Dear Jessica - like everyone else I am grateful for your expertise, your kindness in sharing it with all of us, and most of all for the way that you always take your questioners seriously. You are truly a master educator. My question, as you can see, has to do with dressage. I am still in the early stages of learning about dressage, having ridden dressage for only six years. Two years ago, I lost my instructor, who was very elderly, and since then I have managed to get only a very few lessons from various clinicians. Now I have found a dressage instructor who says that she teaches the "French Classical Way", but I have my doubts about this. I won't go into all the reasons, but I will ask you the question that I asked her. It's not a trick question, I sincerely want to know what the answer is, but I was not satisfied with what she told me. I need to know if I have a reason to be concerned, or if it's just that I don't know enough about classical dressage. My instructor says that ramener and rassembler are the same thing, and that by achieving ramener the horse will automatically come to achieve rassembler. Although I did not get to this point in my riding before my old instructor passed away, it seems to me that this idea goes against what he taught, which was riding from back to front. Can you help me, please? Darren
I suggest that you sit down with your new instructor and have a talk, preferably somewhere away from the barn. The issue you've brought up is a very fundamental one, and you are right to be concerned IF your perception of your instructor's philosophy is correct. It may not be - you may have misunderstood something she said - and that is why you must give her a chance to explain. Sometimes instructors will only offer what they think a student is capable of understanding at a particular time, and this can lead to confusion if the student is more advanced in theory than in practice.
"Ramener" means that the horse's head is positioned as nearly as possible on the vertical - a degree in front of the vertical is still acceptable, but a degree behind the vertical is not. The English equivalent is "on the bit" according to the FEI definition.
"Rassembler" means that the horse is carrying itself in balance, "on the aids", using its belly muscles, stretching and lifting its back, with more weight on its hindquarters and less weight on its shoulders, which are therefore free to lift along with the base of the neck. A horse in the field can demonstrate rassembler - think of a stallion showing off for his mares - but it takes time and the systematic buiilding of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and the horse's understanding before a horse can be asked to work in rassembler, especially whilst carrying a rider. The English equivalent is "collection" - again, I'll refer you to the FEI definition.
The horse in true rassembler, in genuine collection, whether alone in the field or under a rider in the arena, will automatically lift its neck from the base, and allow its head to hang softly, vertically or almost vertically, off the end of its neck. This position - the ramener - is neither stiff nor forced, but flexible, live, and adopted voluntarily by the horse, as a natural consequence of the rassembler.
Rassembler or collection, therefore, is a prerequisite for ramener - or, to put it another way, ramener offered by the horse is an element of and a demonstration of rassembler.
You are right to be concerned about this matter, because those who confuse ramener with rassembler will put their focus on the wrong end of the horse's body! It's important to remember that rassembler comes FIRST, and that ramener is a reflection and result of rassembler, because those who forget (or simply don't know) this will create a false rassembler, in which the horse's head and neck are pulled into a particular shape. The arched neck and vertical head position created by see-sawing, draw reins, or heavy, low hands is NOT evidence of rassembler, it's evidence of a rider working from front to back, pulling the horse's neck and head into a position that the horse will not and cannot assume on its own, because it is not prepared physically or mentally for the effort involved.
The issue here is basically a more sophisticated and advanced version of a matter that comes up much earlier in training and riding: the meaning of "on the bit". Too many riders are taught that "on the bit" is a head position that can be achieved by forcible manipulations of the horse's head and neck. This is the antithesis of classical dressage. Riders who adopt such practices will damage their horses and bring their own education to a grinding halt.
To allow a horse to come "onto the bit", which really ought to be "onto the aids", requires patience and a willingness to help the horse develop the ability to do what you want it to do. To force a false head position by manipulating the reins will never put a horse "on the bit" or "on the aids", but it may fool any number of individual riders, trainers, and even judges. The horse, however, will not be fooled - and it's the horse that you must convince, because in the end, to a horseman, it's only the horse whose opinion really matters. When the horse is developed to the point at which it can carry itself steadily and confidently in collection, with the poll the highest point, with the head dropped almost onto (but always slightly ahead of) the vertical, then you will have both rassembler AND its essential component and reflection ramener - but ONLY if the horse takes this position whilst seeking and maintaining a soft, live contact with the rider's hands. Lacking this element, the rassembler is probably premature - and the ramener is certainly false.
The long and the short of it is this: If you train and ride correctly, according to a systematic, classical progression, your horse will be prepared for each new level and each new question, and will be able to comply with your wishes WITHOUT pain, strain, fear, frustration, or depressed resignation.
If your talk with your instructor leaves you confident that you had misunderstood, and that she does indeed understand and teach classical riding, you'll be able to continue your studies with her. If not - you'll need to go back to your occasional work with clinicians, in the hope of someday finding a true classical dressage instructor. You have all my sympathy - this is one of the most difficult searches you could possibly be making. It's easy, as you know, to find instructors who claim to be classical and are familiar with the "buzzwords" of classical riding; it's infinitely more difficult to find instructors who actually understand and teach classical riding. Don't give up, though, even if this particular instructor doesn't work out. Classical riding, like religion, is a way of WALKING, not just a way of TALKING. Since you are already aware of and concerned about the difference, you are unlikely to go very far down any wrong path.
For your horse's and your education's sake, I hope that you continue to read, think, and question any practices or ideas that worry you - and that should include any practices or ideas that are not in the best interest of the horse. A horseman is more than a technically adept rider - a horseman is an informed, thinking, and compassionate rider. Stay on the path - you seem to have made an excellent start.
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