Dear Jessica, my husband and I have a chance to get tickets to see a performance of the Spanish Riding School in Houston next month. I've always wanted to see them, but I have been hearing some bad things about them, for example that they are no longer very good or classical, and that this is the reason the tickets are still available, and there have been tickets available for every performance. It seems to me that if something is really good, it will be sold out long before the performance date, so I have to wonder about the quality of this. Also, I audited a Classical Clinic last year with a man who teaches Olympic teams in several different countries because he is one of the few true Classical Masters left in the world, and he said that the SRS was not classical at all, and did forceful training instead of gentle training, and that they had never been truly classical but had lowered their standards even more and were not even worth seeing. I have to respect him, but I'm still curious about the SRS. Can you give me some advice about whether we should go ahead and pay for tickets? The tickets aren't cheap which might be another reason they didn't sell all that well. If you went to any of the performances so far, I would be very curious to know your thoughts about what you saw. Also, what can you tell me about the secret "invitation only" clinic before the performance? Is it really only for USDF members?
Sincerely, Sandy and Dan
Yes, I saw them perform - just last weekend, in fact, in St. Louis. I also saw them the last time they were here, and the time before that (which was MANY years ago), and I've seen them in Austria as well, so I do have a good basis for comparison.
This performance was the best one I've seen yet. I, too, had wondered what would happen to the SRS after all the changes in management and administration, and I do realize that it may be some years yet before we see the full results of those changes, but for now, the stallions and their riders are absolutely worth seeing.
The pre-performance "clinic" isn't secret and it isn't "by invitation only". I have to agree that it hasn't been advertised very well, but don't worry, it's worth watching AND you do NOT have to be a member of the USDF or the USEF or any other organization. All you need to get in is your ticket to the presentation itself; if you and your husband will take your tickets and go to the venue two hours before the performance, you'll get in. It's a half-hour presentation - they're calling it a "clinic" but it's really a demonstration of how the SRS horses are educated at each successive stage of their training. You'll also have the opportunity to watch some in-hand work. After the half-hour demonstration, there will be a question-and-answer session in which you may participate if you like.
As for the performance itself, it was excellent, and yes, it was classical, and it was of extremely high quality. The gaits, the movements, the riders' position and aids, and the comfort, relaxation, and PLEASURE that the horses showed in their work - all of this was pure classical dressage. The performance I watched was one that would have delighted and inspired anyone who was truly knowledgeable about classical riding and training. In fact, that's exactly what it did - and it also delighted many spectators who knew little or nothing about classical riding and training, but who could see and appreciate the softness, trust, and harmony between the horses and their riders. At one point, a little girl sitting behind me said "Mom, they look like the're DANCING!" - and she was absolutely right.
Go to the performance, and watch closely. You'll see what dressage is all about - the systematic building up of the horse's body and mind, with a long, enjoyable performance career as the goal. You'll see massive musculature, raw power, and the sort of energetic, explosive effort that is required to produce a levade, a courbette, or a capriole. You'll be able to appreciate the years of hard work that went into creating this strength, energy, and control - and you'll see that it all exists with, and demonstrates, the classical values. The horses of the SRS are relaxed, supple, attentive, cheerful, and happy in their work. They clearly feel comptent, confident, and have great trust in, and affection for, their riders. Making hard work appear effortless is an art in itself, and it's an art you're likely to see only when you're watching an exceptionally good ballet company - or the SRS.
The proof of correctness (and kindness) of training is always visible in the horses themselves - their musculature, movement, and visible happiness, together with their soundness and durability, are the only evidence that can possibly PROVE a lifetime of correct work. The horses of the SRS bear this out. The average age of the horses you'll be watching is SEVENTEEN, and one of the stallions (try to figure out which one) is TWENTY-SIX. Only good, correct, systematic work, done with complete consideration for the horse, can produce horses that are sound and working with joy at those ages. THIS is dressage - it doesn't tear horses down, it builds them up! If you are surrounded by trainers and riders whose horses break down through dressage training, then something is badly wrong with the horses or with the training... and from what I've seen, the problem almost always lies with the nature and speed of the training. This performance of the SRS may be your only chance to see correct training and the long-term results of correct training - don't miss it!
The confidence of the horses and their trust in their riders and handlers could be seen very clearly in their occasional, minor reactions to sudden explosive bursts of sound from the loudspeakers, and sudden fits of applause and whistles from enthusiastic spectators. The affection of the riders for their horses could be seen equally clearly - the performance was full of quiet praise, soft pats, soft murmers of "Brav", and during the in-hand work, there was a constant flow of rewards from the "sugar pockets" in the riders' tail coats.
The performance allowed all of us a close look into a world that is very far removed from the typical competition arena. We saw horses that were confident, strong, and happy; horses that obviously enjoyed their work and felt both competent and appreciated. We saw horses that exhibited all of the essential classical values - they were relaxed, rhythmic, supple, confident, and happy horses; their gaits were pure and refined. From back to front, each horse's body was living proof of the value of the SRS and its tradition of training. The horses' tails were neither flapping nor wringing, but carried well and swinging softly with the horses' movements; the horses' backs were lifted; the horses's faces were ever-so-slightly in front of the vertical, even during moments of extreme collection.
I don't know any ambitious dressage rider who couldn't learn an immense amount just from watching this performance. I don't know of any horse lover, ambitious or not - come to that, rider or not! - who could fail to be moved by this performance. Chief Rider Hans Reigler's riding was superb, not only in the levade, but throughout the evening. Klaus Krizisch's solo brought tears to the eyes of many very sophisticated riders and spectators. As for Andreas Hausberger's demonstration of work on the long rein, that was truly wonderful, and it all looked effortless although both horse and man were working very hard indeed. The quadrille was the best I've seen yet - and that is saying quite a lot.
Were the standards of the SRS higher under Podjhasky or Handler or Albrecht, and were their performances more wonderful? Perhaps, but I can tell you that I've been watching the SRS at every opportunity for the last 40 years, and I can strongly recommend this most recent performance. The older riders are wonderful, and the young riders - whom we can perhaps hope to see here again in another 15 or 20 years' time - are also wonderful. I heard a few "armchair dressage riders" criticizing the younger riders, and yes, the youngest ones did lack some of the experience and style of the older riders, but good heavens, age and experience and a lifetime of study really SHOULD count for something, don't you think? If I could ride only half as well as either of those two young riders, I would NEVER stop smiling. I have very clear memories of the SRS performance I saw at the Rosemont in Chicago, on the occasion of the SRS' last visit to the States, and although it was excellent, I have to say that the performance I watched last weekend was even better.
For many Americans, including you and your husband, this truly IS the opportunity of a lifetime. Please don't miss this performance.
Since you asked, I have two more thoughts for you, if you have the patience to read them:
Don't read too much into the availability of tickets! Classical riding is not amongst the top 10 spectator sports in the States, and the arenas in which the SRS has been performing are ENORMOUS, and were designed to accomodate many thousands of people. Empty seats should come as no surprise to anyone. The Spanish Riding School's own arena in Vienna would have been filled many times over by the number of spectators at any one of the Stateside performances - and in the States, there is not, overall, much awareness of the SRS or its significance. If you and your husband asked the next 100 people you met on the street, you might find that only a very few could tell you what the initials SRS stand for, or that it has anything to do with horses.
Finally, don't give too much weight to the opinion of anyone who tries to redefine "classical", or who attempts to build himself up at the expense of others. (Incidentally, it's not difficult to find out the names of the actual trainers and coaches of ANY Olympic Equestrian Team from any country, and you might want to acquire that information. It's possible that your clinician's claims may have been somewhat exaggerated.) "Classical" and "natural" have become popular marketing buzzwords, and all sorts of people are claiming to be "classical" or "natural" when they are neither. Don't waste your time, or your money, on people like that. If you're like most of us, you have very little spare time and very little disposable income! Invest them where they will do you the most good and bring you the most joy - and I think that you'll benefit in every way from watching the SRS.
I know only a handful of truly classical horsemen worldwide, and I can assure you that every one of them would have taken honest delight in the SRS performance I watched last weekend. In fact, I happened to meet one of them there, and we agreed that both of us were thrilled by the quality and beauty of the performance. Close your ears to the nay-sayers, go - and enjoy.
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