Classical Principles

“Equestrian art is the perfect understanding and harmony between horse and rider”. — Nuno Oliveira (1925-1989).

Dressage training

Dressage is for the horse, instead of the horse is for dressage (Bent Branderup). Dressage is gymnastics for the horse to correctly develop its muscles and to make its body more flexible. Gymnastic exercises make it possible that the horse can coordinate separate body parts to more harmonious movements. On small commands of the rider the horse can move freely and gracefully, while maintaining this movement. These movements are a reflection of what horses can voluntary show when they are excited and playful. Thoughtful dressage assist with keeping your horse healthy in both body and mind.

What is classical training?

Classical dressage or training is the art of riding to achieve lightness, balance and harmony and to keep your horse a healthy and happy athlete. In the classical training you work with the natural abilities and movements of the horse. Collection, passage, raising the neck and flexing the poll are all expression that can be seen in the wild when horses are excited, playful or fighting. All horses have these natural abilities and it’s therefore also possible to reproduce these movements in more controlled circumstances. Every healthy horse can perform classical dressage movements even the Haute Ecole jumps (Airs above the ground). The performance may differ between horses as some horses may have not the perfect confirmation. Nevertheless, the main principles are that you work with the ability of your horse and respect and reward his efforts when working together in harmony.

Modern versus Classical dressage

To have better understanding about what the differences and similarities are between modern or competition dressage and classical training/dressage we need to go back to the history of horse training and the development of gymnastics (dressage) for the horse.

The Greeks

Over 2400 years ago the first notes about classical training were documented by the Greeks Simon of Athens and Plinius. Unfortunately these writings were lost but their work has been referred to in the books of Commander Xenophon. Xenophon’s On Horsemanship (written c. 350 BC) is the earliest surviving work on many of the principles of classical training/dressage. He emphasized training the horse trough intuition, kindness and reward. He recognized that training a horse required building a relationship with another being, whose integrity both physical and mental should be maintained throughout the process. This is demanding for both partners and must be achieved without losing the spirit of either.

“ If a dancer was forced to dance by whip and spikes, he would be no more beautiful then a horse trained under similar conditions” – Simon of Athens

“Anything forces and misunderstood can never be beautiful” – Xenophon

With the fall of the Greek empire many arts and cultures declined, including the art of training and riding horses. It wasn’t till the 15th century that the art of equitation was awakened again.

The Renaissance

Antoine de la Baume Pluvinel

In the Middle Ages, horsemanship began to evolve from a purely practical and military pursuit into an art form for the entertainment and participation of the ruling classes in Europe.

The first major publication on the subject of educated riding was Frederico Grisone’s Gli Ordini di Cavalcare, which appeared in 1550. The Neapolitan nobleman Grisone studied Xenophon’s teachings and used many passages from his book in his own writing. However, Grisone used force for control of the horse and created various severe bits to enforce his principles. Although the methods adopted by Grisone were brutal, his was the first expression of horsemanship over and above the traditional practical role of transportation and war. Grisone’s student Antoine de la Baume Pluvinel developed the teachings of Grisone in more individual training of horses and humane treatment. Pluvinel also developed the training of horses between pillars.

The Baroque period of the 17th century gave rise to the luxurious arts in which riding took its place alongside literature, painting, sculpture, and architecture. The horses of the Baroque period were schooled for parades, exhibitions, and carousels held at the pleasure of the king and his court, and for the most part they were of predominantly Iberian breeding (Lusitano and Andalusian).


By the beginning of the 18th century the art of equitation was mostly influenced by the French and in particular by the riding master Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere. Gueriniere documented his principles in his book Ecole de Cavalerie in 1733. In this book he defines his practice of using the shoulder-in on a straight line to engage the horse’s inside hind leg and the use of the half-halt with yielding of the rider’s hand to lighten the horse’s forehand and to keep the horse’s mouth happy. These principles are the basics for what is known as Classical dressage or training and his teachings are applied by The Spanish riding school in Vienna.  

Art versus war

During the French Revolution there was a decline of courtly riding, as the school at Versailles shifted its focus to military preparedness and to the education of cavalry troops, who were trained to fight rather than parade. The ideal officer’s charger had to be able to participate in the equestrian sports of the time, which were now hunting and steeplechasing, the basis for the combined-training tests of today. After court (or manège) riding lost the support of the royal courts, the venue for haute école (high-school) riding moved to the European circus, a combination concert hall and riding hall that preserved the dignity of horsemanship.

In 19th century the classical heritage continued in the Germanic, Austria and Hungary schools to train the cavalry horse. The Germans developed a highly organized and systematic approach that is still the basis of today’s competitive dressage. Gustave Steinbrecht (1808-1885) a much known German school master emphasized “ride your horse forward and straight”. His book Gymnasium of the Horse is still a very popular reference.

The 20th century brought a new practical approach to riding with the concept of an “all-round horse.” It was at this time that Frederico Caprilli (1868-1907) advanced his training methods in which the rider’s forward seat was emphasized to allow the horse natural freedom in galloping and jumping.

Equestrian sport & classical training

The first Olympic Dressage Games were held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1912. These equestrian games were only open to cavalry officers. The dressage test consisted of collected and extended gaits, rein-back, turn on the hocks, four flying changes on a straight line and some jumps over small obstacles. Nowadays, competitive dressage (or haute école riding) is open for everybody that practice equitation. Although the dressage tests have been more developed using exercises developed from the classical training, it still focuses on testing the horse as an effective and obedient charger, not as an expression of art.

Fortunately various riders and trainers continued the art of classical dressage in their work. Alois Podhajsky (1898-1973) and Nuno Oliveira (1925-1989) , two great masters of the 20th century, kept developing the art and skills to achieve lightness, balance and harmony keeping the horse happy and proud in his work. Today the only remaining large schools of classical dressage are Cadre Noir, the Spanish Riding School, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez de la Frontera and the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art in Lisbon. There are also independent classical school masters such as Bent Branderup, Arthur Kottas, and others that carry on the art of dressage and educate riders and trainers the basics and philosophy of equitation.

Spanish School Vienna

Passion for dressage & training horses

Mariette van den Berg is fascinated about the origin of dressage and after reading more literature from classical masters she became more and more interested in practicing dressage according the classical principles.  In 2008 Mariette started her classical dressage and instruction training at the Classical Breeding and Training Centre Moravita in the Netherlands. At Moravita she had the opportunity to ride various schoolmaster Lipizzaner and Fredriksborger stallions. Ton & Aletta not only thought her better balance and relaxation in the seat but they also inspired her with their breeding and riding philosophy.

To inspire more people about classical training and baroque horses Mariette did an interview with Ton & Aletta Duivenvoorden for the Horses & People magazine in 2010. Click on the link below to read the full article.

Training at Moravita

MORAVITA Classical Tradition & Ancient European Bloodlines

Mariette is very passionate about classical dressage principles and integrates it with balanced riding techniques into her evidence-based training and coaching. Come back to find more information about classical dressage and foundation clinics that are held throughout Australia. Contact Mariette for more information about the clinics and prices.

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