Classical dressage is a tradition in which dressage is practiced as an art form. It is said to have originated from cavalry movements and battlefield training. The Renaissance gave rise to a new enlightened impression of riding as part of the collective arts, with both horse and rider spending years perfecting their form. Classical dressage has since evolved into the competitive modern dressage we see today.
The art of classical riding stems from riding in harmony with the horse. This is only achieved when the rider has a correct seat, well balanced body position, moves in motion with the horse and gives and times aids correctly. The rider is light and together they “dance”. This is why dressage is occasionally referred to as “Horse Ballet”.
Horses naturally use collection when playing, fighting or courting one another. When trying to impress other horses they make themselves look bigger by puffing up the chest and raising the neck. At the same time they emphasize their movements and transform their gait in a more upward manner. This natural ability to collect probably inspired early trainers to reproduce this kind of behavior in a more controlled way.
The passage is perceived as an upper-level movement, in which the horse performs a highly elevated and exceedingly powerful trot. The horse maintains collection and moves with great impulsion. The passage differs from other trot types because the horse’s legs are raised high off the ground and suspended for a longer period of time, thus giving the impression of the horse trotting in slow motion. A horse must be well established in its training to perform such a strenuous movement, having the right muscle build up to remain collected while simultaneously being energetic, calm and supple.
The piaffe is a dressage movement where the horse is in a rhythmic and very collected trot, on the spot or almost in place. The center of gravity is towards the horse’s hind end, which is slightly lowered with a great bending of the joints in the hindquarters. The front of the horse is mobile, free and light, with good flexion of the joints in the front legs. The horse should show great impulsion with a moment of suspension between foot falls. As in all dressage, the horse performs this in a calm manner whilst remaining on the bit with a round back.
Piaffe is mostly seen as an upper-level movement in classical dressage and as a Grand Prix level movement. It is needed to develop other movements such as the levade and from that the “Haute ecole jumps” or “Airs above the ground”.
The “Haute ecole jumps” or “Airs above the ground” are a series of high-level maneuvers where the horse leaves the ground. The Lusitano, Andalusian and Lipizzaner are breeds that usually perform the “airs” partly due to their powerful hindquarters, which allow them to execute these demanding movements.
Horses are often first taught each “air” in long reins without a rider, which is less strenuous for the animal. However, these movements are eventually meant to be performed under a rider.
The pesade is a movement where the horse is asked to raise its forehand off the ground and tuck in its front legs, carrying all its weight evenly on his hindquarters, to reach a 45 degree angle from the ground.
In the levade the horse balances on its haunches at a 30-35 degree angle. Unlike the pesade, a test of balance, the levade’s decrease in angle requires great control and is an extremely taxing position to hold. Both the pesade and the levade are entered through the piaffe which asks the horse to progressively engage his hind end and bring his center of gravity towards the hind legs. The levade is also used as a transition between work on the ground and the other airs above the ground. Neither of these movements are equal to rearing, they require precise control, exceptional balance and a great deal of strength from the horse. They are the result of correct training rather than resistance from the horse.
When demonstrating the mezair the horse performs a series of levades with a forward motion, lightly touching the ground with its front legs before pushing up again.
The courbette is when the horse balances on its hind end and performs a series of jumps or hops, never allowing its forelegs to touch the ground. Only exceptionally strong and talented horses can perform five or more leaps before returning to the ground with their front legs.
In the croupade the horse jumps into the air, but does not kick out at the height of elevation, but keeps his hind legs tucked underneath him and remains parallel to the ground.
The ballotade is similar to the croupade although in this movement the horses hind legs are positioned so one can see its shoes if watching from behind. Once these two movements are demonstrated correctly the capriole is introduced.
In the capriole the horse leaps into the air, keeping its front legs towards its chest and kicks out with its hind legs at the height of elevation, landing on all four legs more or less at once. This movement is considered the most difficult out of all the airs.