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Classical Dressage versus Modern Dressage

In European history, the riding had already had a long development. From being a useful transportation animal for carriages and for riding, to a phenomenal war-weapon in the Renaissance that was so highly feared than no man could survive in a battle if it was fought against soldiers (knights) on horseback, to a symbol of art, wealth and beauty in the Baroque époque. The classical schooling of the horse was a monument of the greatest knowledge how to build up a horses body in a perfect anatomical and physiological way, how to train the horses strength and balance in the back and in the hindlimbs to carry its own and the riders weight in the most fantastic airs and jumps above the ground, and still to keep the horses mind tender and unspoiled. In the barouque,1532, the first riding academy was built in Italy by Frederico Grisone, after him riding academies was built all over Europe, for one and the same purpose, to spread the great knowledge of the finest training principles. Through this a new door was opened- the door to ridingeducation. Now one master could concentrate on more than previously one student, and instead give his wisdom to many students at the same time. The classical dressage expanded through the riding academies and the many books that were written.

Guérinière Francois Robichon de la Guérinière, one of the great ridingmasters in the history.  Here in one of the engravings from his book “Ecole de Cavalerie”

In the classicism the cavalry schools started to educate recruits instead of working with professional soldiers. The riding and the classical training principles developed in size, since all recruits in the cavalry had to learn riding, for survival and transportation.
The old “collection school” from the Baroque changed to include more forward riding that was useful for the army. Horses that where faster and more talented to go forward rather than collect was bred. Still the classical principles of the physical correct training of riding horse was always to be followed-not for the purpose of art any more, rather to have a very well trained horse that could with very light aids react of the finest signals.
Many Officers from 18-19 and 20 century left fantastic riding-instructionbooks after them. Many of them are today mentioned as the big masters of classical dressage (Gustav Steinbrecht-Germany, Alexis L´Hotte-France and others). Between the Officers in the cavalry small competitions where made to see who had the most well schooled horse. These small private competitions developed more and more until the first Dressage competition took place by the Olympic games in Stockholm, Sweden 1912. Only officers participated. In these competitions it was decided which classical movements that every participant had to show, so it would be fair and easy to judge. The chosen schools was all a proof for how strong, how balanced, and how mentally fit the horses was. After the first and second world war the competitions changed to be more official, and more sports riders participated, than the purpose of the riding also changed. From being a little intimate comparison between officers who all had trained their horse after the classical principles for the purpose of having a good and usable ,,Gebrauchspferd” for the cavalry, the sportsriders trained their horses only for the purpose of being able to do the movements that belonged to the competition level. The horse were not trained to be strong and healthy, rather to be able to execute the movements necessary to succeed in the competitions. The training lost the purpose, the schools became now a ,,Selbstzweck” where it didn’t matter how the movements and the training where achieved, only if the horse could perform the preferred movements or not. The horse became a sportstool. Today the sports-dressage or the competition-dressage is what people are referring to when one says dressage, today this is what people see as the correct way of riding and training. One has forgotten how young this ,,new” way of riding is, one has been blinded of the big sports-industry, one has forgotten the purpose of dressage and the history. Far away in the background some people still recognise the classical principles that lays behind the competition dressage, the history and the aims of training. Somewhere in the background people are still training horses with less talent, eventhough this horse might only be a private freetime-horse. just to give this horse health and strengths to be able to carry himself and his rider in a physical correct way.

The Icelandic Ridinghistory

On Iceland the horse had played a very important roll in the hard life of the people. For hundred and hundred of years the horse served man as a friend and a hard worker, for transportation and for food. This roll did not change for a very long time, still today the horse is needed in the daily work for many farmers. Unfortunately Iceland was more or less isolated because of its placement in the ocean, and the new influences and progressions that took place in the European ridinghistory reached Iceland very late. The horse in the competition scene on Iceland is relatively young, its first now in the latest 30 years it has become a real sport. The birth of the competitions gave the horse also here another purpose. People started to breed horses with preferable gates, with legaction and with all the qualities that was wanted. The training was put more in focus, and soon the profession ,,horsetrainer” was born. Since the development from a working animal to a high class sporthorse took place so fast, the hundreds and hundreds of years it took in Europe to develop the knowledge about the horses physical correct training and schooling was missing. The development on Iceland was never a chain that linked slowly together, it was rather a fast explosion. Today the breeding is on the top, but the fast development has also given some negative sides in the horse business. Farmers puts a lot of effort to breed fantastic quality horses, which are trained in a very short time to show their class. This creates an enormous pressure, since the horses is shown in earlier and earlier ages to proof their quality. The training has to be done very fast to bring the horse from totally unbroken materials, to a horse with well sorted and well balanced gates, with a register from collection to top speed. This fast training of breedinghorses are nowadays seen as ,,normal”. All horses are considered to be able to be trained fast. In Europe one usually leaves the horse for breaking/starting and expects that the horse after three months is well accustomed with the rider, is balanced and carries the rider well in the three basic gates and also is started in tölt. What one doesn’t think of is that this fast training often harms the horses body, and also sometimes the mind. Many Icelandichorses has problems with their backs, legs and joints because of the too fast training, and many horses suffers from stress connected with riding. Of course No horses can be trained correctly in only a couple of months training. No muscle mass can obtain that strength in that short time. Now, in the latest years, people in the icelandichorsescene are starting to look around to search for new influences that can improve their training and riding. The training of Icelandic horses has improved a lot the last years, thanks to innovative men from Iceland and curious Icelandichorse riders around in Europe. First now the many hundred years of riding culture that was missing, is coming to Iceland and to the Icelandic horse scene. Many competition-riders from the national-equip in Germany, Denmark and Sweden have been influenced from the Classical Dressage scene. Many of them are training their horses after the classical ideals to get stronger, supple and more collected. On Iceland Eyolfur Isolfsson and Atli Gudmundsson have been arranging courses with Bent Branderup to introduce this kind of thinking to the toptrainers there.

How can we train our horses to be healthy and strong?

he classical school is oftenly called the ,,school of carriage(collection)”. The schooling of the horses hindlegs to ,,carry” its own and the riders weigh. Through this work one will have a horse that is strong and healthy. When one can control the horse to collect-one can always add the horses natural talent for pushing and therefrom get the extended gates. The Classical way of training is there to build up horses body in a physical correct way. One can get an idea how to help horses with weaknesses or physical problems to be able to be healthy, balanced and beautiful. With the correct training one can help the horse to get stronger in the overline and in the haunches, to be able to carry a rider without harming their body. Eventhough the purpose might not be to educate the horse to perform a piaffe, everyone can train their horse in a physical and mental correct way, so their horse feels strong, proud and filled of joy. No horse is made to carry a rider. The body is conformed so, that the weight of the horse is balanced of the four legs, with the neck and the head coming out far from the body overloading the frontlegs. The body mass is balanced and put mainly on the frontlegs. The hindlegs are the accelerator and pushes the body mass forward. When the weight of a rider is placed on the horse, it overloads the frontlegs even more. The straight frontlegs are easily destroyed in tendences, ligaments and in the joints because of the overload. The back are very badly conformed carrying weight, the spine is very vounerable, and has no support to carry the rider. The physical correct way in how the horse chould carry the rider, is on a lifted back, with seated hindquarters, so the weight of the rider and the horse is more carried by the hindquarter than by the frontlegs. This is exactly the opposite to how the horse naturally works and how their naturally building is conformed, and one understands form this that the training and the “reshaping” of the horses body therefor will take a long time.

The steps in the classical education of the horse



forward-down, bending, sholder-in and travere, forward-up and collection



The first steps to train a horse correctly is to teach the horse to stretch the overline in a forward-down position. With this the naturally short overline muscles are stretched, made long and the spine and stomach are lifted. By working the horse in this position one prepares the horses back as well as the stomach muscles to be stronger. In this position one teaches the horse to search the bit, and to stretch the neck and the head towards the hand and take a soft contact with the bit. This contact is called ,,Anlehnung”. The rider should encourage a contact soft and careful, likely the weight of a feather, but it should still be there. The horse must always be curious and search the contact as a proof that he wants to have a mutual conversation, as to say: ,,what can I do for You?” Here the riders part is to say with a very soft hand back: ,,Thank You for your politeness.” In the training of a horse no impolite conversation and hard hand or legaction are to be approved of. The language and the conversation to the horse must be done with humbleness, politeness and respect.


Through bending one places the spine and all the vertebras in a position where also the inside hip is coming forward in the bending. When the inside hip and the inside shoulder comes closer, the inside muscles of the horses body is contracting (strengthening) - the outside muscles are getting stretched and long. Through bending to both sides one can train the muscles to contract(get stronger) but still keep long and supple. Through the placement of the inside hip and the inside hindleg in the bending, it is nearer for the horse to step forward, into the schwerpunkt with the inside hindleg, than it is to push with that hindleg for the horse. In this way, the bending is schooling the horses inside hindleg to find and carry the weight. With the horse placed in a bending one can train the horse on voltes and serpentines to be supple and flexible, to train the balance and to answere the aids correctly. One can ride on straight lines with a bended horse and prepare the “shoulter-vor”. Through the whole work, one tries to keep the supple jaw and relaxed mouth that always searches for the contact with the bit.
Through the correct bending one can develop the sidemovements.









Sholder-in and Travere

Shoulderin and travere is schooling the inside contra the outside hindleg to step in under the weight. In these schools the horse has to bend the joint of the carrying hindleg more, which means that the carrying hindleg will take more of the horses weight than before, and therefore be trained stronger.











From schooling the horses hindlegs, keeping the overline long through forward-down work, and trying to balance the head and the neck more and more in symmetry to how much weight the hindlegs can take, the horse is slowly changing the balance from the front, to the hindquarters. When both hindlegs are strong and can carry the horse in the sidemovements in walk and trot, it is possible to start with exercises where both hindlegs has to carry the weight. By for example rein-back you teach the horse to load the hindlegs and bend the joints more.


The reinback shall be done with lowered hindquarters and diagonal measured footfalls. The reinback is not a school which teaches the horse to go backwards, it is a school that teaches the horse to bend its joints more, and load the hindquarters more-it is a collecting exercise. In the collecting exercises one wants to balance the head and neck higher, and still keeping the long overline. If the horse is correctly trained, the back will not fall through when the neck and the head is raised higher. Principally the shape of the piaffe and the collected tölt are the same. In both exercises the horse should be in a collected shape, with raised  neck, arced back and seated on the hindquarters. The different is only the tact of the footfalls, where in the piaffe it is a diagonal two beat, and in the tölt it is a fourbeat.
If the horse can load the hindlegs, one should principally be able to ask the horse for a two-pace, and the piaffe would come, and for a four-pace and the horse would than execute a collected tölt, or a three-pace and the collected canter would come.

When one has brought his horse to collection and carriage, and the horse is so strong so he can place his own and the riders weight on the hindquarters, with a lifted back, it is the choice of the rider what talents he would like to develop further. The horse is now so well prepared that on this stage he could be asked to collect in piaffe, or one could start with the töltraining.

Tölt training after the classical principles

When one understand the training principles, one knows that if a horse is asked to early for a high position with the head and neck(as in the tölt), the hindlegs are not able to carry the weight, the overline muscles will be too weak to keep the back lifted and arced, which will cause that the horse will drop the back, start pushing with the hindlegs instead of carrying, and the weight of the horse and rider will fall on the frontlegs. In the tölt training, if the previous dressagework is done with patience and time, one will most likely not fall into difficulties like tact problems, rolling etc. These problems stems from that the horses is not evenly stretched in the sides or not evenly strong in the hindquarters. If one falls into problems, the sidemovements are fantastic and very profitable exercises. Here the horse has to train one hindleg separate and stretch one side ultimate, which makes the rider be able to train the special weaknesses of the horse and built up theses parts separately. One shouldn’t try to correct the problems in the tölt that the horses shows, rather go back and think what the horse has difficulties with, and how the best way would be to solve it.

The Icelandichorse that is born naturetölters are naturally often having a shorter overline. Eventhough these horses gives the feeling that they might be balanced, it is very important that these horses are trained to lengthen the overline and lift the back. If the rider places his weight on the already short overline, the muscles will contract, and the overline will be even shorter. The effect will be that the rider is putting all his weight on a ,,dropped back” which will harm the back and the spine of the horse. When a back has fallen through like this, the hindlegs are pushed out behind the horses body. This creates therefor the hindlegs to take very short small pushing steps behind, and the weight of the horse will again be placed on the frontlegs. The Icelandic horse is by nature given the possibility to move the legs in many different combinations. It is still the same muscles moving the same bones, it is still the same muscles that has to be trained in the overline and hindquarters o be able to carry a rider correctly.
Riding is a like a perfect puzzle, every piece has to be laid in the right order in the right time, every piece will than link perfectly together with the next one, and later with a lot of patience one will see the perfect beautiful picture that is taking shape. How we lay this puzzel is our responsibility, just as it is our responsibility for what communication we build with the horse. It is our responsibility to show the horse humbleness and respect and appreciation for all the beauty that it brings to our lives.

krk Sara Silfverberg



Cadre Noir, Samur:
Die Spanische Hofreitschule, Wien:
Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Equestre, Jerez:



Bent Branderup: Akademische Reitkunst, Reiten auf Kandare, Renaissance Reiten nach A Pluvinel, Barockes Reiten nach F.R. de la Guérinière
Alois Podhajsky: Die Klassische Reitkunst, Meine Lehrmeister die Pferde
Gustav Steinbrecht: Das Gymnasium des Pferdes
Nuno Oliveira: Klassische Grundsätze der Kunst Pferde auszubilden
James Fillis: Grundsätze der Dressur
Waldemar Seunig: Von der Koppel bis zur Kapriole
Francois Baucher: Methode der Reitkunst
F.R. de la Guérinière: Ecole de Cavalerie - School of Horsemanship



Sara Silfverberg

Sara Silfverberg, a many year student from Bent Branderup, Egon von Neindorff and Pat Parelli. Over the years she has worked in many countries as a horsetrainers, in USA, Iceland, Germany, New Zeeland and Sweden. She trains horses of all breeds in classical dressage, but the Icelandic horse lays very close to her heart.


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