French vs. German

Two Traditions of Training Theory

There is an ongoing discussion in the dressage community all over the world regarding the different schools of dressage. Most recognize at least two schools, the French and the German, as they are called. Some, no matter how strange it may seem, recognize no such thing as different schools. For example, I was at a week-long clinic with a former Swedish GP rider, and without us even bringing the subject up, she would go on and on (as she did with everything) about how there was only one kind of dressage and that was correct dressage. According to her, correct dressage did not ever consist of rein aids other than opening rein and direct rein of opposition. A neck rein was "ugly" as she described it. Pulling incessantly in direct opposition, however, was correct dressage. These "only kind" of dressage horses had no back muscles to speak of, and would not move forward from the leg only. Also students of all levels rode every other lesson in the double, no matter the quality of the hands... Needless to say, I will never again pay money to listen to this lady, nor ride her horses.

Back to the subject...
Some recognize a third school, the Portuguese. Most, however, agree with its foremost proponent Mr. Nuno Oliveira, that the Portuguese school of horsemanship IS the French school in its essence. If one does not agree, one needs to bear in mind, that it is that school of thought (French/Iberian) that I, in this article, call "French."

To set the stage, I will have to explain the current positions of the battle stations, in a simplified form:

Balance Fosters Movement (Balance Before Movement) French School

The horse needs to have the correct physical attitude of his body in order to be able to let the hind legs execute the different movements.

He needs to have his neck erected in order to be able to get the hind legs under and collect.
He needs to be aligned straight in order to extend schwungfully (connected) forward.
He needs to have his poll flexed and relaxed (using flexions) in order to work "on the bit".

Movement Fosters Balance (Movement Before Balance) German School

The horse needs to move forward with his hind legs to the correct extent in order for the body to be poised and working in a correct attitude.

He needs to step under vigorously and bend his haunches in order to have his neck erected.
He needs to move schwungfully forward in order to be able to align straight, work straight and be straight.
He needs to work correctly from his hind legs through the body in order to give at the poll and work "on the bit".

Now, this might both sound right, or both might sound wrong. Or it may even be so that one thinks "Hmm, I do 'French', although I've heard that I should do 'German'..." because the German style is described as "riding from behind" while the French style sounds like it's "front end riding."

There is, of course, something to the notion that the French style manipulates the front end. But there is also something to the notion that the German style is an endless kick-on and wait for hell to freeze over.

I would estimate that most dressage riders ride a mix between the extremes of the two styles. I say the extremes of the two styles, because the brief explanation above is directed at the differences between the two. Of course, most techniques are common or quite alike in both traditions and goals, too. None of them aim to ride without impulsion, to go on the forehand or to over bend or rush around disconnected. Although an adherer to the German style might very well think that the French all flex and fix, and ride their horses behind the bit, and an adherer to the French style might think that the German style is all about rushing lap after lap in overdrive with a stooping horse and too much in the hands.

Both styles strive for lightness. Both styles want flexible horses that can collect and extend and that work willingly and in balance. But the means to achieve it might sometimes differ. The ways to express it might also differ. And sometimes, what they actually mean by their expressions, differ although the expressions are the same.

Such as "Lightness": most adherers of the French school strive for, and ride almost from the beginning with, almost nothing in the reins. You very often see well-schooled Andalusians with looped reins, riders with only the curb rein in hand. They can achieve this by moving the bit, vibrating it, when the horse starts to lean on it, or goes above the bit, or they could use sharp bits and serretas. Many "French" riders use the double from quite early in the training, and it is generally accepted that the French recognize 5 or more rein aids and they use flexions of the neck at standstill.

The French mean "almost nothing" in the reins, when they say "lightness."

The Germans usually mean a long awaited poll flexion and connection to the bit. That the horse seeks the bit and finds it, and that it can be measured in pounds instead of ounces. Lightness is the obedience to the leg aids, which results in a giving in to all aids, and a general "manageability" with relatively small aids. The horse has to be in contact with the leg and hand at all times to be able to take the aids. The contact can range from mild to substantial.

Depending on what school of thought one is from, one of the schools is now beginning to sound better and better while the other may sound like the road to perdition. Just keep in mind that there might be things on horseback that you have yet to experience, and thus they may sound bad right now. Keep in mind also that what you have seen from the opposite school might not necessarily be representative of "the best" it can produce.

There are also other factors that make one seem better than the other, like the German school's description of lightness above. It is, in my mind, representative of the modern competitive way of riding and showing. The ideals held by the competitive community are moving further and further away from the instructions at the Spanish Riding School. Surely the SRS should be the essence of the German school?

But remember, the SRS principles are completely based on the teachings of 18th century Frenchman De la Gueriniere! The French school! So now the German school is beginning to sound more and more like "the Competitive School" and less like some age old opponent of the French school. I think this is quite true, at least up until WWII. The modern competitive riding has in a way misinterpreted what the 19th century German authors said about contact, forwardness and giving in to the aids. Contact is what the horse takes, and it should be light and alive, forward is NOT fast; forward is a quick reaction to the leg aid. And giving in to the aids is not about giving up hope of balance and comfort and just "ducking and covering."

Another difference between the different schools is the horses they use. The French/Iberian school ride baroque short-coupled horses that easily collect, but lose balance if they have to extend their gaits early on in their training. The German/competitive school ride long-backed ex-carriage horse-breeds that have extended gaits to die for already inborn. But in comparison, they can only learn moderate bending of the haunches and collection. Now, they say you should ride a horse opposite the way he chooses, himself. If a horse wants to shorten and curl up, ride him lower. If he wants to go on the forehand, ask him to come up more, but doing that with the different breeds has proven fatal. Many are the modern competitive riders who have tried to ride Iberian breeds in the warmblood style and come up with nothing. They try to ride young Iberians forward to get the hind legs, and they get a physically and mentally broken down horse.

Not that I have seen many around here, but I'm sure that there are many warmbloods ridden by "French" riders that just over bend and go with tense backs and strut around without pushing or carrying power. I have seen many horses like that, but only a few by self-confessed French style riders (basically because I don't meet many Frenchies where I live). They are growing in numbers, though, because of the Swedish fad to "ride academically", and read De la Gueriniere's chapters on the ballotade before turning out the lights at night. All these Swedish riders riding backwards in unrhythmical, disharmonious struts, on draft/standardbred crosses, are excluded from the concept of French style in this article. There are many led astray, and if I were to include them all, the discussion would begin to take humorous turns.

Paul Belasik discusses the problem of the two different and opposing schools in his book "Riding Towards the Light". He relates how he was deeply troubled by the fact that, even though he had experienced successful dressage training in both schools, and found that they both worked very well, until proponents of both sides would criticize the other and deem it as being flawed. This caused conflicting feelings, and he felt unable to take sides. He also felt troubled by the fact that the masters he admired so much would criticize other masters that he admired equally.

I have myself struggled with this taking of sides, both in the French/German and the classical/modern conflict. There are others as well, like the natural vs. schooled, etc. Belasik came to the conclusion that both schools worked. In the case of French vs. German he also concluded that their differences depended a lot upon the kinds of horses used. But most of all that both schools work if done properly and systematically and the nature of the individual horse is taken into account. There are, in other words, many ways to do right.

The importance in deciding what to do and how to do it every time one plans to train a horse, is not knowing what the different schools preach, but more of what happens in the horse in every poise, movement, transition, position, flexion, gait, etc.

If you know what a particular flexion does to a horse's biomechanics, how it transforms the way the horse works, his tension and relaxation, his muscular tonus and his reactions, you can figure out what to do based on your horse's problems, and not have to rely on learned "by heart" phrases like "Ride a horse opposite to what he offers" or "Leg-yield is loosening for the hind legs". Sure, those are true, but why? If you know what happens in the horse when he leg-yields, you will know what to work on from all different points of view because you know what ails him and not only that leg-yield helps most of the time. You will know whether it is appropriate to use a particular exercise to solve the problem, or if it will simply just conceal it.

So it's not so much "Choose a theory and stick to it" as it is "Analyze the problem then solve it" in a logical and knowledgeable way. Instead of learning a set of rules by heart, and then performing them in a set order, you have to analyze each horse and from experience and acquired knowledge decide how to deal with it. This approach evidently demands a lot more from you as a thinking rider.

It is a good thing that horses are forgiving. It is quite unusual that something that is done to a horse on one single session will ruin him for all time. Each mistake in a horse's training is also an opportunity to learn, for both horse and rider. Through rider mistakes, the horse can tell you how it should be trained. It can be a way to crystallize what has been overlooked earlier, even with earlier horses.

Either school you choose, it is important that you don't follow it blindly, that you know biomechanics and that you don't start to see its weaknesses as ideals. Your conception of the correct end result must not be flawed. Usually the extremes of the two schools produce flawed results.

Many Roads to Rome

So now we have established that all means that lead to the correct end are good means, regardless of wether they are called German or French. Both roads lead to Rome, on either side of the Alps. But what are The Alps in this case?



First of all, I would have to discuss the issue of "Contact." The French school reveres lightness in the contact, as if it were God itself. From day one, the horse has to stay away from hanging on the bit, fighting it or being heavy in front. This is evident from the different flexions that have evolved over time.

De la Guerinière did flexions of the head and neck, Baucher certainly did, and Philippe Karl and Michel Henriquet still do. They mobilize the jaw with different bit manipulations, to open the horse's mouth, stop it from pulling the head in or up, and they shape the neck into an arch by triggering reflexes that emanate from the poll. This removes a lot of tension that the horse has simply because he is apprehensive, scared, weak, resistant, or has acquired bad habits in general. The French way is to take out as much of this as is possible, without being mounted (like stretching/limbering before jogging to warm up).
It's not such a bad idea. Haven't we all been to the Chiropractor and had our head pulled this way and that, and felt the release along the spine, and how relaxation and softness just spreads through the body? If you haven't you need to try it, because most people have tensions that they don't know about. Horses do too. What this does, is only loosen tight muscles, and trigger a few automatic reflex responses. That can make it a lot easier to ride the horse. It does not train your horse for you. Good French style riders know that. They use flexions to set the horse up for success, for it to be so relaxed and poised that it is almost impossible not to do right.

What it can do, if in the wrong hands, is simply work the horse off the bit, and I mean away from the bit in a bad way, (not to be confused with the German "vom Gebiss abgestossen"). The bad way usually includes ridden flexions, but it can of course be done off the horse as well. You could use the reins to pull the head back into some kind of head set, and ask the horse to stay there no matter what. Teaching a horse that it is good to pull the chin in towards the underside of the neck and NOT stretch, you have accomplished something bad in a French way. You can see this in a few self-proclaimed French style riders, who usually have stiff hands so that the reins flap around, and the horse pulls away from the bit, and the rider sits hammering on the back of a hollow horse.

The Germans, or should I say the modern competitive school, hardly speaks of lightness. It is not a word that occurs often. Words that do occur often are "submission," "bend," "accept the aid," and "the aids go through." All of this suggests that the horse should surrender himself at the mercy of the rider who chooses to bend the horse, put the head down, poke the horse sideways with the spur, etc.

It is not at all what the real German school is about. This is a modern misinterpretation about throughness, contact, etc that has actually "worked" with the modern day horse breeds, simply because they have so much talent for movement. With horses of lesser talent this only becomes a yanking, pulling and shoving around of a horse that is on the forehand and tense.

Those who bear witness of the riding of the old German masters would not agree that the modern competitive type of riding is in any way the true German tradition. If you have ridden in the true French tradition, and all of a sudden decide to read Steinbrecht/Plinzner, you will nod with recognition at what they say. If you are trained at any modern style barn and read the same authors you will not recognize much of what they write. It is highly probable that the good old German boys were as "light" as their best French counterparts.

One Man's Difference

So what IS the difference between the French and German styles, though, if we accept that the contemporary competitive style is very little German and very much just modern competitive sports riding? Well, the difference can be summarized in one word, Baucher.

Wether one likes and follows Baucher or not, he influenced French riding enormously. Not that everyone adapted some of his teachings, quite the opposite. Most riders at the time adapted against his teachings, so that you either took sides for or against him. Many German riders began excluding practices that they had used because they were now considered baucherist and must therefore be bad. Louis Seeger wrote a pamphlet (A Serious Word with Germany's Riders) very well describing the differences between the German system and what Baucher did. The main tenets were:

* Baucher used flexions at standstill and rewarded the horse for giving in to the bit by use of the reins.
* He sought out resistances, provoked them and dealt with them.
* He displaced the hindquarters to rid the horse of power to resist the rider.
* He used shortened (collected) gaits from the start.
* He collected horses by moving the hindlegs forward at stand-still.
* He also presumably never used hands and legs simultaneously, although he did use them in the "l'effet d'ensemble".
* He rid the horse of its power and then substituted with the power of the rider.
* He was of the opinion that one could train a horse to piaffe, passage and pirouettes in a matter of months.

One can think what one will of such practices. They have however trickled down through history, and most contemporary French riders use some of it now. Honestly, a lot of German tradition riders use them too, but either deny it, call it something else, or simply admit that some things that Baucher did were ok.

We must also remember that his teachings changed dramatically in his second manner, as did probably his own riding. The only eye-witness accounts we have are those of the general public in the circus audiences, and that of d'Aure and Seeger, who were naturally very defensive of their own systems.

One has to be very vigilant when evaluating how well schooled and correctly going a horse is. Just because he looks "happy" doesn't say he uses his body optimally and without tension. A lot of people like a round topline and any overbent horse looks round and relaxed to them. I think a lot of the Baucher techniques can make a horse look relaxed and submissive, but the resistances are there, only less apparent. Even to the rider. I think it's possible to teach a horse to piaffe and passage in a few months, even with a nicely submissive neck. But I wouldn't like to ride that horse myself.

Off the Leg

Incessant driving.In modern German/competitive dressage one hears a lot about the leg, the use of the leg, driving with the legs, more leg, and off the leg. In addition to it one hears about the seat, how the seat should drive, push, work and shape the horse. It sounds like hard work for the rider, and it sound as is the horse is really lazy and needs to be coaxed and coerced into every bit of effort he makes. These riders can bee seen wiping the sweat off their backs after a session and the horse's are sweaty and panting for air. And since they worked really hard, they must have been doing good. Gah!

The well-schooled dressage horse is "off the leg" in that he is very forward-thinking, wants to move forward and will do so at the slightest indication of the rider's leg. A horse becomes very forward off the leg, by the rider's use of small aids. If a small aid is not enough, the big aid follows, and if that's not enough, the whip. The next time, the small aid will be enough, unless the rider opposes the created forward motion with the hand.

The horse should be forward off the leg because he wants to not be "aided forward" but rather goes forward before he is aided to do so. The horse can only learn to do this if the aids are released as soon as they are obeyed, and are released as long as nothing new is asked. The aids should be neutral when things are going well. The aids should also be as small as possible, and the rider must always try to use smaller aids as the schooling continues.

If you don't decrease the aids, or even worse, keep aiding in every step, like a nagging leg aid, the horse will learn to ignore the leg altogether. Especially, if you keep resisting the forward motion with the hands, like is so popular in the competitive school. You hold and kick on until the horse "goes through the aids" or "gives in to the aids" or "runs through strong opposition with the hands regardless". That is not lightness, nor forwardness or any thing other than complete subjugation.

  << Regresar