The Classical Tradition – Part 3 – The Masters of the Nineteenth Century

By Christopher Hector

For all the talk of a classical tradition extend back hundreds (some even say, thousands) of years, really dressage as we know it really started to flower only in the latter half of the nineteenth century…

The first engraving I can find of a horse in extended trot is this one of Baucher – very much a child of the nineteenth century, and to find the next step in the development of the classical tradition, a step that sees the outline of the horse change from a fixed contained never varying outline, to a concertina, with the horse’s frame moving longer and shorter in keeping with the demands of the movement, we must turn to the nineteenth century German master, Gustav Steinbrecht and his work, The Gymnasium of the Horse.

In his preface to the 1935 edition of Gymnasium the great German showjumping rider, Col. H. H. Brinkmann clearly lines up the equestrian principles outlined with the physical properties of the horse:

“Thus we confirm the accuracy of the thesis that even future discoveries will be unable to change Steinbrecht’s system because its principles have been gleaned from nature.”

Steinbrecht was an advocate of the English saddle, not just for hunting and steeplechase but also for dressage riding, because it demanded a balanced seat on the part of the rider:

“While the old masters, on their dressage saddles knew how to advance the art of riding to a high level under greater expenditures of time and strength on the part of horse and rider, we, if we reach the same level with our lighter, more agile, and nobler horses, will have produced a more perfect art since we have attained this goal with nothing but simple, natural means.”

(Page 6 of the Xenophon Edition – how indebted we all are to Ivan Berzugloff not only for his splendid magazine, Dressage & CT, and his excellent Xenophon classics…)
Along with the change of saddles, came a change of seat, or there should be a change, according to Steinbrecht:

“I must remind the reader again and again to give up old prejudices and to derive the rules for the rider’s position only from natural principles. The unchanging so-called prescribed seat to which many instructors stubbornly adhere is the reason that the art has such a bad reputation. It prevents the student from becoming independent on his horse since with such a seat, he will lack the necessary feeling to be able to correctly evaluate his horse’s carriage and movement. The rider who has been schooled in such a seat will present, after a long struggle, not a thoroughly schooled horse – that is a horse whose natural talents have not only been channelled and made subservient by dressage training but have also been developed by suitable exercises – but a wooden machine which, although working mechanically is devoid of all elasticity and freshness in its way of going. Such horses are certainly not likely to produce enthusiasm for the art because their dull, mechanical way of going fatigues the rider and wears the horse out before its time. For that reason, many riders feel safer and more comfortable on a horse with good conformation that moves in its natural carriage, than on a confused, so-called dressage horse that has been robbed of all its vitality. Whoever does not want to degrade this beautiful art to a mere trade – an art that has been held in high esteem from early times and will continue to be appreciated as long as there is courage and chivalry in the human race – should first be diligent in exercising his own body and making all its parts agile and mobile, so that his stiff limbs will not act as shackles on better understanding and feeling.”

next, riding with one hand or two…

While Steinbrecht was very much closer to the modern dressage style than any of his predecessors, there are still a few crucial differences, for instance, horses were still ridden predominantly with one hand, although styles were changing:

“However, guiding a horse with the left hand alone requires a completely trained horse that is capable of responding to the curb only. The old masters, who had time and means for such thorough work, knew only the curb bit for the well-ridden horse and placed their little finger between its two reins. For preparing the green horse, they used the cavesson. Today, since we have once and for all added the bridoon and its two reins to the curb bit, we admit right from the start that we do not intend to, or are not able to, work out horses to such perfection that they can be mastered under all circumstances with only the curb reins in the left hand… Because of the differences in our bits, and primarily the less perfect carriage of our horses, we must also modify the hand aids just as we must adapt our seat to the changed conformation of our present-day horses and to the English saddle.”


 Otto Lorke and the beginning of the ‘modern’ style of dressage

By the time of Steinbrecht, dressage is moving away from the fixed outline of the Renaissance horse – even in 1909, this photo of Otto Lörke looks much more ‘modern’ – next month we will see what a crucial role Lörke played in shaping dressage in the twentieth century. I guess it is because it took so long for a translation of Gymnasium of the Horse to appear in English, that Steinbrecht is largely unquoted in English language equestrian discourse, a pity since his words make far greater sense thansome who are more regularly cited.

Consider: “Correct dressage training, is, therefore, a natural gymnastic exercise for the horse, which hardens its strength and supples its limbs. Such exercise causes the strong parts of its body to work harder in favour of the weaker ones. The latter are strengthened by gradual exercise, and hidden forces, held back because of the horse’s natural tendency towards laziness, are thus awakened. The end result is complete harmony in cooperation of the individual limbs with these forces, enabling the horse to continuously and effortlessly perform, with only the slightest aids from the rider, such regular and beautiful movements as it would demonstrate on its own only fleetingly in moments of excitement.”

 James Fillis was a controversial figure in the nineteenth century

Steinbrecht was opposed to the unnatural school of Baucher – and to his disciples like James Fillis.

Steinbrecht certainly saw his horsemanship as being natural horsemanship as opposed to the artificiality of the French school of Baucher: “The greatest example of such quackery is Mr Baucher, who with the audacity of his claims and the enormity of his promises, has brought the entire equestrian world into uproar and confusion. His method consists in gradually and cunningly robbing the horse of its natural power, which Mr Baucher considers to be the enemy, and to thus make it subservient. He renders his horses so wilted and limp by unnatural bending and twisting in place and so thoroughly robs their natural forward action, that the poor creatures lose all support and are no longer good for any practical purpose.”

And again:

“If I have pointed out in these general comments the difficulties involved in the natural training of the riding horse on a scientific basis, this was not done to frighten amateurs away from the more serious studies of the art, but rather to motivate them from such studies. With a correct view of the principles of this art, it is quite possible to find a way to the desired goal by independent endeavours. Our generation is neither lacking chivalrous spirit nor in talent, nor in the means to return this beautiful art to its highest flourish…”

“The first prerequisite for reawakening a general interest in the art of riding and a contribution in this respect is the main reason for writing this book is to ban from the art everything that is stiff, forced, and pedantic and to overcome the prejudices that a man on a horse must carry himself in strange posture, and that the dressage horse has to walk around as if screwed into an instrument of torture. Instead, the equestrian art is for both the type of natural gymnastic exercise with which it is possible to attain and demonstrate the highest development of physical strength and skill.”

This passage would seem to me to encapsulate what is important about the Classical Tradition, and with Steinbrecht, the connection between the horse’s natural physical and mental properties and the methods and aims of dressage training – only hinted at in previous texts – is made explicit. This does not mean that Steinbrecht, any more than any of the previous writer / horsemen, has ‘the last word’ on the subject, since obviously, as Steinbrecht himself stressed, changes in the breeding and the conformation of the horses, will produce further changes and refinements.


Otto Lörke on the Thoroughbred Chronist – who carried Fritz Thiedermann to a medal at Helsinki in 1952

Here is the next in the series:

The Classical Tradition… The Training Scale Part Four: How old are our principles?

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