Competitive vs. Classical Dressage
By Max Gahwyler
Competitive dressage has become highly complicated: one only needs to look at the current rulebook. The dominant factor today seems to be gaits, as can be seen by looking at the directive ideas which is really a connection between the rider and the judge. It repeatedly says the “quality of the gait.”
Competitive and classical dressage are two entirely different disciplines. Classical dressage is best suited for Iberian horses with their more compact body types that are better able to reach underneath their centers of gravity for the haute ecole movements/airs above the ground. These Iberian horses, because of their conformations, cannot manage the same extension and expression to their gaits that the warmblood can, however.
In classical dressage, the “descent de mains” which is the aids without use of the hands (i.e., no rein action) is the goal.
After the French Revolution, many many horses were killed (160,000+). There were discrepancies between the cavalries of Germany and France. The horse-based cavalry was of no use against artillery and machine guns, and so the role went from fighting to transportation—and the German horse began to be valued for its movement and forwardness.
The French, and the Spanish Riding School continued to practice classical dressage as it was, but the Germans developed the warmbloods, initially in Hannover, as a working horse for transportation, and asked the Spanish Riding School to teach its Cavalry Officers to look more elegant on the horse. Because the warmbloods could not perform the same movements because of their heavier body types and altered conformation (the breed had already changed due to the change in the job requirements), the movements as done “classically” in the Spanish Riding School were scaled down, and the movements we see in competition were born with the objectives of covering ground and basic obedience (i.e., shoulder-in on 4 tracks became the 3 track movement we perform today). Dressage competitions for German Cavalry officers also began.
Mr. Gahwyler also spoke at length about his well known feelings that too much is put into gaits in today’s tests, but I didn’t take notes on that portion of the lecture, as it was primarily editorial, rather than educational, content.
The basic gist is that some horses, basically those with more compact conformation, like the Iberian, are more suited for Classical Dressage, while the warmblood is more conformationally suited for Competitive Dressage. Either horse can be trained to do either discipline, and the rider must choose which discipline he wants to pursue. It is the rare horse that is able to excel at both.
Source: 2003 USDF Convention
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