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Classical vs modern dressage circa 1842

Tue, 30th Jul, 2013 -- Kerry Mack

You will no doubt be aware of the ongoing debate about whether modern competition dressage has lost its way and diverged too far from the principles of classical dressage preserved at the classical schools such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Cadre Noir at Sanur in France. These principles are recorded in the modern writings of people such as Podjhasky, going back to the original texts of de la Gueriniere (1630s), and even earlier books such as that of the duke of Newcastle. The critics of competition dressage even cite Xenophon before 200 B.C as if he would be on their side and not Our side! What you may not be aware is that this debate is actually not new. Back in 1842 a Frenchman called Baucher a spearheaded a huge debate about what was the right way to train a horse. The equestrian world divided itself into Baucherists and those against his new fangled ides. Some of the attacks on his methods were ferocious,in France and Germany. Now I am not a serious scholar of these things and I have drawn on some modern literature to find out about this. Buck Brannaman is a very skilled American horseman in the cowboy tradition of Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. Buck is one of the horse whisperers and the subject of documentary recently released at the movie theatres “Buck”. Buck himself came for the opening and I had the chance to ask him my routine question for professional riders. “What are your favourite books or books that have influenced your riding, or that you think we would benefit from” He suggested “Racinet explains Baucher” published by Xenophon press in 1997, written by jean Claude Racinet. I followed this up and found it very interesting. I will present an overview of what I have read of Baucher, with an emphasis on what I think is most interesting and useful today and where some of his radical ideas are in the forefront of modern methods. I am not presenting all of his ideas in detail, nor is this an academic critical review of Baucherism, rather my own hopefully practical take on Baucher.

Jean Claude Racinet was a French riding master who emigrated to the USA and wrote and taught prolifically based on Bauchers work. He was particularly interested in lightness,and was definitely part of the modern anti-dressage debate. He was a scholar who sought to examine the foundations of the equestrian art and as a skilled rider and trainer and a linguist fluent in French, English and German he was really well placed to bring this theory to a modern audience. He presents Baucherism refenced to the translations of others as well as his own translations and refers to the writings of Buachers students also. He succinctly explains that Baucherism 'is the seeking of lightness -hence balance- through a constant state of relaxation of the jaw'.

Francois Baucher (1796-1873) grew up in Napoleons time. He was an analytic thinker who tried to develop a system for training that could be taught to others and applied , for example by cavalry officers for the betterment of horse and humans who depended on them. He was especially interested in achieving lightness in the horse, meaning that the horse was so submissive that the aids used were imperceptibly light. At one time he seemed to be on the way to getting the acceptance he wanted , his ideas being enthusiastically received by the head of the Cadre Noir, and also the High Commander of the Army, the Duke of Orleans. However at a critical time the Duke died in a carriage accident and his successor (his younger brother) took a different path apparently on most things. Baucher was relegated back to the circus, where many skilled horsemen demonstrated their prowess to the public. One clear legacy we are all indebted to him for is the invention of the one tempi changes (flying changes every stride).

Baucher’s ideas evolved over the course of his interesting life and in fact his later ideas (second manner) did contradict his earlier theories. In his so called First Manner he proposed an “effet de ensemble’ in which the hand resisted the leg aids to bring the horse to collection. He started by flexing the jaw, poll and neck, at halt, from the ground and then from the saddle at halt. He especially emphasised the need for the jaw to be supple. Now I find this is a really helpful idea. Baucher gave detailed and illustrated instructions of the ways to flex the horses jaw. From the ground he would pull on one rein to get the horse to bend the neck. There were a series of these excersizes. Actually I don’t find these instructions as useful as the idea of attending to whether the jaw is relaxed on not. I think it is possible to supple the jaw with tactful use of the reins under saddle in the course of normal riding. The horse will “chomp” on the bit when relaxation is achieved. This is most relevant to the third quality on the training scale, contact. The quality of the contact is experienced in the rein at both ends, hand and mouth. When I have tried these things out on my horses I noticed that for the jaw to be relaxed the hand must be relaxed too. This is very different from a more germanic and positive contact. Baucher wanted the horse to give to the rein at halt (he was happy to patiently spend a lot of time at halt) and then he trained a lot at walk. He wanted the horse to find his balance in a collected posture at halt and at walk before impulsion was added. He wanted the nose to be vertical (ramener) He believed that lightness (and relaxation) of the jaw produced a light horse. And when the horse gave in the jaw the rider should give too.

Racinet explains that three principles underlie Baucherism.

  1. Balance must be established before the movement, not as a result of it.
  2. Balance can be established at halt by the effect de ensemble and by direct flexions of the jaw
  3. Lightness of the jaw brings about overall lightness

In March 1855 Baucher was severely injured a large chandelier fell on him whilst training. Subsequently he never recovered the strength in his legs. His methods were markedly revised and this became his second manner. The effet de ensemble (leg into hand) goes out of favour and instead is the principle of LEG WITHOUT HAND , HAND WITHOUT LEG .This idea is much quoted especially in modern Dutch training but not usually credited to Baucher. Both Anky and Edward Gal have taught this in masterclasses at Equitana. The leg and hand are applied alternately not simultaneously. Zielinger demonstrated this at his masterclass at the Boneo CDI. Racinet explains the difference between the German system where the the quality of the contact sought is appui or a leaning (seeking) on the bit. Actually I find horses are very amiable and it is possible to train for appui for example to stretch the top line and then train for lightness to achieve self carriage. Horses do not read the books and will respond to release of pressure whether the principles are Baucherist or 'classical'.
When legs and hands were needed to be used together 'to calm a turbulent horse' or to 'make the animal feel he power of man' they were immediately released. Even Baucher seems to have been surprised by his discovery that it was possible to collect a horse this way. He taught a number of his students to ensure the technique could be replicated before he wrote about it.

In the second manner Baucher also recommends the separation of force from movement. He advises that as soon as the horse resists the rider should stop the horse and relax him. A period of total inactivity can last several minutes, lightness is maintained, and if it's lost it is restored within the movement (immobility). Racinet explains 'the period of rest is meant to calm the horse so that the previous movement does not resound, reverberate, or vibrate any more in his body or mind'. I think that this practice can be quite useful.

Baucher apparently at the end of his life taught the technique of ramener outré which sounds like the rollkur of modern Dutch training. The horses muzzle is brought to his chest and flexions of the jaw is asked in this position. General de Kerbrech, Bauchers student, wrote that this was used to annihilate all resistance of the mouth and neck but should only be used momentarily. When I had the chance to discuss Baucher with French judge Bernard Maurel (who knew Racinet personally) he said that adherence to Baucherism caused a lot of accidents and that in fact Racinet died as a result of a riding accident. I wonder if trying to achieve ramener outré lead to some of these accidents. If you are a rider you will imagine as I do that the only way to annihilate all resistance is to be pretty forceful.

Another feature of Bauchers technique is the deliberate raising of the neck and head. In the second method he advises raising the head to a horizontal position, on a high neck. Then he asks for lightness. The withers will rise if the neck does not hollow. Racinet explains that raising the neck assists moving weight back toward the hind leg. Readers familiar with Philipe Karl will be familiar with this argument. Personally I am not convinced although I do find that the are times when raising the head will help establish lightness especially with a horse who finds it difficult to give up the habit of leaning on the reins. Learning theory tells us that it is reward (pressure release) which trains the horse so the rider must find a way to be able to reward the horse. Hence raising the horses head so he can't lean and then rewarding him with pressure release will help him to understand to not lean.

So you encourage the horse to give to the rein with relaxed jaw and then give with the rein. This giving on the part of the rider is the “descent de main” and results in the wonderful state of the horse being “at Liberty on parole”. I especially love this concept of the horse being given his freedom by the rider, on the condition that he abides by the rules i.e. is on parole. The rider does nothing when the horse is in this state, only correcting the horses balance or relaxation of the jaw as necessary. Since reading Racinet I often try to think when training 'is my horse at liberty on parole.' Can I give an aid and then leave him alone to continue what it is he is doing? Try this out yourself. It's fun.

It was de la Gueriniere who introduced descent de main release of the hands after setting the horse on the hindquarters and Baucher added descent de jambes, the release of the legs. Racinet describes that it is a principle of training that an aid must quit as soon as its purpose has been fulfilled.

This relaxation of the jaw is not specifically discussed in Podjahsky's book. Rather he writes about the action of the rein moving thought the body of the horse. I think the action of the rein moves through the body of the horse in a better way when the jaw (and therefore the riders hand) is relaxed, and encourages expression. Remember expression really refers to the elevation or height of the strides.

Of course it is not unique to dressage or the equestrian arts that people align themselves on opposite sides of a divide and berate the other side. Think of football, religion, politics, in fact nearly all human endeavour. Some people are still arguing against the concept of climate change in spite of overwhelming proof. They just want to take their own stand. People also find it hard to adapt to change. For myself I think that it is possible to compete and be guided by classical dressage. The lovely soft performances at the London olympics were evidence of that. We should however have the integrity to notice when the classical principles are not adhered to. We should have open minds to new techniques when presented with them but also remember that many so called new techniques hark back to an earlier time.


Racinet Explains Baucher
Claude Racinet
Xenophon press 1997

Complete Works

The Complete Training of Horse and Rider
Alois Podjasky

Academic Equitation
General de Carpentery

Ecole de Cavalerie
De la Gueriniere