It’s About Greeks and Romans. Even Today.

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Is there a natural way to ride a horse? Is it possible to ride in such a way that the horse goes willingly forward, without constriction, as if he were moving at liberty? Is there a path to a different sort of ride, where kindness and understanding are the primary aids? Or should work look like struggle?

Spit has been flying on the internet this week. There’s dressage news from the FEI European Championships at Achen and I have to defend my chosen riding discipline one more time. Flash: there was rollkur–hyper-flexion of the neck–done by dressage riders there. Yes, it’s against the rules; but more than that, it insults the beauty and integrity of our historical tradition. And yet even more than that, it physically disables horses.

I should add that there is a public facility down the road from my barn, filled with riders in western saddles, shank bits and vicious spurs, jerking away mindlessly at their horse’s bits, metal on bone, doing as bad or worse–instructors and students alike. Despicable. Not the disciplines; it isn’t about tack or what we ask the horse to do under-saddle. It’s about how we ask.

Disclaimer: I harp on this topic all the time but Totilas retired this week at 15, and locally, the Dual Peppy abuse case ended in an appeal after sentencing. I am sad. When I started in dressage, the best horses were just coming into their prime in their teens. At the same time, professional trainers are see-sawing on reins and teaching their students do the same. The line between a kind, responsive partner and a broken-down rescue horse is defined by a rider’s awareness and sensitivity all too often–and at every level of riding. So I’m mad, too.

Want a history lesson? Some of the first writing we have about horses is from ancient Greece. Simon and Xenophon wrote about the art of riding:

For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. -Xenophon, b. 430BC

At that time, Euripides was writing plays and the Parthenon was just finished. The Greeks loved culture: art, music, dance. And riding horses.

At the same time, other cultures like the Romans were more barbaric, more materialistic, and less enlightened. It isn’t a value judgement so much as a statement of priorities. Horses were treated more harshly in those cultures where warriors who used them as tools. Romans left no writing about horses during these years.

Through the centuries, these two approaches to riding continued. The equestrian art was increased by one culture, but then “bastardized by war” in another. And so on to the 2015 European Championships. Sometimes we are evolving with sensitivity as riders, and sometimes we’re using brutality as a means to an end.

Under no circumstance should your hand disturb the horse’s mouth. You must learn to stay calm in all situations and control your emotions. There is no room for anger. -Xenophon

There is no trainer in this world who raises their hand and proudly says, “I train with violence and cruelty.” Yet dressage riders are excused from the arena when there are traces of blood on their horse’s bit. Men in cowboy hats make videos of themselves whacking horses in the head with whips–while holding a lead rope tight and playing to the crowd–and pass it off as horsemanship.

Everyone has a good line. Everyone defends their technique in positive terms but walking the talk is a different thing. We actually have to demonstrate that our actions match our words. We don’t like what we see, so to many of us competition is the same thing as abuse. Riders who train with finesse and kindness do compete and win. We need to peacefully claim back that ground, especially in the show arena. It’s a challenge to maintain focus in a storm of show reality and easy to fail our ideals. And brutality will always come easier to a predator, a human being, than vulnerability and honesty. We do horses a disservice to not step out past our comfort zone and let our voice be heard, and more so, seen in our happy, relaxed horses.

Nuno Oliveira defines dressage as a conversation with a horse on a higher level, one of courtesy and finesse. Times change but classical principles remain: the horse should be a partner and not a slave. The goal of equestrian art is the perfect understanding with our horses, which requires freedom of mental and physical contraction. The joy of the horse is the ultimate goal.

In our world today, we see two approaches to training horses and the roots are clearly visible in history. The only real question is how to continue. Who do we want to be as riders? As human beings? Are you willing to acknowledge the version of yourself reflected in your horse? Or is there more to learn?

Control or negotiate. Wrestle or dance. Slave or partner. War or love.

With a nod to Totilas, Dual Peppy, and all the horses who paid dearly for our dreams–and a hope that we will do better for your offspring than we have for you.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

33 thoughts on “It’s About Greeks and Romans. Even Today.

  1. Rebecca

    Well written. I’d like to hear if and if so, how you think classical horsemanship, especially as it relates to competitive dressage, can experience a revival.

    1. I’ve seen Steffen Peters train; he appears to be a lost Dorrance brother. I’ve seen western riders as compassionate as dressage masters. I am not sure if I have ever seen finer hands that Charlotte Dujardin, and by all accounts she is kind and her horse is happy. I think the names classical or competitive are divisive. Dressage is dressage and you can compete for the good of the horse. If you are asking if horses trained with kindness can win, absolutely. One can always see the difference between Art and War.

      1. Rebecca

        Thank you for responding. I hope one day the likes of Peters and “Blueberry” and Charlotte are more of the rule and less of the exception.

      2. Rebecca

        I think based on what is seen at the upper levels, they are the exception. I don’t have data to support that but it would be interesting to analyze. I don’t know the answer to your second question. I am not an upper level rider, just a “re-rider” doing her best within my financial limitations. 🙂

  2. Maggie Frazier

    At one point there was a trainer (dressage) at our barn – watching her gave me a bad taste in my mouth! In my opinion (as a trail rider) she had very hard hands. I saw her “start” a really nice Morgan colt & continue his “training” over the years. He was a really good boy & his owner allowed this trainer to dictate how he was ridden. This same trainer, at one point, acquired 2 young horses – one was a Dutch warmblood – the other some kind of warmblood -maybe 17 hands. The big horse proved to be too much for the trainer – wouldn’t accept the kind of treatment she dished out. And, I think, she was afraid of him & he knew it. Fortunately, she sold him before he & she got hurt. I seem to remember that he did very well for the new owner. She moved on finally – sadly when she left the barn the owner of the Morgan left with her. The gal that owns the barn also took lessons from this woman – but she has the nicest hands & seat of anyone I know. It was a joy just watching her ride and seeing the connection she had with the horses. (actually think the trainer resented that!)
    Reading your blog certainly shines the light on an entirely different kind of riding discipline! Sadly, I have also seen the horrible way western pleasure (what a misnomer) horses were (maybe still are) treated – not trained – TREATED. Stopped going to the local county horse shows because of that. I miss the horses – but people who treat animals like machines need to be stopped from having access to them.
    Sorry for running on so long!

  3. If judging at the highest levels (looking at you FEI) continues to reward dis-united leg throwers with swishing tails and hollow backs, and the seemingly uncaring individuals riding them…

    When this topic gets me down, I like to watch Reiner Klimke and Ahlerich doing their victory lap at the 1884 olympics… Listen to the crowd as Mr. Klimke and Ahlerich circle the arena with effortless one-handed one-tempis. Relaxation + brilliance + correctness is absolutely possible without “forcemanship.”

    1. Well, that is a video that I have watched a hundred times, and you are right. They are the idea. It takes time and we have gotten in a hurry. I use Klimke’s warm up on all horses, he is a genius.

  4. Heather dickson

    Lead by example. In horses as in life there will always be different opinions. As the Dali Lama says, prayer is fine but our actions speak louder. So get out there and ride our horses as our partners, not objects or machines, and people will notice and come to a better way through their own curiosity. It’s a long slow process.

  5. After a rather depressing read (not your writing, Anna, just the reminder of how many horses suffer at our hands), that old video of Dr. Klimke and Ahlerich was just what I needed to make my spine tingle and my spirits soar. My life is too busy right now (always!) to keep up with the spit on the internet; I don’t know that I WANT to know about what happened at the European Championships or to Totalis or Dual Peppy. I’ll use my precious little free time to spend with my horse, on the ground and in the saddle, and try to perfect our dance partnership….

    1. I guess for me, I always feel like I have a debt to pay for all the grace I have been shown by horses when I didn’t deserve it…so I chirp my two cents worth. Have a great dance. Thanks.

  6. There is a school of thought, actually based on scientific evidence gleaned from research on physiological changes that occur in the horse’s skeleton as a result of repeatedly carrying hundreds of pounds on their back, (and on the weakest part of their back,) that horses were truly not created for humans to ride upon, just as they were not created for us to abuse or harm. Additionally, this same science decries the use of metal bits in a horse’s mouth as well, and champions of this school of thought suggest that we, as humans have miles to go before we have even the slightest comprehension of the very real depth of an equine’s ability to think, feel, reason, anticipate, fear, or enjoy; all those real emotions that we oftentimes only attribute to humans. It is heart-wrenching to know that the discipline so oft-admired for doing the least harm to a horse, mentally, physically or emotionally while the horse endures our passion for riding is fast becoming “just another horse sport” and is quickly losing credibility as the finest, kindest, and smartest of the equine disciplines. I opted out of the horse show circuit years ago when I began getting the gate because I refused to trim smooth the protective hair in my horse’s ears. As horses who enjoyed much pasture time between shows, they needed the hair for insect protection. Shame on every judge who follows the maddened crowd of lemming-like judges, for it is the judges who hold the power to influence every competitive equine discipline. From Tennessee Walkers to reiners to cutters and every sport in between, we can do better for our horse companions, and judges can, and should be, leading the way forward to a better, more compassionate, humane, worldwide equine community.

    1. Yes, judges should lead, not follow. There is a huge argument against any riding. Like you, I’ve been in the middle of all sides of this for a long time. I confess, I don’t know the answer. But I have low expectations; any day I can help a horse train a human is a good day for me.

  7. Maggie Frazier

    Watched Klimke’s one tempi ride around the arena & the pas de deoux(spelling?) – really beautiful – funny – no gaping mouths – no tongue sticking out and no behind the vertical! How about that?
    I didn’t realize Totalis had been retired – read that he was pulled because of lameness. Sad. But maybe for his sake – he will be better off.
    It appears the judges are rewarding the harsh riding – sort of makes me think of the turmoil surrounding the Tennessee Walking Horses (so-called big lick) Seeing the videos of that is downright disturbing.
    What is being done to these animals is just wrong – I know I’m preaching to the choir here!

  8. Wonderful post! I love the quote “only two emotions belong in the saddle, humor and patience” (or some variance of that). I try to live by that with my horses.

  9. Martha

    During the London Games I watched one of our Team USA riders saw on her horses mouth when she didnt know the tv cameras were on her. This was a rider that many of our younger riders look up to. That I looked up to. From that moment I no longer did.
    When I began HUS in the 1970s, and then moved on to dressage in the 80’s I had instructors that were chosen by my parents because they did not teach abusive methods, but still had students and horses that were successful in the show arenas. And I have followed what I learned from them, and my parents all my life. With every animal I have been blessed to have in my family.

    1. Thank you for this comment. It’s easy to recoil from those riders and let it ruin everything, when it should be a call to do it right. Your animals are fortunate to have you, thanks to your parents for having that perception, and our side should stand and be counted. Thanks for chiming in.

  10. We were very blessed when my daughter learned to ride because she was taught a non-interfering seat and how to use voice commands until she was able to ride without using the reins for balance since the instructor had her riding with a very loose rein. She also learned how to use clear aids so as not to confuse the horse. Her instructors horses all went forward willingly, were quiet and responsive, and were always in the ribbons when the kids would take them to the shows. Even now that my daughter is riding at a more advanced level she has kept that foundation and her horse stays sound, and will do just about anything she asks without her having to resort to things like common desensitizing or modern natural horsemanship methods.

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