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Classical dressage and 'Natural Horsemanship'

From: Donna

Dear Jessica, this question is a philosophical one but also a technical one too. I hear so much about dressage, and classical dressage in particular, and a lot of what I hear is very contradictory. There are only three people who have really ever made sense to me when I have been to your clinics: Dr.

Klimke and Mr. De Kunffy and you. Now Dr. Klimke is dead, God rest his soul, so there are only two of you left that I know about! I will never get to ask Dr. Klimke this question and I don't know when I will have the chance to ask Mr. De Kunffy, so I hope that you will be agreeable to answering it for me.

I'm confused about the relationship between classical dressage and the "gentle cowboy" methods that are very popular nowadays. Most of the dressage teachers I know are very against 'NH' because they say it doesn't relate to dressage. But at one of your lectures I heard you say that you approve of some of these cowboys and that 'NH' can fill the gaps in an incomplete dressage education. I know those were your words because I wrote them down, and I was planning to come to the next lecture and ask you about them. I didn't get the chance to return to that clinic, so I am writing to ask, what did you mean? One of the things that you and Dr. Klimke and Mr. De Kunffy all stress is the completeness of classical methods. So how can there be an "incomplete" classical dressag education? And where do you see 'NH' fitting in? It's important to me to understand how you are thinking about this.

Thank you for your time.


Hi Donna! Actually it's not terribly complicated: I meant exactly what I said. The ways of thought, the consideration for the horse, and the preliminary groundwork that are characteristic of the best of "Natural Horsemanship" are also part of a very old classical tradition. As such, they are indeed part of the material that is covered in a complete classical dressage education! HOWEVER, a great many riders have learned something about riding and competing, but their dressage educations are very far from being complete.

I find that exposure to the type of horsemanship represented by Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance, Harry Whitney, Mark Rashid, and Curt Pate can be very helpful to dressage riders and trainers. If they've been fortunate enough to receive a thorough dressage education (and that's increasingly rare), they can benefit from the chance to watch and read and learn about different ways of expressing the principles and precepts that they already know. If they haven't had the benefit of a true classical dressage education, then this sort of exposure is even more beneficial, because this is information that they need, and that has been left out of their own education because their own trainers and teachers (a) didn't tell them everything they knew, or (b) didn't tell them because they couldn't tell what they didn't know themselves.

I believe, very strongly, that truths about horses and training (and everything else!) should be welcome no matter where they come from or what kind of hats or boots are being worn by the people offering you those truths. There are good, sensitive, educated trainers wearing dress boots -- and there are bad, insensitive, uneducated ones wearing identical boots. The same is true of people in cowboy boots. It's important to learn from the best, and that's easier if you let yourself focus on quality rather than appearance.

So I suppose my answer is that just as I support good dressage trainers and teachers, I also support good "NH" trainers and teachers -- they provide a very valuable service, including insights that are lacking in many riding educations, INCLUDING some dressage educations! ;-) I don't see any contradiction there, and I don't see any contradiction between the best of "NH" and the best of classical training. Both are based on a profound understanding of and appreciation for THE HORSE, and all riders and trainers can benefit from learning and understanding both. People who look for the truth everywhere will benefit greatly from exposing themselves to "NH" as well as to dressage.

A very similar question actually came up on one of the dressage mailing lists recently, and I said much what I'm saying here. Communication with the horse, and the kind, correct, progressive development of the horse, are the two aspects of dressage that I find essential to any sort of good riding or training. Dressage is my passion, and the "bottom line", for me, is that every "new" truth "revealed" by "NH" is already found in the best of classical dressage training. When I referred to "incomplete dressage education", I didn't mean that classical dressage is somehow lacking in completeness, or in its understanding of the horse. It's not. But there are many trainers, some representing themselves as "classical", who have not actually studied their subject in depth. Many of thse trainers have been exposed to bad dressage, taught by hurry-up, inept, uneducated "instructors" who -- like bad instructors in other riding disciplines -- promote an adversarial relationship with the horse. But that's not classical, and it's not good. It's a cheap imitation of the real thing, and people are right to reject the imitation! The real thing, though, is worth having, and worth working hard to achieve.

"NH" can serve as a source of valuable insights and information for dressage riders who haven't been lucky enough to get a full classical education. It can also help those who HAVE had a complete education, just because it presents things they already know in a different way, in a different order, and in different words. Don't underestimate the value of that! I learn something every time I watch Hunt or Whitney or Rashid or Pate work, and I watch them whenever I have the opportunity.


P.S. On the subject of incomplete educations and dressage riders and trainers who simply don't know enough about dressage, there's a quotation I love, from G.K. Chesterton's "What's Wrong with the World". I'm going to include that here (I also posted it to the mailing list on which we were discussing dressage). Chesterton was talking about Christianity, but I find that his words apply perfectly to my own feelings about classical dressage: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

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