Traditional Dressage / articles

The following three lectures are compiled from notes used by Major Hans Handler, ex Director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna (Austria) in August 1958, when he was holding a week’s course in Salisbury.  

The lectures were intended as a basis for discussion only and were accompanied by demonstrations in some cases. (Photos are of H. Handler at the SRS).

Hans Handler wrote:


Most of the quarrels between authors of books on riding arise from the difficulty of expressing themselves in the written word. 

Some get lost in theories, some use long and clever words, and sometimes, at the end, if you summarise what you have read you are left with nothing tangible to take hold of.

My intention during these lectures is to simplify things so that you get a clear idea of schooling horses in the classical sense, as a whole.

What I am going to tell you is no invention of my own but the result of 300 years of experience built up at the Spanish Riding School.

The Basic Rules of the Seat

Any student who wants to become an artist or at least a craftsman must first be made acquainted with his tools. In the case of the painter, his brushes, or the chisel of the sculptor, or the seat and aids of the rider.

A supple, easy, and at the same time upright, seat is essential in dressage riding in order not to disturb the horse when performing a difficult exercise, but also for aesthetic reasons, because these exercises are intended to reveal riding as an art. 

Rider and horse must show a harmonious picture of two living creatures blending into one beautiful work of art.

These two creatures with widely differing minds and means of self expression have to find a common language. It is by means of the seat with its influences of weight and legs, and the hands that the rider transmits his wishes to the horse.

We know many famous riders, who have different seats, but they all have one thing in common – they all riden in balance with the horse at any given moment. 

That is to say, the connecting line between the rider’s and horse’s centre of gravity must always be in a perpendicular. 

If the rider disturbs the balance of the horse, the horse for its part has to meet this disturbance by straining the respective muscles and thus, if the rider’s seat is constantly giving the same wrong influences it must, in the long run, produce stiffness. 

The closer the rider’s centre of gravity to that of the horse, the easer it is to avoid this disturbance and, the deeper the seat, the easier it is to keep the balance.

If the first requirement of a good seat is of balance, the second is a deep seat which at the same time provides a large base. 

The larger the base the easier it is to keep the balance. Besides this, the Classical Art of Riding demands beauty and harmony. 

A rider with a bad position will never reach that goal. So an upright, straight but supple seat is the third requirement of a good seat. 

Last, but not least, the seat must be an independent one.  

The whole weight of the rider rests upon his seat bones in such a way as to allow them to be as far apart as possible. 

In this way, the base becomes a large one and the seat muscles spread out quite relaxed around the bones. This requires a certain position of the hips and the spine which as a whole never changes. 

The lower part of the spine from the loins down plays with the rider’s weight on the back of the horse, like the hands on the keyboard of a piano, and is part of the language between horse and rider called “aids of the seat.”

If the rider’s weight balances on the seat bones and spread muscles, the legs should just fall around the horse’s body like wet rags, or they can be called in to act, when giving the aids – the leg aids – as if playing on the second keyboard on the horse’s sides and causing locomotion. 

Finally, this position, with the vertebrae naturally curved like an S, keeps the body straight and allows the arms, if not holding the reins, to fall down vertically and quite loose with flattened shoulder blades. 

This position as a whole is the precondition for giving the lengthening and collecting aids of the reins, ie the rein aids.

The Aids  

They are never used separately but in conjunction with the others, but with one more distinctly emphasised than the others. Let us examine their action separately:

1. The Legs. 

The legs give locomotion to the horses; they make the hind legs push the horse’s body forward.

Later on they cause the hind leg to come more and more underneath the body by bending the haunches and so take more weight from the front legs to hind legs. 

Finally, as a reaction, they cause the back of the horse to round upwards.

The aids of the legs must not be given by a steady and hard pressure but by repeating a slight “touch and off” by that part of the rider’s leg below the knee. 

Only if the horse does not react then push harder, and as a last resort, use the heel as a stress or punishment.

2. The Weight.

The weight acting on the horses back through the seat bones and muscles will cause the same reaction as a weight resting on a bridge.  

In other words, the ends outside the supporting pillars would come up while the middle part – with the weight on – would sag, more or less according to the amount of weight put on it. 

Actually, with young horses carrying the rider’s weight for the first time, they sometimes react the opposite way by bracing their back muscles up against the weight.  

It is certainly true to say that the influence of the weight is much more complicated than that of the legs, because there are so many different ways of influencing the horse’s back with your weight. 

A hard push, a smooth light touch, using one seat bone more than the other – each will give a different reaction and must be given at just the right moment. It is sometimes necessary to purposely stiffen the loins – for a few moments – to make the weight act hard upon the horse’s back.

You can also swing with the lower part of the spine and cause an effect like that on a swing, if you either want to swing higher or slow down the movement (extending and collecting the canter.)

As long as the centre of gravity does not fall out of the supporting basis you can use it as a forward driving influence by leaning slightly backwards, or backward driving influence by leaning slightly forward (as in rein back) or allow it to act vertically when holding it in the perpendicular as n transitions to lower gait or halt.

If it is desirable to diminish the riders weight upon the horses back – as it is in certain cases which we will discuss later – more weight must be put into the riders legs by stretching them down, but not by leaning forward or lifting the seat.

3. The Reins.

The horse’s bulk is moved forward by the rider’s legs and weight. The reins only indicate the direction and are introducing aids. They act in connection with weight and legs, either restraining or changing direction, but NEVER alone. 

It is important that this taking and giving be done in unison with the other aids and done repeatedly. 

I think experiences only can tell you the exact 1/10 of a second at which it is required. But the tendency of all aids should be from the stronger to the lighter so that you finally only have to think of them and your horse will react.

The teamwork of these aids gives the horse a frame in which to move and tell him what to do. Each exercise requires a different frame without a break in the line of neck and spine – If the horse changes this frame willingly and without losing balance under the rider’s influence by the aids, the horse has become supple. 

By the degree of ability of using the aids as a team the rider demonstrates his proficiency.

The Classical Art of Riding

This phrase has been explained and you have seen it demonstrated in the two films about the Spanish Riding School.

We now come down to see how it is attained, what is the spirit of this art and its system of work. In what way does dressage riding in the Classical sense differ from Circus work? The purpose of Circus work is a flamboyant show, but Classical riding aims at perfect harmony of movement, the competition and show are of secondary importance.

I could not show you all the possible ways of correcting this or that fault in your horses. Every horse reveals a new problem and it would take too long. But I can give you a goal to aim at. By giving you the principles and the logic of the riding system I can give you the magic “Red Thread” which you must follow to get to the root of the matter and ever leave go of it. 

Thus you will find for yourself how to correct the faults as they occur and by so doing you will gain a mental satisfaction greater than 100 1 prizes, because it is a lasting one. This, in addition to the satisfaction that a well trained horse always gives to its rider.

The art of riding, more than any other, is based on principles handed down through the centuries. Partly written in books, partly transmitted in a living tradition by schools like the Spanish Riding School. 

There the experienced riders taught their horses such exercises and then found the way to reproduce them by the young riders. These riders learn from the fully trained horse the feeling that cannot be explained in words.

The experience of these famous masters tells us that the horse needs a certain time to develop its mental and physical capacities –you cannot force them without doing harm. The rider must first find a common language with the horse and continuously search for a closer understanding. 

Even when he has found this he must give animation and continued impulsion so that the horse likes to do the exercise required – or at least gives complete devotion to the rider’s will. 

Finally the rider must overcome his own and his horse’s physical disabilities, build up all the muscles, and make them work together as a team.

With these three points in mind (finding a language, giving impulsion, and strengthening and co-ordinating muscles) you have found the most important principles of the Classical Art of Riding, and its difficulties.

Next we come to the exercises to teach the horse. The Classical Art of Riding only cultivates the natural gaits of the horse and rejects all movements which are contrary to them. The aim is to cultivate these natural gaits from horseback to such a degree of perfection that, to use a human simile, the gawky steps of a school girl are transformed into the elegant movements of a ballet dancer.

There are certain stages of training from the young, green horse to the fully trained horse which have been proved a hundred times and which I will summarise now and discuss in detail later. Here is your red thread which you must stick to if you wish to be successful:

1.        Make your horse go straight and with forward impulsion;

2.        He must go with correct footfall in all gaits and with even and equally timed


3.        Make the horse take the bit with a quiet and steady contact.

The horse must follow the bit at any time whether you lengthen or shorten

the reins;

4.        Complete balance, suppleness in performing the movements, especially

in transitions from one gait to another and when changing tempo within the

same gait; reacting to the slightest aids which make riding a pleasure to

the rider; and

5.        Absolute obedience and confidence of the horse in the rider’s will.

These points are no new invention, but as old as the Classical Art of Riding.

I think most riders of some experience will agree with me that these targets cannot be reached within a few months, not even within years. In fact, those horses who have not the qualities required, can never achieve completely what we are aiming at.

It is impossible to forecast when any given horse will reach any set state of training. So much depends on the conformation, temperament and intelligence of the horse, and not least, upon the experience of the trainer.

A few words about the rider. There are many riders, but few artists. Artists are born, not made, but to some extent they are also made. Before they create they must learn to use their tools to best advantage. 

The must make themselves familiar with the material they have to hand; in this case the laws of movement and balance. These are things which you can take hold of and learn and are the pre-conditions of success.

To find the door, to enter into an animal’s mind and make it respond, ie “finding the language” is more difficult and requires great mental capacities and intuition on the part of the rider.

To create perfect harmony of movement and unison of will between horse and rider is caused by extra gift and makes the artist. But don’t get depressed, we can’t all become artists, but we want to enjoy our riding and the progress of our horses training, no matter how far we shall advance.


Psychologically the horse has the mind of a child. Reward and punishment keep it working well. A horse can never be rewarded enough if he does something good, because a good memory is its most outstanding characteristic. 

Be careful in punishing a horse if you have to punish it at all. Find out first whether it was your fault or the horse’s. If you are sure it was the horse’s fault, try to discover whether it was unwillingness, or physical disability, that was the cause.

If it was caused by unwillingness, punish it immediately after the horse has been naughty, but find out how much or rather how little, and remember in doing so that you must be the winner. 

As young horses are an unknown quantity, you must be very careful in choosing the amount of punishment.

Next to the horse’s memory, fear is the strongest characteristic of the horse. Horses are always on the alert. This is an inherited quality dating back to its ancestors, who had to make use of their great speed to escape from their foes. Therefore, it would be nonsense to punish a horse that got scared by something. 

It is a sin to punish a horse because the rider is in a rage.

Confidence in the rider’s justice, acknowledgement of his superiority, the memory of being rewarded, makes the horse overcome its original fear. It gives the horse its mental balance that so easily gets lost even by asking for an exercise it has never done before. 

The horse is more sensitive than you imagine, mentally as well as physically. By making use of this sensitivity in your training, by being as gentle as possible and as light as possible with your aids, you produce a horse mentally balanced, expressed in its quiet look and contented behaviour.

One more thing I must mention – talk to your horse as often as you can, pat it, but allow no naughtiness from it. If you notice any naughtiness, stop it as soon as it starts, or later you may regret it.


The first six weeks or so of a horse’s training should be devoted to longeing. The objects being to acclimatise the young horse to his new surroundings, to lay the foundations for future training, and to teach the horse obedience to ads of voice, longe and whip. 

It learns to go on a circle and by means of the side-reins gets its first contact with the bit. The side-reins should be so adjusted that the horse stretches its neck forward on to the bit, and by doing so arches its neck and prepares the back for the rider’s weight. 

After the preparatory work, the rider’s weight is cautiously put upon the horses back and taken down again repeatedly, in such a way that he hardly notices it. A few days later, at about the fifth week of longeing, the young horse gets his first lesson under the rider.

The first days with the rider’s weight on its back are of essential influence for the future training and tell the rider how the horse will set about carrying the rider’s weight. Be careful over saddling and bridling the horse at this stage, also in mounting and dismounting and leading it out of the stable. 

Time spent in these days will be repaid later and the horse will not learn to rear when mounted, or bite if the girth is tightened.

The same principle applies to the basic training. Eighty percent of the whole training consists of work on elementary lines. 

The rest (High School and so on) the horse will offer you by itself. If the basic training is good then you can build up from there. If an advanced exercise causes you trouble, go back again and improve the basic work, then try again and most likely you will succeed this time.


When starting off young horses, you must only do a posting trot, sit down very lightly and smoothly while correcting a horse of this kind (hollow back.) 

With all horses that are inclined to go with head up and hind legs out behind, you will have to use this method of correcting.

If your horse goes with the back bent upwards and the head tucked in, you must do exactly the opposite. 

Try to get a light and steady contact with your lower legs against the horse’s body (in most cases you will not find a contact at first, because the horse has the body drawn up and braced against the rider’s weight.) Make the horse go forward by touching it on the shoulder with the whip.

It is useless for this type of horse to try and drive it forward with your legs, this would emphasize the trouble by bringing the hind legs even more underneath the body and thus arching the back even more. 

In this case you can afford to sit down more heavily when posting and begin earlier with a sitting trot. 

This must be intermittent; a few steps at a time and of course not enough to tire the back muscles. Both these extremes can be helped by longeing and riding over cavaletti.

Be thankful if your young horse does not incline to one of these extremes, but is loose in the back by nature and you can start to ride on a more or less swinging back. 

In this case, you must be careful that you don’t overdo your requirements. (It is so easily done if a horse is naturally talented.) 

Otherwise you will stiffen the horse one way or another. Be very supple in your back and try to accept the thrust of the horse within your body, then, sooner or later he will react by accepting your seat. I must emphasise again the basic need is that you have a supple and independent seat.

To start with the young horse will not accept your legs and will push them sideways. If your legs are stiff and have not loosened out of your body and are not able to fall round the horse’s body like a wet cloth, they cannot keep a steady contact with his sides and cannot give him confidence in the use of your leg aids. 

So again, you need an independent seat so that you can use your legs as you please and do not need them for gripping. No young horse will react to pulling at the bit; on the contrary it will pull more and more. If your hands go up and down with the rhythm of the movement or if you have to hang on to the reins for balance or support, you will irritate the horse at a part of the body which is very sensitive and should be kept so. 

How can the horse have confidence in your hands and react to the aids of the reins, if the hands are not held independently to the body?

Once more I must remind you; before you can start to train a horse you must be able to sit correctly, because the seat and the aids are the tools with which to transmit your will to the horse. The balance of the body is kept on the two seat bones and muscles only, while leg and hands can be used independently from each other whenever and wherever you want.

Hand in hand with your efforts to make the horse’s back accept your weight, its sides accept your legs and its mouth accept the bit, you start making the horse go straight. The hind legs must step into the footprints of the forelegs. 

This straightening of the horse is part of the work preparatory to producing forward impulsion. Impulsion comes from the hind legs; if this impulsion goes off at a tangent instead of flowing straight forward (ie if the horse goes crooked) it will cause a stiffness on one side and eventually will be the reason for your not being able to ride correctly through a corner, or do a flying change or the canter on one rein.

Most horses go crooked by nature; some are further handicapped by their rider’s bad seat. Their conformation is such that they are larger behind than in front.

When riding alongside a wall, the horse will go with his outside parallel to the wall. In order to make the inside legs go parallel to the wall you must put the shoulder in slightly.

If you fail to make the hind legs follow in the tracks of the forelegs, the horse will never bend the haunches of the inside legs, which it must do if it goes correctly through a corner. Instead, it will swing the hind quarters inwards with stiff haunches.

A horse with stiff haunches will never move with elasticity, but elasticity is an integral part of impulsion. You can see how one thing follows logically from another.

Therefore, if you do not succeed in one special exercise it is useless to go on and on at it until the horse is sour. Much better – go back to the preceding preparative exercise.

The haunches are that part of the hindquarters which are formed by the three joints and their respective muscles. At the beginning they are tightly embedded in fat.

The length of bones and the angles formed between them will govern to what extent the haunches can come under the body to start with and whether with ease or difficulty.

Since only the muscles which move them are variable (can extend and contract) it is apparent that the strength of these muscles is an essential influence on elasticity.

They must make the legs act like a spring, sometimes with perpendicular action as in collected work and sometimes more towards the front legs, as when extending the strides. 

  1. The rider’s first task in this sphere is to loosen the muscles from their fatty bedding and thereafter to strengthen them.

This is not done by running round and round and tiring these muscles. Rather you must increase and decrease the tempo, by riding turns and circles. In this way the horse becomes supple and the haunches strong and flexible.

To sum up – I repeat again; the first and basic requirement of the Classical Art of Riding that dominates all others is straightness and forward impulsion.  

This is your magical red thread again which the trainer must never lose sight of. Dressage riding that is not built up on these principles has nothing to do with the Classical Art of Riding.



Before you can do a correct increase and decrease of tempo with your young horse, you must have found the balance in a certain tempo and go with equally timed steps in straight lines first and later in circles and turns. 

The rider induces the horse to go in a certain rhythm and must be very careful that this rhythm is maintained during the execution of the different exercises. Rhythm means the footfall, equally timed, of the respective gaits, ie 1,2,3,4 and 1, 2, 3, 4 in walk, 1,2 : 1,2 in trot and 1,2,3 in canter.

This rhythm is given to the horse by the rider’s weight. The weight must be made to fall upon the horses back like the beats of a drum, with the regularity of a metronome.

If the horse goes unbalanced or uneven, the rider has to stiffen his back purposely for a moment or two, in order to underline the regular beats by making the horse feel his weight more. 

This must only be for a few moments, to avoid any stiffening of the horse’s back muscles. 

Thus we have rhythm, which is the preliminary step to cadence.

As soon as the horse has found the rhythm, you can increase and slow down the movement.  

Now you can try to lengthen and shorten the steps in all three gaits, and in this way you improve elasticity of the horse’s back and haunches, improve impulsion and enable the horse to shift more weight from the front legs to the hind legs according to the exercise required.

From rhythm you advance logically to cadence.

The aids of the weight produce rhythm as we have seen; increasing and decreasing the steps in all gaits will improve elasticity. 

If you then add increased locomotion to the rhythm by means of the leg aids and also some containing aids of the reins, then we have produced rhythm with energy, which is cadence

It sounds like a recipe for plum pudding, but I am anxious to show that dressage riding consists of logical thinking and is no mystery; it requires brains more than brawn.

The third requirement of the Classical Art of Riding is to make the horse take the bit. 

This results from forward impulsion, by keeping a quiet and steady contact with the horse’s mouth and notably by driving the horse from behind onto the bit and not by pulling backward. 

The horse will accept the bit as soon as it has confidence in your hands. It will then begin to chew and you will feel a little weight in your hands which is quite different from the feeling when a horse stiffens or pulls. 

The horse is on the bit when it follows willingly with the mouth whether you lengthen or shorten the reins.

Balance, the fourth requirement, is the result of the ability to shift more weight from the front to the hind legs by bending the haunches more or less as needed.

Finally, obedience means a complete devotion to the rider’s will by common understanding and confidence in his superiority. This results when all the other requirements have been met.

Continuing these thoughts, one can say that cadence is the preparative training for high school work. The piaffe is a cadenced trot on the spot with the haunches deeply bent. 

The passage, the highlight of the rider’s feeling on horseback, is a cadenced trot with a somewhat slower rhythm, wherein the horse stays for a moment poised with each alternate pair of diagonals in the air. 

Through extreme elasticity this gives the impression of swaying in the air untrammelled by weight. Also, the pirouette is a cadenced canter on the spot. The forelegs move round the pivot of the hind legs in several canter strides.

Now we have traced the training of the horse from the remount to high school standard, you can see how one stage of training develops logically from another.

You cannot do a correct extended trot before the horse’s back can swing.

It is not possible to execute a correct transition from trot to halt before the horse is supple enough to shift the weight smoothly towards the hind legs.

Above all, remember that high school work is impossible without basic schooling.

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