A Brief Discussion of Classical and Academic Equitation

Nestier and Lesage

We had a discussion of “classical” riding with some people writing in, and I thought the interchange was worth repeating. The photo is a composite. On the right is Monsieur Nestier, who was roughly contemporaneous with La Guérinière. Famous for his seat, apparently he rode so beautifully that women swooned when he rode past. On the left is Commandant Xavier Lesage astride “Taine”, a thoroughbred, having taken double Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1932.

A reader says… “I prefer the horse on the right, the Iberian type is more classical.”

Classical riding can be about re-enactment, a replication of the etchings and lithographs left behind showing baroque era men on baroque era horses. The tradition is beautiful and re-enactment is fun.  However, the way we use the term is to mean a way of training that transcends the era in which it was first recorded.

For instance, if one is limited to the appearance of the familiar old masters,  I would not be considered classical, as women at that time were not trained to ride at this level. But this doesn’t mean I’m not classical in my training and outlook. The choice not to include women was a cultural loss for the time, it wasn’t “right.” It is just “what was.”

In our barn, we have very “classical” Iberian horses – andalusians, lusitanos, lipizanners: very “typey” horses– we also do the same high level work with appaloosas, thoroughbreds, Akhal Tekes and dyed in the wool back yard bred what-si-whose-its. We are engaged in the puzzle of working with just about any horse that comes in the door, given that it is accompanied by a rider who is learning right along with the horse. And we train men and women both, from any background, no matter their age or breeding or wealth, to the highest levels of skill their commitment and curiosity draws them to achieve. We don’t limit ourselves, although it was the expectation when M. Nestier rode, to teaching only higher income, well-dressed, educated and aristocratic men. We don’t object to teaching them, mind you, but we don’t limit ourselves. 

Classical training improves every horse, brings it to its relaxed, elegant, delightful best. And it improves horses in every discipline, including trail and cattle work. It’s not only for the reprise in tux and top hat in a hushed dressage arena, that’s just one of the things people do with training. And training at this level is not just a polish to bring more luster to an already perfect animal. That seriously useful application and inclusiveness is why I’m a classical rider, and its inherent nobility– the drawing out of what is beautiful in each individual, rider as well as horse, is why I am committed to maintaining the art into the future. Hence…my passion for this Foundation.

The students says… “Could you explain what the difference between classical riding and academic riding is?” 

“Academic” riding was a term drawn from Plato’s original academy. The term was used by Decarpentry to describe a way of testing the trainer’s perception of the work. Using an academic approach, there are particular tests for the training. The trainer does not go by subjective measures of whether the work is good or not, nor by visual cues–the horse’s internal feelings, where the work becomes real, are not externally visible.

A simple, familiar example of an academic test is a downward canter transition. A balanced horse is comfortably in control of his weight at all times. If you ask him to stop, he can stop easily. So in a canter, if the well educated trainer asks with the same light movement as in a walk that the horse stop, a balanced, listening horse will stop. If instead his response is “canter canter… trot trot trot trot trot trot…walk……stop…” then you know he wasn’t balanced.

“Academic Equitation” refers to ways of testing for the horse’s internal correctness.

It’s the same way we teach the rider the seat, we don’t mechanically position you to fit a correct look, we put you through balance checks that identify for you personally with your own body where the actual anatomically correct balance place is today, this moment, given your stiffnesses and asymmetries. And balance becomes real for you, not a position you assume because someone drilled you into thinking it was right.

Classical work draws on the best that we are, and gives that beautiful human best to the horse, inspiring him to present you with his best in return. Academic work tests whether we were correct in our assessment: it shows whether the horse agrees that we’ve found our best work together, or not.

Mary Anne