From DLG to AVG

A Progression of Training Horses for Dressage over 300 Years


We don't know how long humans have used horses for transport by either sitting on their backs or having them pull a carriage. We do not know how long training horses has been considered an art or indeed a subject in itself. But an educated guess is that a more advanced theory of training horses began to form at the time of Xenophon, the Greek. His writings have been preserved and he speaks of certain qualities that sound very familiar to the modern rider such as lightness, collection, and the fact that the horse should move so that he looks unforced and does everything of his own volition. So there's a seed right there in ancient Greece. These texts were forgotten during the Dark Ages and rediscovered during the Renaissance.

Texts that are much closer to modern ideals are, for example, those by S de la Broué (1593) and Antoine de Pluvinel (1624), who stood out as one of the best riding teachers in the world. Not only riding, but managing a horse in the manége and on the battlefield was taught here; a full education of the nobleman of the time consisted of philosophy, Latin, art and fencing. That was the ideal of the Renaissance man.

As war was no longer an occupation of noblemen the art of riding changed character. Mercenaries needed to be educated to ride on less expensive and well bred horses, and the airs above the ground were unthinkable. Riding well was no longer a matter of life and death for those with means enough to continue high-school riding, but more a matter of honor and art for art's sake. This is when some great treatises on dressage were written, amongst them the timeless "Ecole de Cavalerie", by Francois Robichon de la Guerinière.

If one reads the texts of Xenophon with an appreciative smile over the lips, reading DLG makes one nod and blurt out "Yes, exactly!" Our theory and methods are based upon his writings. He is probably most famous for inventing the shoulder-in movement, but he also did a good job of explaining the half-halt, how to train a horse in order to win his trust, etc.

During the 18th century and into the 19th dressage developed in two distinct directions. The rich and idle rode "pour plaisir" while the cavalry had to be able to stay on the horse and transport themselves safely for long distances. Usually the officers of the cavalry trained high-school in their spare time, and their student's ‘stickability’ while on duty.

As always in the world of dressage, officers complained at the decay of standards of the modern riders, but few would do anything about it. In England riding had always been more of a sporting activity, with fox hunts, point to point racing, and Thoroughbred horses. Many officers took after the speedy pastime of the English. The quality of high-school deteriorated, and some cavalry schools closed. And then there came a man with a revolutionary new theory.

Francois Baucher was neither a nobleman nor an officer. He hadn't even learned to ride as a child, but came into the dressage world as an entrepreneur. He published "Méthode d'Equitation basée sur de nouveaux Principes" in 1842, and created havoc. His methods were unorthodox, and he claimed to train a horse to high-school in a matter of months. He promised to make untrainable horses rideable, and many other things that at the time seemed insulting to the few defenders of the old school, mostly a man named D'aure. A war broke out, and people took sides, and countless pamphlets were published where one tried to grind the other to dust. There was a lot of politics involved, since D'aure was a nobleman and Baucher bourgeois. Also, Baucher rode at the circus to support himself, and this was popular with the general public. The uneducated on the matter were amazed.

The educated on the matter, foremost Louis Seeger also wrote and published several criticisms, most known is "An honest word to Germany's riders." The taking of sides in this dispute has continued to this day, and some riders boast themselves to be "baucherists" while yet others use the expression derogatory.

It is easy to take sides even today in the Baucher controversy, at least if one only reads his first book, or if one comes from a tradition where use of the hands is taboo. There are some appaling descriptions in his book, for example how to achieve the "Effet d'Ensamble", the "Combined Effects" as Hilda Nelson translates it: "The combination of effects means the continued and exactly opposed force of the hand and legs." This theory comes from his first method, which he later changed into the device "Legs without hands, hands without legs" which was his second method, the "Equitation in bedroom slippers". This method apparently came about after a horrible accident where a chandelier fell down on him and left him weak and with less use of his legs.

He is unusual in dressage history, since he recorded all his proceedings and theories through his life, and there are many versions of his writings. He also expressed remorse regarding his earlier methods by saying "Errors acknowleged are errors forgiven" or something to that notion. Most accomplished equestrian figures write their treatsies when they have gone through a whole life of riding and experienced all they can, have stopped riding and sat down to write a book. I guess it's easier not to contradict onself in such a situation.

In 1886 Paul Plinzner published Gustave Steinbrecht's "Gymnasium of the Horse". This work summarizes the deep knowledge of a few extraordinary horsemen of the 19th century, mainly of Austro-Hungarian tradition, And Plinzner published it after his master had died.

Modern riders with traditional classical ambitions read De La Gueriniere and Steinbrecht. DLG because he popularized manege riding by publishing a book (which didn't "spread" with today's measures, but anyway) and by being unusually structured and clear in language and drawings. To a post WWII modern rider it is completely comprihensible and clear.

Steinbrecht even more so, but in a way more detailed, more strict, more rules, well, more German.

To be continued...


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