Fred and GingerA visitor today asked me if her horse would be confused by doing French classical work, as it’s been trained in the contemporary competition method. It was such a pleasure to reassure her that there would be no confusion, and it got me thinking about how different this is from the contemporary understanding of the work. There’s not so much to learn, although you can study this as deeply and profoundly as you choose. It’s more a process of letting go the resistances we bring to the work. It’s a process of falling in love with balance, with cadence, with flow. And the horse is there already, we just have to learn to step up and listen. It doesn’t take training, it takes surrender.

If you’ve done some ballroom dancing you will know about this distinction. When you dance with someone who thinks he knows what to do and takes your body and makes it perform, you may go through the motions but you’re very glad to leave the dance floor when the music ends. If you dance with someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing, but wants to show off, that’s pure misery. You get stepped on, and he could care less because everyone’s watching him put you through the latest moves.

But if you dance with a master ballroom dancer, no matter your level: magic happens. You two become one being with the music as your shared pulse. You don’t “dance” as an active verb, rather, together you and he become the dance. This happens not because you’ve magically learned the moves, but because your partner is listening for you, you are his dance. He hears you so completely that he is able to calm your fear and release your tension. He surrenders to you, and finds your perfection. Based in your perfection he draws you both into a sense of the music where it’s simple, and there you begin to have an easy sense of the movement that makes sense to make at this time, then the next. His aids are imperceptible. You don’t feel him telling you what to do anymore than you feel your body tell you to breathe, you just find yourself swirling, stepping, turning, and keeping rhythm to the beat so easily it feels like magic. You surrender to him because he’s surrendered to you.

Real leadership is based in service to the one you lead, and real following is only possible if the leader comes from this place. You can’t follow a dancer who doesn’t first follow you. It’s the same in this older form of riding. The judgment comes from the partners. The performance is nothing, it may be you’re doing precise and stunning airs above the ground, or the horse may never leave the stall and yet the master knows from the horse the perfection of the work. No one can see the alchemy of a perfect interaction but the master and the horse.

Contemporary dressage is about performing for external judgment. So contemporary dressage for the horse lives somewhere between the lout who wants to show off and the trained dancer who knows what he wants, and you’re the prop to demonstrate his prowess. The contemporary rider “puts the horse together” as though the horse has no sense of its own balance. Side reins “set the head” so that the horse “learns to use himself correctly”. The rider’s hands hold him into a “correct” form. And then, in this body that an egotistical little primate has taken over, the horse is forced to perform acts of skill and balance.

In the older French work, we work in self-carriage. There are no devices. The rider works in “descent de mains et descente de jambes”, that is, release of the hands, release of the legs. Until the horse carries itself in the actions it’s doing, from a simple walk to a half pass or piaffe, the movement isn’t real. The test of the movement from day one is to ask the horse a question, and then let the horse answer with you simply accompanying the movement. Where the horse who’s been trained in contemporary work will have a learning curve is the same place the rider does, which is in the idea of self carriage.  in French work, the horse carries himself, the rider herself, and neither holds the other one together.

Look at the picture of Fred and Ginger above. See how Fred’s arm encircles Ginger’s waist? That’s a supporting hand, that’s the French term “appui”. It’s there to offer her psychological support, to be warm, to be an indicator, to be a friend. But he trusts her to carry herself. He’s not grabbing, holding or “moving” her. Nor is she clinging to him for support. She can feel his shoulder in her hand, but she’s not using him for her architecture. In the old classical work we learn to balance ourselves first, and to value that feeling of balance. Then we call for it in our horses through interesting balance questions, and we suggest they play with their answers to find their one one best posture for a given moment in time.

And darned if that one best posture doesn’t look like a classically trained dressage horse in all it’s beauty, because that kind of dynamic balance is the beauty on which classical dressage was based.

And that, as Craig says…

Is good dressage.

~Mary Anne