Classical and Natural Training: An Integrated Approach

Feature article published in the August 2010 issue of the Equine Journal; by Lisa Kemp.

Natural horsemanship and classical dressage methods might seem worlds apart, but the best practitioners of each possess qualities that include respectful care of and consideration for the horse, communication grounded in the language of Equus, and thoughtful techniques based on step-by-step principles and common sense. A training foundation like this can benefit any equine, but it’s particularly helpful for oft-sensitive Baroque breeds.

Common Sense and Sensibility

Peter van Borst is a lifelong horseman and trainer and is the U.S. representative of Interagro Lusitanos. He feels it’s crucial to ask for movement in a way that allows the horse to respond in a natural and beautiful manner and for everything to be grounded in reason.

“I grew up in the southwest of Ireland, where horses were the significant part of daily life, even in the 1960s and ‘70s. You saw people working and training horses with common sense then, because they couldn’t afford to just go out and buy new horses all the time,” recalls van Borst.

Since horses were worked in the fields daily, and foxhunted several times weekly, keeping them sound required a practical approach based on familiarity, awareness, and consistency. It was a lesson van Borst learned early on, and it allowed him to successfully train horses for stressful roles in both live theater and the film industry, including the renowned Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas. He says the best trainers today have that understanding and “feel,” no matter which equestrian discipline they train in.

“Across the board, the most successful trainers you see have a touch for it. You have to be a very aware person to do this, constantly willing to adjust your approach according to each individual horse, and prepared to get knowledgeable help when you need it,” he says.

Seek First to Understand

Natural dressage trainer, Mark Russell, is the author of Lessons in Lightness: The Art of Educating the Horse and a proponent of what he refers to as artistic dressage. Russell feels that when we refer to “natural” training methods, we’re really trying to communicate with the horse from his own point of view. “There’s always a conversation going on between teacher and horse; the more adept we get at our understanding of equine conversation, the more natural we can become.”

Part of Russell’s training method involves what he calls “presentations.” “A presentation is basically a request. We’re presenting an idea to the horse in a way that he can have a general idea what our request is, and our goal is to allow him the space and time to figure it out,” he says.

Novice horses need novice-level requests, much the same way that gradeschool children focus on flashcards and spelling bees instead of reading college textbooks; and, learning happens one step at a time. “Unfortunately, there are often monetary issues in terms of equine development, so speed is often of the essence in training,” says Russell. “But, with training in a natural way, there shouldn’t be an external timeframe in what we’re doing.”

In the Horse’s Own Time

No matter what career they’re being prepared for, horses learn through release: release of the request or the pressure of being asked to perform. By giving them the release from our request, over time, the horse develops an understanding of what we’re asking for, which can then be guided and developed.

Often, the trainer must adjust the request to how quickly or slowly a horse learns and what he’s ready for physiologically. While it takes more time and effort at the outset, undoing the damage caused by pushing a horse that isn’t ready can take even longer.

“If my horse doesn’t understand, and indicates so by his reactions and movements, I’ll bring the presentation down to the smallest increment of what I’m ultimately asking for,” says Russell. He also slows down with horses that are quick learners, or those that try really hard. “Those are horses that might try to fulfill your request even if they’re not yet ready, and they can easily get injured.”

Russell points out that whether the training is classical or natural, time and the trainer have to be on the horse’s side. “Everything has to be presented to the horse so he develops in his own timeframe, and every horse is unique.”

It’s in the Way You Move

Identifying positive training directions for Baroque breeds can be as easy as watching the activities they enjoy in the pasture, so schooling can be as enjoyable for them as it is for us.

“Iberian horses can have a lot of fun doing under saddle what they already enjoy doing physically. I try to keep things within that parameter so it’s fun for them,” says Russell, who feels it can be like going to the gym or a yoga class for us. “It might take longer to accomplish these movements when you’re doing things incrementally, but in the long run, when the horse understands and is also physically capable of giving you his optimum movement, there will be much more joy of expression, like a dancer.”

Van Borst agrees, pointing out that despite some beliefs to the contrary, competitive dressage can be as natural as any equestrian endeavor. “I’ve seen horses doing piaffe standing at the gate waiting to come in. I’ve seen stallions doing it watching a mare walk by, and I’ve watched turned-out horses doing passage all around the field because they felt good, snorting with tail in the air,” he exclaims.

He adds that many top proponents of natural training methods have been reaching out to the dressage world. “We’re now seeing some of the natural trainers bringing on board the classical and competitive dressage trainers, working together to educate horses into the more advanced levels of movement, softness, and responsiveness.”

Let’s Go Back to the Basics

Within a classical dressage approach, the foundation for a horse is a “reasonably lengthy” process, according to van Borst.

“The first year or two, it’s a matter of relationship. You’re building communication and building up physical strength, toward what you’re looking for,” he says, echoing Russell’s philosophy that the needs of each individual horse must drive the approach. “You have to consider what their capacity is, what their strength and endurance are. Some horses you can ride for 45 minutes or an hour and some only 15 or 30 minutes before you have to stop, because they just won’t absorb more. Then, you have to be willing to just go ride in the woods and relax.”

Van Borst says he disagrees with anyone who says he or she has the only training methods that work. “It’s wrong when someone says there’s only one way and this is it. My life is around horses; everything I have is from horses, and I have too much respect for them to make it that simple,” he says.

What’s a Baroque horse owner to do? For the good of the horse, these trainers recommend spending time learning about and emphasizing fundamental basics within the classical equitation realm and supporting them with logic and common sense. Some of those fundamentals to gain knowledge of include: groundwork, introduction of equipment, and gymnastic development of the Baroque horse’s physique.

With All Six Feet on the Ground

Feeling fortunate to have grown up around the old European stud grooms and trainers, van Borst says they would longe each horse on the ground for three to six months before ever sitting in the saddle. He says it’s a skill that takes nearly as much time to master as learning to ride.

“You have to be able to influence and control the flexion, motion, collection, and direction of the horse, essentially with a pair of hands, a voice, body language, and perhaps a whip to touch a horse here and there, in substitute of a leg later on,” he says.

While he still uses groundwork extensively in training, van Borst says it takes time and skill. “A lot of people think working from the ground is about walking next to the horse and hitting the legs with the whip or a bamboo pole. That couldn’t be farther from the reality of the situation; you have to be just as aware, and perhaps, have even more feel and intuition about what’s going on than you do while in the saddle.”

Getting in Your Gear

As far as equipment goes, Russell says Baroque breeds can often be more sensitive to new gear than the average horse, so new items should be added incrementally over time. “I’ll hang a bridle on them and let them get used to it. Or, I’ll put reins on without using them, because just the added weight could cause the horse concern,” he says. “How the horse feels about those changes will give us our format for how we’ll work that day, because I always want to give that horse the best possible scenario at that point.”

Determining what tack or accessories to add requires both experience and knowledge, since, as Russell points out, the goal is to allow a horse to understand and develop without using any pain or discomfort to induce a response. For this reason, he frequently starts horses in hackamores and uses a mild fullcheek snaffle bit in both early training as well as on educated horses; he feels this type of bit allows the horse to find his own natural balance.

Fitness for the Job

The physical development and comfort of the horse in training are just as important as the mental aspects, according to Russell. In his view, it’s the gymnastic development of the horse’s body, and managing both relaxation and the flow of energy, that set “artistic dressage” apart from natural horsemanship or competitive dressage methods.

“For me, equine ergonomics is truly a critical factor in developing a horse, such as being aware of body shape, position, and movement,” he says, pointing out that the spine is the most critical part of the horse’s body.

“It affects all movement of the horse. How the hind legs engage, how the temporomandibular joint works or doesn’t work; even stiffness in the neck affects movement a great deal,” he says. “I’m constantly working on flexion of the skeleton and muscles, not putting on my ‘training accessories’ to try to create a movement, but looking at how to release, how to shape, and how to develop a horse gymnastically.”

You Need to Give, to Get

Training Baroque horses using natural and classical methods requires as much from the trainer or rider as it does from the horse. Paying attention to the correct fit and use of equipment, learning how to interpret nonverbal messages and body language of the horse, and being aware of and managing one’s own internal energy and body language are just a small portion of what’s necessary in order for the whole plan to work.

There’s no magic pill when it comes to schooling horses. Van Borst notes, “Horse training is an artistic endeavor, like being an opera singer, or a writer or a painter. You begin with some natural talent and desire, and then you train and work at it until you get better and better.”