Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A Search for a Classical Alternative

Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A Search for a Classical Alternative

by Philippe Karl


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One of the most outspoken critics of the modern dressage world reveals some disturbing facts about the physical, anatomical, and mental effects through official dressage guidelines as issued by the German Horse Society (FN) on horses. By comparing these with philosophies of masters of classical riding such as La Gueriniere and Baucher, he shows possible solutions to the challenging situation of modern competitive dressage. After describing the effects of modern dressage, breeding, and business, the author suggests a classical alternative—the philosophy of "legerity."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9783861279532
Publisher: Cadmos Books
Publication date: 11/01/2008
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 9.70(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Philippe Karl is a breeder and rider, and former member of the Cadre Noir, the French elite riding school in Saumur. His other titles include Long Reining.

Read an Excerpt

Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage

A Search for a Classical Alternative

By Philippe Karl, Alain Laurioux, Christiane Slawik, Jacques Toffi, Andrew Weal

Cadmos Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010 Cadmos Verlag GmbH, Schwarzenbek
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-3-86127-953-2



Riding in general, and dressage in particular, involve a certain number of key issues that we need to identify.

They cannot be effectively dealt with unless we make the right diagnosis.

Psychological Aspects


In the past few years, under the pressure of ethologists and other "horse whisperers", dressage manuals have consented to include a few pages on the psychological aspects of riding.

In Book 1, "The Principles of Riding", we are judiciously reminded of the main traits of a "horse's nature" by the following general recommendations:

"The schooling of a horse cannot only be judged on the quality of its paces under the rider, but also the maintaining of its natural attitude and personality. It is these fulfilled horses, ready to give the best of themselves in their daily work, that produce a stable and harmonious relationship between man and his horse. These foundations will be strengthened and developed through patience, a sense of psychology and frequent reward."

"In riding, progress relies on theoretical knowledge. Knowledge of the nature and behaviour of horses, how to look after them as well as of riding and dressage principles are naturally essential for any serious and responsible horseman." (B1, page 12)

We can only agree with such statements. But a dressage manual cannot simply rely on declarations of intent, however admirable they are. Without decrees for application or resources for implementation, a law is no more than a hollow shell. Preaching the benefits of equine knowledge is a good idea, but it is even better to say what you need to know and to draw some real conclusions and rules that can be used to guide dressage riders.

The basics of equine psychology allow us to determine three main stages in the relationship between rider and horse.

The taming stage

Even when raised close to man, a horse naturally remains a herbivore with a gregarious instinct and with a highly developed sense of hierarchy. Since it is a victim of predators in the wild, the horse is fearful and has very sharp senses, using flight to save its skin.

To satisfy his needs, man subjects the horse to a way of life that is contrary to its nature, separating it from its fellow creatures and imposing worrying situations on it, starting with the bit and the saddle.

Nothing good is possible until the horse accepts that man is a well-meaning and dominant fellow creature.

Trust and relaxation are absolute preconditions for any work of quality. In real terms this means banishing any use of force and coercion, as well as any constraining devices.

"The free consent of the horse gives better results than any remedies through which we try to constrain him." (Salomon de la Broue)

"Of all the conditioning required to educate a horse, the most important is that of his will." (Charles-Hubert Raabe)

The learning stage

Horses are not just a mass of muscles to be shaped in order to satisfy our desires or to produce a performance, they are sensitive beings. Expressions such as: "The horse must do this ... the horse must give that" are all too common in dressage jargon. The horse owes us nothing, it is we who have a duty to make ourselves understood.

"It is essential to link the rider's gestures to those of the horse; this link is none other than the horse's intelligence together with his moral consent." (Maurice Hontang, "Psychologie du cheval")

So what is this intelligence worth? No master based their dressage approach more on the intelligence of the horse than François Baucher:

"Horses have perception as well as feeling, comparison and memory; they therefore have judgement and recall, and they therefore have intelligence."

And we can believe that this approach is justified since General Decarpentry wrote the following in Baucher and His School:

"The results obtained by Baucher were extraordinary from all points of view. However it would seem that the speed with which he obtained them is what is most remarkable - it was truly prodigious."

In fact, horses are capable of understanding everything that the rider is capable of getting them to understand.

In the end, it is the rider who needs a high level of equestrian intelligence in order to get the best out of the horse.

How does a horse learn? Fearful and worried by nature, horses spend most of their time assessing potential dangers in their environment. Any new element will monopolise their attention and is assessed on the basis of their past experience.

A brutal, authoritarian or simply clumsy rider, focuses the horse's attention by unwittingly becoming an aggressor. He triggers protective mechanisms (tension, resistances, evasions) which hinder or cancel out any quality learning.

For a rider to achieve significant and quick progress from a horse, he must have a subtle teaching strategy that takes account of the horse's psychological traits, its anatomy, essential points of its locomotion and the laws of balance.

We often insist on the importance of patience. But it is powerless on its own. It would be better to say:

Patience is not a science

But one needs...

a lot of science and a lot of patience.

Typical learning sequence

A rider communicates with his horse via the "aids". Therefore, he above all teaches a language that is intended to influence the horse's movements. Several steps must be complied with in a consistent learning sequence in order to ensure success.

1. The language of the aids

Ensure that the horse understands all of the necessary aids for what you want to teach him.

2. Objective

Determine the smallest possible step in progress, relative to what the horse already knows. Any demands that are inconsistent or excessive will be seen as aggressive.

3. Prepare

Focus the horse's attention on exercises that favourably bring together the conditions for the coming experience.

4. Assess

Put the horse in the new situation (position, balance, locomotion) in which it will naturally and certainly react, even if it is only by very slightly starting to do the desired behaviour.

5. Reward

Immediately reward the horse to confirm that this is what you want (use your voice, pat the horse, let him rest, give him a treat, etc.).

"You must reward the slightest concession as if it was a full submission, because it will certainly lead directly to that." (Alexandre Guérin, 1817–1884)

6. Repeat

By repeating the "assess" step and its reward we confirm, fix and perfect the new behaviour.

As a necessary to acquire any knowledge, repetition often leads the horse to respond by anticipation during the preparatory sequence.

This behaviour is a sign of goodwill and enthusiasm and the horse should never be punished for this. On the other hand, you must frequently repeat the preparation step and maintain it without executing the response.

This result should be rewarded just as much as a perfect response. In this way the horse learns to remain attentive to the rider and wait for a request that may come – or not as the case may be.

7. Perfect

As the new behaviour becomes imprinted in the horse's mind, we can reduce the preparation step and depend more on decisive aiding.

In the end, the aids themselves will suffice and will become increasingly discreet until they are virtually invisible.

It then looks like the rider simply has to think about a movement for the horse to do it. This expresses the myth of the centaur.

8. Review

Something that is learned is only of value if it is part of a consistent whole, enhancing previous steps and used as a reference for future experiences.

The practising stage

When well designed, the learning phase is much shorter (sometimes a few lessons) than the period of physical adaptation necessary to correctly execute something (at least a few months).

Frequent and daily repetition is therefore essential for the muscles and joints to be able to perfect the movement, but this is not without its pitfalls.

Indeed whilst the learning phase arouses the horse's attention because it is new, the repetitive nature of the practising phase tends to bore the horse and cause distraction. It produces mechanical and subconscious responses, like a child who can repeat a lesson he has learned by heart without really thinking about it.

This is what we call a "drilled" horse.

To avoid this pitfall riders must take a certain number of precautions:

• Vary figures, diversifying sequences of exercises, changing situations, changing contexts and locations, with the sole purpose of maintaining the horse's interest in its work.

• Avoid repeating and prolonging an exercise or an air without any purpose. "Kilometric" dressage tends to physically wear out the horse, anaesthetise its attention and dull its intelligence.

Do not confuse dressage with bodybuilding.

Show yourself to be creative rider with a good imagination. Never limit your work to presentation objectives. Hacking, outside work and jumping are irreplaceable gymnastic exercises for the body and mind. Never lose sight of the risks involved in too restrictive an approach to any specialisation ... including dressage.


Dressage competitions inherently promote repetative and drilling. Riders can repeat the same tests as much as they want in the ethereal and purified environment of the dressage arena.

This is why, when taken to extremes, "dressage" horses do not behave like "schooled" horses ... and can be unable to bear the slightest unplanned event, sometimes performing rather embarrassing flights of fantasy for their "passengers" (over-excited, run-away piaffe during a prize giving, bolting during the lap of honour, etc.).

What is the purpose of a discipline in which submission is a goal in itself or when it creates difficulties for specialists in situations where any enlightened amateur leisure rider would have no problems?


We could consider a competition in which each level of rider knows what exercises and airs are on the programme, but never knows either the figures or the sequences for the tests on that day.

A skilful jury would determine a dressage test that is pinned up like a showjumping course ... at the last moment. The test would, of course, be read out to the rider.

This competitive concept would assess and empower the judges, increase the interest of the public, protect the horses from a dull training programme, put those who rely on intensive last minute practising firmly in their place (even if they have better horses) and encourage well-founded dressage methods and intelligent riders (even when they are riding average horses).

Natural Crookedness

"On the left side, the neck muscles are stiff, contracted and refuse to release. This is considered the stiff side. However, the difficult side is the right, hollow side.

The right-hind escapes to the right, the horse pushes against the rider's right leg and refuses the contact on the right rein. The aim of the work will be to bring this hind leg to engage under the body. Straightness must always be achieved by aligning the forehand with the hindquarters and not the other way round.

For example, if the horse's haunches escape to the right, the rider must stop this tendency by acting with his right leg. His left leg, close to the girth, will increase the engagement of the left hind. The left hand must be kept low, with the left rein containing and controlling the left shoulder, whilst the right hand brings the forehand to the right until there is alignment of the right-fore with the right-hind."

(FN Guidlines for Riding and Driving, German Equestrian Federation vol. 1, p. 147.)

This diagnosis is very superficial. It omits the deep rooted causes and their major consequences, those involving balance.

The approach falls short in two respects: it deals with the effects rather than the causes, and it supposes that the horse is already well advanced in its schooling; however the problem appears from the start.

We can look at this in more detail.


Foals are crooked from birth due to the foetal position that they grow in: shorter on one side than the other. Not all horses are bent to the right, far from it. Whether due to genetics or to chance, does not really matter, statistically the proportion is something like 50-50%.

Nature seems to be more inventive than the dressage manuals.

But never mind! We can take the case of a horse which is hollow to the right and analyse the causes and consequences of this crookedness. This will give us information on how we should approach this in our work.

• The deep rooted and original cause resides in the natural bend of the neck to the right. The main cervical ligament is shifted to the right and the mane falls to the right. The horse tends to carry its head to the right and tends to weight its left shoulder to compensate.

• Since the bending of the neck has an impact on the rest of the spine, in movement periodic dorso-lumbar waves produce bends, of greater amplitude to the right than to the left. Consequently the horse's haunches escape to the right.

• Therefore the right hind is more advanced than the left hind, but it escapes to the side. It reaches more than it pushes.

As opposed to this, the left hind is in a position to provide the majority of propulsion, but its engagement remains limited.

• In movement, the inert parts of the body (thoracic and abdominal) move more to the left than to the right. This naturally increases the weighting of the left lateral pair.

• Overall, the whole spine is bent to the right, especially the neck. The horse relieves the weight on its shortened right lateral pair (concave side) and weights its open left lateral pair (convex side).

"Like man, horses come into the world with two different sides, one strong and the other weak."

(Commandant Jean-Charles Licart)

Impact on our work

• The horse turns comfortably to the right and tends to enlarge the curves through its shoulders by bending its neck to the right.

• Conversely, to the left, the horse turns short, falling on the inside shoulder with its head carried to the outside.

• The horse canters more easily on the right leg, but with its haunches in. It is not uncommon for the horse to disunite its hind legs when cantering on a circle to the left.

What the rider feels

• The horse is willing to take a contact on the left rein whereas it refuses to take a contact on the right.

• The rider's seat drops more to the right than to the left on each stride and his right leg is nearer to the horse's hindquarters (concavity to the right) whereas his left leg tends to be pushed away from the left hindquarters (convexity on the left).

• Since the horse weights its left shoulder and advances its right hind more, if the rider is not careful the horse will automatically trot on the left diagonal in rising trot.

• In lateral work, the horse will be more willing to move its shoulders to the left and its haunches to the right.

• In all work on the right rein, the horse seems flexible and "balanced", on the left rein it seems to be stiff and "out of balance".

The search for straightness

Rectifying this crookedness is one of the main and priority objectives of training since the correct functioning of the locomotor system and the physical health of the horse in the long term depend on an even distribution of forces.

The question is: what education to the aids and which gymnastic exercises can we use to seek straightness? A good gymnastics teacher would not simply order you to "hold yourself straight!" He would put you through a series of exercises intended to compensate for your crookedness: stretching the shortened muscles and strengthening the elongated muscles to gradually correct your posture.

In the same way, with the horse's activity level compatible with relaxation, the rider will alternate work on both reins that is designed to reverse the horse's posture and imbalances. An effective gymnastics approach will compensate for nature without being contrary to it.


Excerpted from Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage by Philippe Karl, Alain Laurioux, Christiane Slawik, Jacques Toffi, Andrew Weal. Copyright © 2010 Cadmos Verlag GmbH, Schwarzenbek. Excerpted by permission of Cadmos Publishing Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A Search for a Classical Alternative 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SmokeDancer More than 1 year ago
I have followed Mr. Karl's work for years and have all his books in English and his dvds. Was thrilled when this came out as an e-book. Didn't want to highlight and make notes in my hard back, so having it on Nook also has been wonderful. Lots of very insightful explanations and great break downs of exercises to help your horse develope to her full physical capability without destroying her physical, mental or emotional well being. Highly recommended