What is French Classical Equitation?

and how is it different from contemporary training?

What do we mean by “Classical” riding at NSAE?

Mary Anne Campbell on the history of the training we offer horse and rider.

Classical riding was not something we taught the horse. It’s something horses taught us. If you have ever had the pleasure of dancing with a great ballroom dancer, you know that suddenly you knew how to dance brilliantly even though you never could before. It’s because the great dancer, like the great classical rider, listens to the partner and draws his or her sense of flow from the interaction between the two of you. The aids in classical dressage, as the aids in ballroom dance, are based in the secret swing, swirl, thrust and sway of the movement itself. Not in cues that signal what to do. There’s no memorizing for the horse, there’s just feeling. They all know this dance, it’s up to us to learn it. The horse taught US this dressage, not the other way around. 

 What does “Classical” mean?

Classical riding has different meanings for different riders. For some it is simply “riding in an older style.” Some people argue that the term “classical” belongs to one school or another. Some believe strongly it’s only real if it is Spanish, French or German, or that only the work of the Spanish Riding School at Vienna is allowed to be called classical. We’ve heard from some who believe that classical work can only be done on baroque horses, and even that it can only be done by riders wearing baroque clothing. People will get quite fierce about it. 

When we use the term “classical” we have a very clear, very specific reason, based in the literal definition of the term. Anything that is “classical”, according to the dictionary, has specific attributes. Our approach is “classical” because this form of riding began in antiquity, and more specifically, it traces its roots directly to the time of the early Greeks. The term “Classical” also refers to the Platonic notion of an ideal, a kind of surpassing beauty and transcendent reality that is instantly recognizable as being real. The word “classical” also is used to describe an art form that can be traced through a series of masters through time, and this method has its champions from Xenophon 400 years before Christ through the Italian masters, then the French, to the present era. There is an unbroken and verifiable lineage of masters who practiced this form of riding, who adhered to the principles with which we view training and teaching.

Where did this form of riding begin?

Humans have been interacting with horses for at least 30,000 years. At first we can assume that our ancestors were more likely to eat them than anything else. The horse originated on the north american continent and was hunted to extinction there by the people who first came to the Americas. The first traces of riding itself are found in the graves of Scythian warriors, notably the graves of both men and women. They lived and rode and died in the area now called the Ukraine. We know very little about their riding, but Homer was so impressed with the stories he heard of these people that he invented the myth of the Amazons around these legendary women warriors. Legends, myths and art hint at the early story of the horse. We know people rode from the artifacts we find, and from legends, stories and artwork, that many ancient cultures bred and handled horses with high skill. But the written record does not begin until the last two thousand years.

The written record

The earliest written record of the riding on which modern dressage is based is from the Greek author Xenophon, a military man and a student of Socrates who lived during the 3rd century BC. He wrote extensively about many things, including farming, house keeping, veterinary science, and horticulture. One of the subjects he wrote about was the training of the military horse. He wrote “anything forced cannot be beautiful.” Xenophon is considered the first of the classical masters.

The middle ages

European riding during the middle ages was influenced by the experiences of people from the Catholic north who took their heavy horses south in crusades to the middle east. The knights and noblemen on their heavy war horses encountered there the Berber horsemen, and a radically different kind of riding style. These men were mounted on a small, hot, intelligent sort of horse. The northerners were excited by what they saw, and they brought the new riding methods and arab type horses home with them to Europe. (They also brought ideas about mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy, among other things… there were many cultural benefits for Europe that came out of meeting the people of the middle east.) The best educated and wealthiest European riders would have a stable with two styles of horses– heavy horses ridden in the style of the knight, and lighter arab or arab mixed horses ridden in the agile style of the berber. The two styles of riding were seen as completely separate. Noblemen learned to ride using both methods. For nearly 2000 years after the first writings of Xenophon there is little written record of equitation’s ideas and the progress of training methods. Part of the reason that the record is so thin is that the materials they were writing on were ephemeral. Also, very few people were literate, there was little call for written work. There are some early manuscripts from Italian masters of the 13th century, and a wonderful treatise from 1438 by Dom Duarte, the Portuguese King, on tips for riding and training for the nobleman.

Riding and the Education of the Nobility

Naples Italy is the next place “classical” riding makes its literary mark. Naples, which means the southern part of Italy including Sicily, had been a Greek colony in antiquity, and was a port that saw the interaction of learned men from all over the old world. During the Italian renaissance, all things Greek again became of interest, and the notion of Platonic beauty and ideals became part of what interested educators. Xenophon’s texts were dusted off and back in circulation. Three trainers, Grisone, Pignatelli, and Fiaschi are acknowledged as forming the Napolese school, though Fiaschi was actually from farther north. Young nobleman came from all over Europe to study how to become a well trained member of the royal court. The Italian academies were sort of a boarding/finishing school where the boys of the best families were sent, very like Eton and Cambridge or Oxford in England, or Exeter and Yale or Harvard in the states. Riding, writing, poetry, dance, military strategy, courtly manners, mathematics, astronomy, latin, rhetoric– these boys studied everything. And at the heart of the nobleman’s education was mastering equitation. The horse taught many things, among them was leadership. The saying was that a horse would throw a prince as readily as a stable boy, so the horse was the only teacher a nobleman might encounter who would always tell him the truth about how effective his leadership really was. The nobleman who wanted to ride well had to learn how to lead through service. How to dominate through harmony.

The Renaissance was a time for intellectual and artistic and scientific expansion. At the school at Naples, in a revolutionary move, Grisone combined the two riding styles Europe had inherited from the crusades. He took the heavy, forward style of the northern Europeans, which relied on what we would call the direct rein. The heavy war horses carried heavy riders, and so were ridden very much on the forehand. Grisone integrated the old northern method with the southern style of the Middle Eastern riders, which relied on what we call the indirect rein, which inspires a horse to work more on the haunches. Grisone’s work allowed the rider to choose the balance point best suited for the work he was asking his horse to do in any given moment. This nuanced approach was revolutionary. But the revolution would have been nipped in the bud were it not that Grisone wrote a book which was published in every European language, making his new methods widespread very quickly. (Remember that at this time, riding was not something people did for pleasure so much as it was a martial art. Good riding was a military concern. So anything that gave you an edge on your horse gave your country an edge on the battlefield- and might just save your life as well as your country.) Thus the young men trained at the academy at Naples were learning a revolutionary new style of equitation. And they were taking it home to the cavalries across Europe, along with the mathematics, grammar, rhetoric and etiquette they learned from their Italian teachers.

The Golden Age

The French Monarchy, while appreciating the better manners of an educated nobility, had increasingly grown tired of Italianated French youth. Desiring a nobility based in French culture rather than Italian, the King of France decided to establish academies for training the aristocratic youth in France itself. In the late 16th century several schools were established in France where noble sons were sent to learn all the arts and sciences necessary to serve the king. Including, of course, equitation. François Robichon de la Guérinière became the head of such a school at Tuileries, and he wrote about horsemanship in his day. His book “Ecole de Cavalerie” (The Riding School) was published in several forms around 1733. La Guérinière was a brilliant man, and he was a product of his age: at this time in history, scientific reasoning was beginning to become the mark of an educated man. Therefore, de la Guérinière approached riding from its foundations– explaining theory as well as practice. This book is still considered the “bible” of classical work. For two hundred years riding developed in France as the center of aristocratic culture. This period of time is called the Golden Age of Equitation; it encompasses the 17th and 18th centuries in France.

Revolution and the end of an era

At the end of the 18th century came the French revolution, and most of the practitioners of the noble arts were killed or sent into exile. Everything that was associated with the old aristocracy was suspect, and equitation was seen as a foppish, elite, snobby pursuit for the idle dilettante. This feeling continues to raise its head even today. Classical riding very nearly died out in the passion for the celebration of the common man. But cavalries still needed riders and horses, and a solution had to be reached to teach young men to ride- although the young men would no longer have years to study, nor would they have any education on which to base their understanding of equitation.

Baucher and d’Aure and the invention of modern training methods

After the revolution during the middle part of the 19th century, two trainers came into prominence in France. Both claimed to practice “True” Classical riding, and both boasted that they had improved on it. One was the Comte d’Aure, a nobleman who had studied with the brothers d’Abzac, two classical riding trainers from the original school at Versailles. The other was a middle class upstart named Baucher, and to this day no one is certain where he studied but implications are strong that he learned his art in Italy. Both men rather loudly advertised themselves as the best, and each had little or no tolerance for the other.

The Comte d’Aure developed a method of riding based on the idea that the horse is a living machine, an idea prominent and very attractive in the mechanically based thought of the industrial age. He promoted the notion that to use the horse correctly one would drive it forward with the leg and coil it up against the opposing hand like a spring, or a fencing foil. He promoted the use of the leg as more dominant than the hand, and because this was a very quick method to teach inexperienced young recruits, the military in France began using the methods he devised. The d’Aurist method was favored in part because it exploited the rider’s instinct to act through aggression. Young men find it easy to tense their muscles, grab and control,: far easier than to relax and interact with the horse as an autonomous being. There was no time for niceties when you have only 3 to 6 months to get a man onto the battlefield. And speedy forward action is not a problem for frightened horses, so the fact that the method inhibited the horse’s free forward motion was not a concern. D’Aure’s methods were based on a kind of rigid external control of the horse where the horse’s thrust is opposed and contained. “The legs create the steam, the hand regulates the steam.”

The other trainer, Francois Baucher, had fewer supporters in the higher places in large part because he was a commoner, and not a particularly tactful one. The revolution had dispatched the aristocracy but not the embedded class consciousness of the French people. Baucher began with a riding style based on the halt by the combined effect that was fairly physical. After an accident made use of strong legs impossible, he went on to his “second manner” in which he practiced a connected style of riding which separated the use of the hand and the leg, giving the horse as much autonomy as possible.

Baucher worked without opposition: with the exception of the halt by the combined effect itself, no aid is modified by an opposing or correcting second aid. He worked without pulling, without applying rearward traction on the mouth or face of the horse. Baucher invented 17 new kinds of movements in equitation. With his understanding of the theoretical basis for the work the trainer was able to request the horse to put its weight exactly where Baucher asked– and from this exquisite control he could request anything. Among the movements he invented were the tempe changes (flying change of lead at every stride) and the canter backwards. Although no one questioned Baucher’s mastery of the horse, d’Aure and his followers derided this work as simply a rehash of the school at Versailles, and the new movements as unnatural and wrong, fit only for the circus. (Including tempe changes.)

Baucher’s supporters found that the interesting point was not what odd things you could request of your horse, but rather the absolute clarity of the communication possible between horse and rider.

Where all of Europe had turned to France for two hundred years to educate their trainers, the revolution had destroyed the old system and modern use of the horse was changing the questions people were asking about training. A schism between the French and German styles begins to take root at this time.The German trainer Steinbrecht was inspired by the mechanical precision of d’Aure’s new approach, and based his training on the oppositional ideas that d’Aure and the cavalry had developed into an easily teachable, simple, linear system.  After protracted testing of d’Aure and Baucher’s styles of training, d’Aure’s methods were adopted for the cavalry. Not because d’Aure’s method was considered better for the outcome of the horse, in fact, all participants agreed Baucher’s method trained a better riding horse. But d’Aure’s physical approach was easy to teach and as he had removed the hand from the equation, the leg-and-seat based method was easy for even the most tactless riders to do without being so vexing to the horse.

Baucher’s methods, on the other hand, were adopted for their own use by the elite riders of the French military who had been involved in the tests. These men became very influential in their own right. Among his students were General L’Hotte as well as Faverot de Kerbrech and Capitaine Raabe. It is this line that we follow at N.S.A.E.

It should be pointed out that while we now have the luxury to choose the methodology we prefer, the cavalry trainers were raising large armies quickly from untrained recruits. The riders would be testosterone rich young men full of bluster and fear, mounted on anything with four legs that was remotely suitable for riding. D’Aure’s more physical style was easier to teach these untrained recruits, and mistakes that the recruit made with one aid could be masked with another. The method did not require finesse or tact, and could be taught quickly to a large group with a fairly low range of intellectual and athletic skill. Additionally, because it was very linear and did not require the level of personal discipline the older methods demand, instruction could be given by teachers without particular skill. For these reasons d’Aure’s method was the right choice for the army riding schools.

But cavalry schools create instructors who survive, and carry on teaching their understanding of “correctness”. Military riding became the basis for modern competition. And the rancor that existed between the two trainers, and the political and social and class divisions that were brought out in the conflict between the two, continue to be felt today.


General Alexis L’Hotte studied with both Baucher and d’Aure. He was in charge of the French Cavalry at the end of the 19th century, and the French Cavalry manual based on his teaching became the basis for French military riding. Baucher’s ideas began to be allowed back into the military lexicon at this point. The US Cavalry sent riders to all the European schools around the turn of the century to research their training and teaching methods, and the French method as it was taught by L’Hotte was seen as superior to any of the other schools. It became the method that we adopted in the US.

What is happening with training today?

Within a few decades of Baucher’s death, the role of the horse and how riding methods were judged became driven by world wide competition where the personal preference of well placed individuals, money, politics and style would come to the fore as the arbiters of what was right and wrong. The committee that formed the rules for international competition, the FEI, was comprised of many German trainers who derived their understanding from Steinbrecht, who based his on d’Aure. The rules were established during the time just before world war two– a time when German nationalism was at a peak. And the highly controlled, human oriented physical d’Aurist/German riding style became the basis for the international rules. Thus, every contemporary national dressage federation is based around material that arose through d’Aure’s oppositional methodology. It’s very easy to assume that since it’s written in the official manuals, the oppositional method must be the one right way to work a horse. But although it is taught all over the world, this was a recent invention only made universal when the business of competition created the need for a universal method for judges to evaluate.

At present because this is where the money is: money found in sponsorships and lucrative winnings, in buying and selling horses, in the income produced by show fees and the “expos” that supply supporting material, it is the competitive world that drives horse breeding. Dressage competition is based on oppositional methods. And competitors buy horses, so horses are bred for a temperament that will withstand the unyieldingly precise, physical, tightly controlled oppositional style. Older breeds, such as the andalusian, arab, and thoroughbred won’t readily tolerate the mechanical approach of contemporary dressage. Riders no longer know how to work with a horse that has that sort of active, ready, curious mind. So where that hot mentality was once a cherished attribute, today these breeds are labeled “unsuitable”. 

Modern dressage trainers know that their training damages joints, and many horses begin their cortisone injections in their first days of training, as it’s a given that the joints will be injured. In contrast, the older method training is like yoga for the horse. Every interaction improves the functions of the joints, helps the horse move better with his own structure, so that he remains sound not only longer than a competition horse will, but far longer than an untrained horse will.

It was not uncommon for a horse at Versailles to last as a riding horse for 25 to 30 years. Horses used in the military with the oppositional methods had a service life, if they survived battle, of about 10 to 12 years. That is the same predicted service expectancy of most modern riding horses.  It was a known flaw in oppositional riding, and it was acceptable because the horse had a job to do and his life and ease of motion were no more important than the life and longevity of the soldiers riding him. Often he was destined to be eaten on the march home.

Competition makes the same devil’s bargain: if the rider wins, the monetary and status rewards are so great that the comfort and life expectancy of the horse is immaterial.  

But competition is new, and it never has been the only way.

There are still trainers who prefer working in the more horse-oriented classical French method. And there are many riders who are more interested in a great riding horse than in trophies and ribbons. These riders are looking for options, and many find the older work that preceded d’Aure and Steinbrecht well worth investigating.

What about Nuno?

In the 20th century Portugal became a sort of refuge for ideas from the older classical methodologies, as Portugal had a strong monarchy well into the 50s. Equitation was a part of court life there, and that sense of the riding as a courtly skill meant that the trainers were answering a different question than the competitive world outside. Additionally Portugal was hard to get to by horse trailer, and so somewhat “out of the loop” of competition. Thus it was less influenced by the homogenization of the rest of the western world. The trainer Nuno Oliveira, and now after his death many of his students, continue to keep a lighter, more horse centered methodology alive. (His work was very “feel” based, many of his students that we’ve worked with appreciate adding some theory to elucidate the “why” of the feel. Then when it doesn’t work, they have a place to look to begin to rekindle that feel.)

What about western riding and natural horsemanship? 

Western riding in the US had its roots in the arrival of the conquistadores in the 16th century. The older work was all that was known in Europe then, and working western riding resonates with the older classical methodology. The idea of working a horse on a longer rein, two reins held in a single hand, setting the horse up and “getting out of its way” are all old classical concepts. After the turn of the 19th century US military methods began to reflect L’Hotte’s approach, and out west in Oregon a young cowboy joined the cavalry and became familiar with the French masters. Frank Dorrance brought the cavalry methods home to the family ranch. The brothers Tom, Bill and Frank Dorrance merged this wealth of classical knowledge with what they were learning from daily experience with wild horses and ranch horses, and went on to begin the movement we call natural horsemanship. There are many similarities between the way we work horses today at NSAE and what you see with good modern natural horsemen, trainers such as Dave Williams and Harry Whitney. The work of other more heavily marketed and trademarked Natural Horsemanship trainers tends to be more predatory in concept, and less connected to the old matriarchal way of working with the horse.

Many of the riders who come to work with us at NSAE have experience or a natural affinity with Natural Horsemanship’s handling methods and are looking for some sense of precision and development that ranch based work cannot provide. Others come from a very strong dressage background, and are looking for alternatives to help their horses improve. Still others have no education at all and are ready to learn really and truly to ride. 

All riders are all welcome at NSAE.

So that brings us to today. Now you know the background behind the French Classical work we do at NSAE: work that is dedicated to create a truly delightful riding horse and a riding experience that is a pleasure for both the horse and the rider. This is riding that betters both horse and rider with each interaction. The term “Classical” refers, as we said in the beginning, to the notion of an ideal, a surpassing beauty and reality that is beyond all mortal things. Reaching toward this ideal of perfection one can attain extraordinary beauty, surpassing joy and a truly transcendent experience dancing with a horse as a willing, engaged, and responsive partner. All of this stems from the healthy exploration of sanity in motion that is the natural play of the individual horse and his rider. 

This work is not only fun, beautiful and elegant for the horse: the process of recovering natural sanity in motion is deeply transformative for the rider. 

As Craig Stevens puts it…

“It’s simple, but it’s not easy.”

General Alexis L'Hotte
Wattel on Rampart