealing with a resisting horse. Grisone did however emphasized trot work for developing a straight and light horse, riding with a good rein contact to a soft mouth, that the horse should carry itself more on the haunches, and that the rider should be able to choose the balance point suitable for performing a particular exercise.
Antoine de Pluvinel (1552-1620), one of the first French riding masters, was a student of Pignatelli and the founder of the Academie d’Equitation in 1594. Pluvinel later became the riding teacher of King Louis XIII of France. Pluvinel is credited with the introduction of double pillar work for collection and the use of two-track exercises like the shoulder in to supple the horse.
But Pluvinel is perhaps most famous for breaking with the Neapolese School and emphasising gentle methods, advocating praise, softer bits and careful use of aids. He believed that the horse should take pleasure in being ridden and that a horse that enjoys his work moves more gracefully. Pluvinel’s work was published after his death in 1620, the first edition, Le Manege Royal was later followed by a reworked version, Instruction of the king in the exercise of horse riding.
François Robichon de la Guérinière (1688-1751) worked at the French royal stables as equerry to king Louis XIV and director of Manège des Tuileries. Guérinière refined and developed the teachings inherited from Pluvinel. Guérinière was the first to write about the shoulder in, the counter canter and the flying change. He explained these movements and the benefits of using them, calling the
the shoulder in“the alpha and omega of all exercises”. In his book L’École de Cavalerie, “The School of Horsemanship”, published as a complete work in 1733, Guérinière approaches riding from its foundation and explains theory and practice. This book is widely considered to be one of the most important works for Classical Dressage. The main aim for Guérinière was an obedient, light and calm horse, and for him this was to be accomplished through a progressive schooling system with an emphasis on exercises that increase the horse’s balance and suppleness.
By the end of the 18th century came the French revolution and this marked an end to what is sometimes called the Golden Age of Equitation. Times change as we enter the era of the industrial revolution.
Dressage Development During the Industrial Era
Antoine Cartier d’Aure (1789-1863) was a man of his time and in the dawn of industrialism he saw horses more like machines that the rider should exercise a more precise control over. D’Aure was drawn to outdoor riding and especially eventing. He taught to drive the horse with the leg into the hand and advocated the use of medium and extended trot in the training of horses. D’Aures’ methods were favoured by the French military, and he spent many years teaching at the cavalry school of Saumur. He was also appointed commander of Napoleon III’s stables.
François Baucher (1796–1873) lived and worked at the same time as Cartier d’Aure and they were both critical towards each other’s methods. Baucher being the son of a butcher, and thus a man from the French society’s lower classes, had less support from the upper class and his principles were highly debated – and they still are today. Baucher grounded his methods in his belief that all tension in the horse emerged from the jaw, and his methods included flexions of the jaw, poll and neck.
Baucher further believed that balance came before movement and he suggested to not combine the restraining and driving aids, resulting in “hand without leg, leg without hand”. During his lifetime Baucher worked at the circus as a horse trainer and the invention of many equestrian movements can be ascribed to him, amongst them one-tempi flying changes. Baucher published several works during his lifetime; Méthode d’équitation basée sur de nouveaux principes, A method of horsemanship based on new methods, from 1842 is the most famous. The book was also published in several reworked and enhanced versions.
General Alexis l’Hotte (1825-1904) was a student of both d’Aure and Baucher and in his later work he combined their conflicting methods, even if in his cavalry work he mostly taught in accordance with d’Aure. L’Hotte became chief of the Cavalry School Manege of Saumur in 1864 and held that position until 1875 when he was appointed general commandant of the Cavalry School. It is l’Hotte who spoke the famous words “forward, calm, straight”, that Le Cadre Noir of Saumur still use as their slogan today. Their modern practices also build very much upon l’Hotte’s teachings. L’Hotte wrote two books which both were published posthumously, Questions Équestres, Equestrian Questions,1906, and Souvenirs d’un Officier de Cavalerie, Memoirs of a Cavalry Officer, 1905.
General Alexis l’Hotte
Dom Pedro José de Alcântara de Menezes (1713-1799) was better known as Marquis von Marialva and is sometimes called the “Guérinière of the Iberian peninsula”. Marialva was the chief Equerry of king José I of Portugal, placing him in charge of the Royal Riding School in Belem and head of the Alter Real stud farm. Marialva was an extraordinary rider and his objective in riding was to achieve lightness. Marialva’s work and philosophy in riding is preserved in the book “Luz da Liberal e Nobre Arte de Cavallaria” written by his student Manuel Carlos Andrade. The riding and teaching at the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art derives upon this book and sometimes even today good art of horsemanship is called “arte de Marialva” in Portugal.
Gustav Steinbrecht (1808-1885) was a student of the Guérinière-inspired Louis Seeger, whose manege in Berlin he later took over and managed. He strongly advised that training should be systematic:
“…(in the) course of dressage training I want to add the serious admonition, not to hurry any of the exercises and to let them all follow one another in such a way that the preceding exercise always constitutes a secure basis for the next one. Violations of this rule will always exert payment later on, not only by a triple loss of time but very frequently by resistances which, for a long time if not forever, interfere with the relationship between horse and rider and often jeopardize the success of the entire enterprise…”
This quote is from Steinbrecht’s book, Das Gymnasium des Pferdes, The Gymnasium of the Horse, that was published posthumously in 1886. Steinbrecht’s book is known to be thorough and theoretical, and many other later important writings derive from his work.
Contemporary Dressage Masters
Alois Podhajsky (1898-1973) became the chief of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna in 1939. He did not only train the famous white Lipizzaner stallions in the art of Classical dressage, he also enjoyed a successful career as an Olympic Dressage bronze medallist.
Podhajsky remained chief of the Spanish Riding School until he retired in 1965, managing to preserve the academy and its horses through World War II. Podhajsky wrote numerous books, the most famous might be My Horses, My Teachers latest edition from 1997 and The Complete Training of Horse and Rider in the Principles of Classical Horsemanship from 1965. A quote from the latter book:
“A ruthlessly condensed training only leads to a general superficiality, to travesties of the movements, and to a premature unsoundness of the horse. Nature cannot be violated.”
Mestre Nuno de Oliveira (1925-1989) is probably the greatest horseman of our time and recognised as the last of the old masters. Oliveira started riding at an early age as a student of Joaquim Goncalves de Miranda, one of the last trainers of the Portuguese Royal School and Mirandas teachings can be traced back to the French style of Versailles and Guérinière. In his riding and training Oliveira was inspired mainly by Guérinière, Baucher and Steinbrecht whose methods he successfully combined and in doing so he created a link between the historical European masters and the present day. Oliveira studied and practiced Classical Dressage and Equestrian art all his life; he traveled, taught, gave demonstrations and he wrote many books. In Reflections on Equestrian art from 1988 you can read about achieving lightness and harmony, this book also truly reflects Oliveira’s respect and deep love for horses.
From 1973 and until his death Oliveira educated horses and students at his farm Quinta do Brejo, located in the small village Avessada, only a short drive from Lisbon.
Egon von Neindorff (1923-2004) dedicated his life to classical horsemanship. He started riding as a child first with his father and later on with, amongst others, Richard Wätjen who spent twelve years at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Neindorff based his riding on the principles of nature and was always striving to achieve a harmonious collaboration with the horse. Words he often repeated were “better less, but well done” and “never against nature”. Neindorff taught many national and international students the philosophy and principles of classical riding at his school in Karlsruhe. In 1991 Neindorff created the foundation “Egon-von-Neindorff-Stiftung” which has the main prospect to preserve Classical Dressage by training horses and riders up to high school level. The foundation continues today to teach in Niendorff’s footsteps at his school in Karlsruhe. During his last years Neindorff finished his book “The Art of Classical Horsemanship”.
Luís Valença Rodrigues (1946) is widely considered to be the greatest master of Classical Dressage alive today. At an early age Master Luís Valença was trained by the royal equerry Mestre D. José Manuel da Cunha Menezes and later on he was hand-picked by Nuno Oliveira to be his principal apprentice and assistant. Master Valença has been an important part of the Portuguese School of Equestrian art since its foundation and is today an honorary member. Valença has also worked at the Royal Andalusian School of Jerez and is further appointed Riding Master by FEI. Valença has dedicated his life to horses and has taught numerous horses and riders, set up several riding centres around the world and is the man behind the famous equestrian gala show Apassionata.
Master Luís Valença with Therese of Equilife World Magazine
Master Luís Valença has expressed that Classical Dressage and equestrian art is about three things. First the love, beauty, elegance and kindness of the horse’s movements. Second, that the horse with an unbroken spirit is allowed to express his own style and personality. And finally, the relationship between the horse and rider must be based on love to make it possible to bring forward the very best in the horse. Master Luís Valença today works together with his daughters at the family’s riding centre, Centro Equestre da Lezíria Grande, not far from Lisbon, teaching horses and riders in the art of classical horsemanship.
“Every horse is different and in equestrian art, the horse becomes like a painter giving his special colour to the exercises. You can do the same exercise, but it will look different as the horse puts his special touch into it; this is art. And it is this that has
– Mestre Luís Valença
Read more about Master Luís Valença
Article by Hanna Larsson
The art of Horsemanship by Xenophon; Le Cadre Noir of Saumur; The principles of horsemanship and Training horses by F Baucher; Alexis-Francois L’Hotte: The Quest for Lightness in Equitation by H, Nelson; The Art of Classical Horsemanship by E Neindorff; Dressage: The Art of Classical Riding by S, Loch; Classical Dressage in Competition by Dr. T, Ritter; Valença Equestrian Tours website; Personal interview with Master Luís Valença