I was asked recently what I thought was the difference between classical riding and modern riding. Being familiar with the background of the person who asked the question I know they were surprised when I answered, “none of significance.”
They were expecting me to respond with some complicated examination of how much better riding use to be in the olden days of past masters. But the question is a nonsense question because riding is just doing stuff with a horse while sitting on its back. The real question is what is the difference between classical and modern horsemanship, not riding.
Horsemanship covers the entire spectrum of all that we do with a horse, all the ways we interact and communicate. Riding is just one aspect of horsemanship and arguably not even the most important aspect.
One could put the case that classical riding involves certain equipment choices, specified principles of posture and seat, and particular ways of applying the aids. But in reality, the purpose of those classical rules is to maximize communication with a horse. They have no inherent purpose in themselves and if a particular horse finds it works better for them for the rider to sit facing backward and to hold the left rein in the right hand and the right rein in the left hand, then the rules derived from the old masters are purposeless.
On the other hand, the concepts that make up the classical principles of horsemanship are much more relevant, important and worth discussing/debating. To be clear, my personal definition of Classical Horsemanship is exactly the same as Good Horsemanship – they are indistinguishable to me.
Last year I wrote an essay on the difference between classical and modern dressage and concluded that the principles of classical dressage are so poorly defined that debating the two schools is impossible because nobody knows what they mean.
However, I propose a definition of what it means to label an approach to training horses as classical horsemanship. It has nothing to do with old versus new methods. It has nothing to do with techniques practiced by very famous horse people or by people only known to their mother. It has nothing to do with any particular discipline or type of equipment. It is simply a mindset that anybody can take to their horsemanship irrespective of their experience or background or influences.
Classical horsemanship has two components.
1. Allowing a horse’s change of thought to dictate its actions.
2. The horse’s change of thought brings it comfort ie, its thought’s are soft.
I know it seems simple, but I think this definition encompasses all that I believe in how best to get along with horses in the process of working with them.
Although I believe the term “Classical Horsemanship” as I have defined is fundamental to all good horsemanship, sadly so little training in the world seems to get it. I find most people agree with the idea that good or classical horsemanship pivots around the premise that a horse’s mind is the thing we are actually training, not its feet. They also agree that emotions are the key in preparing a horse’s response and the quality of that response. Nonetheless, agreement of these concepts is about as far as it goes. When it actually comes to putting them into practice most of it is forgotten. It’s talking the talk without walking the walk for most trainers.
I don’t think it is deliberate and for many, I don’t think they are even aware of it. I know that I sometimes fall short of putting into practice everything I say. It’s a perpetual struggle that I battle every time I handle a horse. I often know when I have made a mistake and try to fix it, but there must be a centrillion times (I don’t know how many a centrillion is, but it’s a lot) that my mistakes are a secret to everyone (including myself) but the horse. Nevertheless, my work is styled with the central focus that in everything I ask of a horse I am always trying to shape a horse’s thinking first before concerning myself with the feet. This is not true of the vast majority of horse people I have seen, even though they may see it differently.
So the next time you watch somebody working a horse, ask yourself does the horse have the idea to doing something before he does it and are his thoughts soft or hard?
Photo: At clinics I sometimes bring up the notion of Fred Astaire’s ability to be one with a partner as our goal to be one with a horse. But who knew Fred was also so wise in the ways of horse’s?