The History Of Dressage: Evolution On A Circle
Since Before Christ horses have been an essential part of nearly every culture's history. Yet after over 2,500 years of depending on horses many societies made a pivotal change in the early 1900's that left many equines for lack of a better term - unemployed.
I spoke with Gerhard Politz, a US-based dressage trainer from Germany and International Dressage Trainers Club member who explained the cultural shift that the equestrian world experienced at the turn of the century.
"People are very sport oriented these days, and horses are not part of everybody's life today as there were before the First World War. Before the automobile horses were everywhere - in agriculture, transportation, and the military. So to have horse sense and to know how to care for them properly was almost universal knowledge and far more within everyone's perception than now."
Politz admits that horses and their upkeep has always carried a hefty price tag, and though horses were much more commonplace in the past, not everyone could afford them. Those that could made efforts to protect their equestrian investments through training tactics that we recognize as the foundations of classical horsemanship.
The training principles first developed by the military to extend soundness and longevity became refined over time to a system now known as the Pyramid of Training, a process that nearly every modern dressage rider is familiar with.
However, after the First World War as working horses became obsolete in the military and many other fields, the question arose 'well, what do we do with them'?
"So people all of Europe figured, well we have horses, we love horses, we should use them for sport. This decision triggered two important events: the breeding of the modern sporthorse and eventually the participation of civilians in competition."
Politz goes on to explain, "The discipline we call now "eventing" used to simply be known as "military". That was a competition among the better riders in the military and of course the officers who were always trained to a much higher standard of riding than the troops. Those competitions were comprised of dressage, cross-country, and stadium jumping. From there they split up into dressage pure, and show jumping pure."
Equestrian sports quickly gained popularity and in 1912 the newly formed disciplines - show jumping, eventing, and dressage made their official Olympic debut in Stockholm, Sweden.
"That was the first time that dressage was part of modern Olympic games. The Olympic dressage test in those days was nothing more than third or fourth level. If you can believe it! Then over time things got more difficult, several years later they introduced flying changes. For the very first time in 1928 they had series of changes. No canter pirouettes! Then at the next Olympics in 1932 they had half and full pirouettes, and for the first time piaffe and passage."
"They also had a lot of experimentation going on with judging. At that very first Olympics in 1912 they had seven judges and they all sat on the short side together at a long table and they worked on the scoring together. So there was no discrepancy, they discussed what the score was and agreed on the score together. Of course they were all army officers then. It wasn't until the1936 Olympics that civilians were allowed to compete along with the military."
Not surprisingly, the original seven-judge arrangement where judges collaborated on one score did not last, igniting a series of experimentations with judging systems that has persisted until today.
"Since they tried the arrangement with the seven judges sitting at the same table they've tried three judges, they've tried five judges, then they went back to three judges, then back to five judges, and now we have seven judges again and they are mostly sitting on the short side but also the long side. The discussion on whether the judges are always doing it right has been going on for decades."
While the principles of dressage and the Pyramid of Training date back to Athenian horseman Xenophon, and the Persian army's necessity for longevity and responsiveness, Politz explains that the flashier movements where rooted in something much more frivolous - pride.
"Initially, these movements originated from the desire to show off! People had horses for warfare so they could do the utilitarian things in battle, and then they had a horse for parades, like the knights in the middle ages who rode horses at battles or festivities. They would do the airs above the ground and you can only do the jump when the horse is in piaffe so he can sit down and collect on the hind legs and then catapult upwards and forwards into these airs above ground."
"The piaffe that we see these days in competition, they are rarely, really good, classical piaffes. In a piaffe for airs above ground the horse must really lower in the haunches. Now the piaffes that we see with very few exceptions in competition are horizontal. And that's no good for classical dressage."
One of the more recent revolutions we've seen to modern dressage is the introduction of freestyles in an effort to make dressage more exciting to audiences. Like many, Politz believes that music and the captivating choreography has given new life to the sport.
"I think that quite frankly freestyles have given dressage a huge boost. The numbers show that freestyles are where most of the spectators go."
Though it's not the first time that music has been used to capture the interest of spectators, as the royal courts were dancing on horseback to the delight of visitors long before modern day dressage enthusiasts.
"They would have a full orchestra playing in the arena and everyone would participate. Many nobles prided themselves on their horsemanship skills and owned and trained horses to participate in the quadrilles."
It goes without saying that roots of dressage run deep, and the foundations that we've come to rely upon to educate our horses have endured longer than many of the civilizations that practiced them. Even with each progression of the sport we often find ourselves revisiting some aspect of the past whether it be dressage ridden to rousing music, or judging systems, in a evolution that comes full circle.
When I asked Politz how the classical dressage honed and refined by cavalrymen so many years ago has impacted the modern-day dressage we practice today, his answer was simple - we never stopped practicing classical dressage. Every time we swing our foot in the stirrup with the goal to create harmony in horse through suppleness, relaxation, and a through connection we are channeling the ancestry of classical dressage.
"The level that we see in our sport today is achieved through the gymnastic process that has been proven over time. That in a nut shell is how we define classical dressage."
Clearly, some things never change.