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Classical dressage evolved from cavalry movements trained for the battlefield, and has since developed into competitive dressage seen today. Classical riding is the art of riding with, rather than against the horse, in harmony.

Correct classical riding only occurs when the rider has a good seat, correct and well-balanced body position, moves with the horse's motion, and gives and times the aids correctly.

A history of classical dressage

The first work written on what is considered to be classical dressage was Xenophon's On Horsemanship. It is believed that Xenophon introduced the deep seat, long legs and forward moving seat to riding, as well as emphasizing training the horse through kindness and reward.

In the 15th century brute force training largely came to an end while artistry in riding was once again coming into it's own. Along with these developments came indoor riding. The Renaissance gives rise to a new and enlightened approach to riding as a part of the general cultivation of the arts. By the Victorian age indoor riding had become a sophisticated art, with both rider and horse spending many years perfecting their form. Gueriniere, Eisenberg, Andrade and Marialva write treatises on technique and theory.

The horses were trained for a number of airs or schools above the ground movements that enabled their riders to escape if surrounded, or to fight more easily. These included movements such as levade, capriole, courbette, ballotade. Movements still seen today in dressage include the piaffe, passage, and half-pass.

Today the only remaining large schools of classical dressage are the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, and the French school in Saumur. There are a small number of independent classical dressage trainers who endeavor to keep this branch of the art alive.

Classical dressage vs. competitive dressage

Modern dressage evolved from the classical school, although it is seen in a slightly different form than its ancestor. Competitive dressage is an international sport ranging from beginner levels to the Olympics. Unlike classical dressage, competitive dressage does not require the aires above ground, which most horses can not perform well even with correct training, due to physical limitations. Instead, competitive dressage focuses on movements such as the piaffe, passage, half-pass, extended trot, pirouette, and tempi changes.

In theory, competitive dressage should follow the same principles as classical dressage. However, there has been criticism by some riders for the trend, especially at the lower levels, for "quick fixes" and incorrect training that makes the horse appear correct, but that is in fact neglecting the basics. These short-cuts usually catch up to the rider as they move up the levels and need to be correct to perform certain movements.

It is also believed by some that competitive dressage does not reward the most correctly trained horse and rider, especially at the lower levels. For example, a classically trained horse would not be asked to hold his head near-vertical when he first began training, and this would be penalized at the lower levels of competitive dressage, marked down because the horse is not considered to be correctly on the bit. Because of the penalizations at the lower levels, combined with the extra time--and therefore, money--it takes to train the horse classically, many riders try to produce a horse that looks the way a judge wants it to look, even if it is not correct for the animal's level of training.

Due to these practices, many riders that train their horses classically do not compete.

The purest form of classical riding, as well as dressage, High School dressage, of Haute Ecole, take years for both the horse and rider to master. When a horse has finished its training, it can perform not only Grand Prix dressage movements like collect and extended gaits, passage and piaffe, but also the "Airs Above the Ground."

The "Airs"

The "airs above the ground" include the courbette, capriole, levade, and ballotade. Though these movements were said to come from when the horse was used in war, used for protection against the enemy, in their modern form, it is highly unlikely the airs were used in actual battle, as all but the Capriole expose the horse's sensitive underbelly to the weapons of foot soldiers.

The courbette is a movement where the horse balances on its hindlegs and jumps, keeping its forelegs off the ground, thus it "hops" on its hindlegs.

The capriole is a movement where the horse leaps into the air and pulls his forelegs in towards his chest at the height of elevation, while kicking out with his hindlegs.

The levade is a movement where the horse is balanced on its haunches at a 45 degree angle from the ground. It requires great control and balance, and is very strenuous.

There are two main breeds that are most well known for their abilities for airs above ground: the Lipizzaner and the Andalusian. Other breeds that are known for their abilities in High School dressage include the Friesian and Lusitano.

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, as well as the Cadre Noir from the French Riding School in Saumur, still practice and teach Haute Ecole. The Spanish Riding School uses strictly Lipizzaner stallions for their work.