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Can German and French Dressage Co-exist?

Can German and French dressage co-exist?

By Jennifer Klitzke

Is dressage a sport, an art form, or a training methodology between the horse and rider? Is dressage only for horses that trot or can dressage be applied to the naturally gaited horse to bring out its best possible movement? Is there a right way and a wrong way to “do” dressage? How about the training methods of dressage: Is there a good method and a bad method? How about the expressions of dressage: competition dressage, dressage as an art form, or dressage as a means of developing the best natural movement while developing rider position and effective use of aids to build a solid partnership between the horse and rider whether the horse trots or gaits?

In my opinion, there are many shades of gray between the blacks and whites, and within the shades of gray is a color pallet that transcends dressage methodology and expression to enhance one’s dressage experience. Yet, one must become educated to become discerning.

In its essence, dressage is a French term for the training of the horse and rider. Since this term was coined, dressage training has taken two distinct forms: the French method and the German method. And from each method are expressions of dressage: Competition dressage and dressage as an art form. 

Much of the focus of German dressage is Grand Prix competition with lots of performance pressures added to it. The horse and rider are expected to demonstrate movements precisely at the letter while performing a test before a judge(s) for a score. Dressage for competition systematically develops the horse and rider through levels (Intro to Grand Prix) by applying the dressage training pyramid: rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, collection and rider position and effective use of aids.

In contrast, the French dressage method is more about preserving a classical art form—to develop a harmonious partnership with the horse as it develops relaxation (in mind and body), balance, lightness (softness), forwardness, straightness, and collection. Without the pressures of competition, dressage becomes more like beginning every ride with a blank canvas and paint brush to see what art is expressed through the ride.

German dressage and French dressage are entirely different perspectives and applications of riding dressage and these differences are so well articulated in the DVD: Classical vs. Classique. This DVD features Christoph Hess, German Equestrian Federation Trainer and Philippe Karl, French Dressage Master as they discuss and demonstrate dressage from their philosophical view points.

Coming from twelve years of German-based dressage lessons, and in recent years, lessons and study in the French philosophy, it makes me wonder: Can German and French dressage can co-exist? Is it possible to apply best practices of each into my riding for the betterment of the horse?

This contrast brought me back to 1995 after taking 12 years of German-based dressage lessons for which gave me a great foundation to compare the French training method.

In the late 1980s-1990s, German dressage is all that was taught in my area until a nearby stable hosted several clinics with Dominique Barbier, a French dressage instructor, trainer, and author of Dressage for the New Age. Even though I felt like a traitor to my German roots, I was intrigued by the French concept of “lightness.” It was quite a contrast from that of driving my horse into the bridle with my seat and legs for which I was accustomed.

1995 Dominique Barbier Clinic
Dominique Barbier works my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding in hand.

After auditing a couple of Dominique’s clinics, I brought my Trakehner/ Thoroughbred gelding to the next few. I loved the respect, joy, and harmony he had with horses which replaced the mechanical, precise, and demanding form my riding had taken. During the clinic, Dominique played flamenco and classical music which transformed our learning into a dance studio with our horses.

I faced a cross roads in my riding.

The German and French philosophies were so different. Could they co-exist? Would it be possible to take best practices from each and discard the extremes? Could I preserve lightness and drive my horse less? Could I set a goal of excellence without demanding it and be happy with every effort my horse offered even if it wasn’t perfect? Would I be willing to seek, listen to, and consider my horse’s needs instead of only fulfilling my competition ambitions? Would I be okay with retiring from competition if my horse’s heart was no longer in it?

I continued taking lessons with my German instructor for a couple more years and showed my gelding through second level dressage until he told me it was time to retire. Then I dropped out of the show scene.

Naturally Gaited DressageSixteen years later, I’m back showing dressage—only I didn’t anticipate that I’d be riding a naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse that didn’t trot!


Combining or Separating the Aids
The DVD Classical vs. Classique illuminates many differences between German and French dressage methods. On one extreme, the German philosophy teaches the rider to drive the horse with the seat and legs to push the horse forward into a bit connection. To the French, this theory is like saying, “Go forward with the legs and seat, and stop with the hands at the same time,” like driving your car with one foot on the break and the other on the gas pedal.

In contrast, the French method separates the leg, seat, and hand aids and maintains little to no contact with the bridle once the horse has learned to find its balance. To the German, this theory doesn’t teach the horse connection and throughness from hindquarters through the back to the bit.

On the Bit
The interpretation of “on the bit” is another contrast. The German philosophy views “on the bit” as a vertical frame (as shown in the upper left piaffe silhouette). The French philosophy believes that “on the bit” should be slightly ahead of the vertical, as not to compress the tongue, which Karl believes causes pain. The poll should be the highest point of the horse (as shown in the top right piaffe silhouette).

A Quiet Mouth or Active Mouth
The German philosophy prizes a quiet mouth and uses crank and flash nose bands to keep the horse’s mouth shut. The French philosophy permits the horse to express itself by opening its mouth and believes that the mobility of the lower jaw is the best judge of relaxation.

Upper Level for only the Talented Horses or for All
Another contrast is that the German philosophy believes that not all horses are able to achieve piaffe and passage, while the French believe that good dressage is able to teach all horses piaffe and passage—not just the talented ones.

In the DVD, the German demonstration rider rode an exceptionally talented Grand Prix dressage horse (top left) while the French dressage rider rode an ordinary horse (top right) which she trained through Grand Prix movements within a one year time span under the coaching of Philippe Karl.

Can German and French dressage co-exist?
Watching this DVD provoked the same question I had in 1995: Can German and French dressage co-exist? In each extreme, I believe the answer is a resounding “No.” However, I feel that there are great benefits that can be extracted from both and combined for the betterment of the horse and rider—particularly as it relates to the gaited dressage horse.

I believe that some of the French methods can be brought into competition dressage to make for a happier horse and build greater partnership between horse and rider, and that competition dressage (schooling shows) can propel us home hackers to advance our training into canter, counter canter, shoulder-in and haunches-in, as well as challenge us to improve in our riding position and effective use of aids.

Below are seven takeaways where German and French dressage can co-exist for the naturally gaited horse:

1. Dressage is for all horses (including naturally gaited horses), not just the talented ones. While dressage will never make an ordinary horse a Grand Prix mover, dressage training will bring out the best quality natural gaits the horse is able to perform whether it trots, tolts, fox trots, or flat walks.

2. School dressage for fun and show dressage for growth. While it is true that dressage training does not require showing dressage, I have found that showing at schooling dressage shows offer a low-key opportunity to introduce my naturally gaited horse to the show ring and get feedback from a professional on where we are at in our training. Riding through a couple of gaited dressage tests forces me to school my horse evenly in both directions and face the hard stuff I’d rather avoid if I weren’t riding a test, such as counter canter to the left or shoulder in at a flat walk. Dressage tests challenge me and my horse to keep learning and growing.

3. Riding “on-the-bit”: Riding on-the-bit is far more than hands affecting headset. It begins from engaging the hindquarters with forward energy and engaging the abdominals which lift the back to a neutral position for the gaited horse. The engaged hindquarters take on more carrying power as the horse steps deeper under its body and lightens the forehand and the energy flows through back and neck to the bit. Adding French theory to this, the rider doesn’t pull the reins back thus compressing the horse’s tongue, rather the rider lifts the hand or hands upward momentarily to affect the corners (lips) of the horse’s mouth to soften the jaw.

I think that the naturally gaited head shaking horse needs to be ridden slightly ahead of the vertical through the top of the nod to be vertical at the downside of the nod so that the tongue doesn’t get compressed. In doing so the poll will remain the highest point of the horse.

4. Bridles and proper fit that promote relaxation: “The mobility of the lower jaw is the best judge of relaxation,” says Philippe Karl. The horse needs to be ridden in a loose nose band and permitted to chew the bit for relaxation purposes.

Crank nose bands with flash attachments confine the horse and make it hard for them to relax. Symptoms of tension include grinding teeth, swishing tail, pinning ears, and rushing tempo which leads to the horse getting too heavy on shoulders and the forehand.

5. Make a practice to begin every ride at a balanced walk before progressing to gait. “The walk is the mother of all gaits,” says Karl. I believe this is especially true for horses with natural four beat gaits. This DVD offers wonderful exercises that work for all horses including the gaited horse. After I develop relaxation in the horse both mentally and physically, I establish balance by riding transitions of eight meter collected walk circles, changes of directions, adding shoulder in, shoulder out, haunches in, haunches out, with balanced long and low stretch breaks in between before proceeding to the flat walk and canter work. Riding a horse like playing an accordion works the horse’s full range of motion both laterally and longitudinally.

6. Seeking to understand and meet the horse’s needs. The days of riding my horse in a mechanical way in order to meet my agenda are long gone thanks to Dominque who introduced me to riding with a respect for the horse’s needs. Philippe Karl illustrates this point well throughout the DVD.

7. Separation of the “stop” and “go” aids. Above all, the separation of the aids is probably the number one biggest difference between the German and French dressage applications, and for me the hardest one to change.  Driving my horse forward with my seat and leg aids simultaneously and continually into the bridle has been so engrained in my riding. I believe it has much to do with my mare’s apprehensiveness to go forward, falling onto the shoulders and forehand, and getting too deep in the bridle. Each time I remember to separate my leg aids from my rein aids—just for a millisecond—my horse becomes lighter, more forward, more relaxed, and more balanced.

While there are many staggering differences between the German and French dressage philosophies, I believe there is great value in studying both and becoming a discerning student as to what you’d like to take into your riding repertoire as it relates to the naturally gaited horse.

I highly recommend purchasing a copy of Classical vs. Classique for your library. It it offers in-depth discussion and application to both the French and German dressage philosophies of training.

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