As the name implies, classical dressage is a very old art form. However, many debate about how it developed since its origins in Ancient Greece, and as we look at more texts with a fresh perspective, our understanding changes. As with much history, it’s not quite as clear-cut as we’d think.


The earliest surviving writings on training horses date back to Kikkuli in the 14th century BC in Ancient Sumer, which was in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait). Kikkuli focused mostly on conditioning and training chariot horses. Even today, we use techniques described by Kikkuli! There are some other texts from that period and area, but these mostly survive in fragments. There were likely others, but those have been lost to time. An English translation exists, but it is currently out of print and hard to find.

Generally, we attribute the earliest “dressage” text to be “On Horsemanship” by Xenophon. Xenophon’s text is the earliest that closest resembles later dressage, dating to 4th century BC Greece. He described kind methods of training that improve the horse’s fitness for battle. His text is still a delight to read today. However, when you read Xenophon, you’ll notice that he frequently refers to Simon of Athens’ writings. This work, however, no longer exists outside of Xenophon’s quotes, leaving Xenophon as the “earliest dressage” author. You can buy an English translation of Xenophon easily online.

Many of the Greek techniques and exercises survive to today! Xenophon described transitions, circles, on hills, and even “showy” exercises for parades such as rearing and even possibly the passage. He described a rider’s position that closely resembles today’s. It is a simple, practical writing, but that’s why it is so timeless. Some details have changed, of course; he did not discuss the trot or lateral work, and we have saddles now while the Greeks did not. Some say the Greeks did not see the difference between walk and trot, but I personally think they probably did not train trot because it is not comfortable bareback.

The Middle Period

This is where history gets tricky. Traditionally, we’ve thought that dressage was lost during the Roman Empire and Medieval period and didn’t return until the Renaissance. The Romans did not rely on a centralized cavalry, instead using auxiliary forces (usually Iberian and Gallic) to supply the cavalry. As such, there are few writings on training horses from Xenophon until 13th century Europe, and none of these are complete. At least… in Europe. In this period, several Middle Eastern writers wrote treatises on horse training. These are the Furusiyya. There are few English translations of these writings, but they discussed training the horse for warfare in great detail. Because of the Moorish influence in Spain, we can assume that these techniques influenced horsemanship in Europe, especially when Spanish horses became so treasured. Even today, some Spanish dialects use the word “jinete” for “rider,” which comes directly from the Berber language.

When you think of the Medieval period, what do you think of most? Knights, of course. However, you probably also think of a sort of dark, barbaric way of riding and life. It’s hard not to think of torture devices as being “medieval,” and that includes harsh spurs and bits that look like they’d draw blood at the slightest touch. But with time, we’ve discovered that was not the case. Many “Medieval” torture devices turned out to be Victorian inventions passed off as medieval, as do many “Medieval” bits and spurs. With time, we learn more and more how our assumptions about this period are wrong.

Medieval Period… Not so “medieval?”

While there are not a large number of “horse training” manuals from the Medieval period, there were some jousting and even fencing manuscripts that discuss training and other movements in passing. These describe movements like pirouettes and, surprisingly, haunches-in to approach (so as to protect your horse’s head from your opponent) and shoulder-in to retreat. While these weren’t described in great detail, they are described so casually as to make you think maybe using these movements was almost “common knowledge.” Indeed, one of the writings of the Furusiyya described something like shoulder-in. So when did lateral work, such as shoulder-in and haunches-in, come into play? We may never know; they may be as ancient as Xenophon, or they may have been developed sometime in between his time and the Furusiyya. Indeed, when Xenophon describes “quick turns,” these may have been pirouettes of some kind.

What about the bits and spurs we see in the tapestries and art from the Medieval period? Those look harsh, don’t they? Yes, but the same could be said for modern Western bits and spurs. However, well-trained Western riders ride with very light hand and light use of the spur. The Medieval knights were no different. When wielding a sword, hammer, or lance in battle, you have to be balanced and tactful in riding, or it might cost you your life. If your balance is off carrying a sword, an opponent can easily find a weakness and exploit it. If you have to use large movements to control your horse, your opponent can anticipate your move and move a little faster, and large movements also slow down your agility and speed as a rider.

The knights also treated their horses with respect. After all, in “The Song of Roland,” you’ll see that Roland’s horse has a name: “Veillantif.” If the writer bothered to write the horse’s name, surely it was loved and respected. We even have found evidence that knights rode 20 year old horses into battle! The training must have been good if a knight would trust his life to a senior horse.

Renaissance and Baroque Periods

The Renaissance gives us the largest number of antique works on training horses, starting with Dom Duarte of Portugal. His work, which he never finished before his passing, is more focused on horses than previous works. During that time, more royals and nobles decided to support the arts. This led to the great court riding schools of Europe, which displayed “horse ballets” and played with the limits of equine agility and expression. It was a status symbol to have a riding school filled with Spanish horses, and the nobles and royals sponsored riders to train these horses. They still used the training for themselves and high-ranking officers in battle.

It was during this time that the Hapsburgs created the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, which is still in existence and uses horses very much like those of that time and displays those feats of agility. The Spanish Riding School is the oldest surviving school from that period. The Princely Riding School of Bueckeburg also survived from that period, though it is much less-known than the school in Vienna, and it suffered a hiatus of 50 years.

This period gives us a treasure trove of works on horsemanship, however many have been dismissed as “barbaric” until the 18th century horseman Gueriniere. Some of these suffer from poor translations and political barbs from other writers. This includes 16th century horseman Frederico Grisone. Sections where he describes “beating” the horse until it calmly approaches actually mean to “pat” or “stroke” the horse. There’s quite a difference! Other horsemen describe riding to music, such as Cesare Fiaschi. We frequently quote Antoine de Pluvinel: “You can never rely on a horse educated by fear; there is always something he fears more than you. But, when he trusts you, he will ask you what to do when he is afraid.” There are so many great artists of that time; it would take too much time to list all of them here.

One can say that this is the period when classical dressage came about and flourished. That is probably accurate. However, we can’t say that it wasn’t enjoyed as an art form long before then. We have the problem that many writings from before that time were lost and forgotten. Indeed, only recently have we discovered how wrong we were about times before.

Gueriniere: the father of modern dressage?

Most modern authors give homage to Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere, master horseman of the riding school of Versailles during the 18th century. He is called the “father of shoulder-in” and perhaps dressage as we know it. Indeed, Gueriniere is a treasure trove of knowledge. However, he did not invent the shoulder-in, nor did he pretend to. He is probably the first to describe using it on the straight line, and he described it as the “Alpha and Omega of exercises.” We probably revere Gueriniere so much nowadays because his book is relatively easy to read.

Other writings also appear to be harsh in one phrase and kind in another while his is consistently kind. There might be a good reason for that. Some say that those phrases exist because if the king’s horse, usually a stallion, misbehaved and hurt the king, the head trainer paid the price. Others say those are in there for horses that are particularly naughty, not for the average horse. However, the scientific thought of the time stated that horses could not feel pain. We may never know the true answer. However, we cannot ignore all the other works. We have to understand the context and realize a) understanding has changed since then, and b) just because they were wrong on a few points does not mean they weren’t right in others. We also know that some authors decried others while praising themselves, which leads to the reader developing prejudice.

19th century on

After the 18th century, many riding schools faded away. The riding school at Versailles met its fate during the French Revolution. Tastes also changed; during the early 19th century, fox-hunting and racing came “in vogue.” People of the 19th century saw themselves as “modern” as science, especially chemistry and medicine, had another growth spurt. Another nail in the coffin was the change in warfare. Guns became more accurate, as did cannons. Swords fell out of use. Complicated maneuvers on horseback simply weren’t needed anymore. Charges had their place to break formations, but these too mirrored hunting and racing more than their history. Circuses also hurt the classical schools, as they brought a simplified version of the spectacle to the average person. Following this, the horses changed; the compact horse of the Renaissance and Baroque periods gave way to the larger thoroughbred and warmblood.

Training itself changed; training before used highly collected maneuvers on powerful, small, compact horses, but with the new bigger, longer horses, writers had to caution “not so much collection.” The circuses used some “airs above the ground,” but they considered these more fantastic tricks than displays of years of careful training.

This does not mean that classical riding completely died out. To the contrary! The Hapsburgs continued to enjoy the Spanish Riding School, and students who privately studied with riders from that institution started their own schools. Louis Seeger, student of Max Ritter von Weyrother, started a riding school in Berlin. His student, Gustav Steinbrecht, wrote the famous work: “The Gymnasium of the Horse.” Many of the modern manuals by the governing sports organizations, such as the USDF and the German Federation, use this book as their foundation. Indeed, it is a phenomenal treatise on riding that is easy to use for the modern version of dressage.

However, we cannot ignore Steinbrecht’s “nemesis:” Francois Baucher. Baucher was a contemporary of Steinbrecht but hailed from the circus tradition. He wrote two treatises that greatly differ, perhaps because his own experience showed him where he was wrong. People still either praise or detest Baucher for his methods and teachings. However, he made some excellent points and even invented exercises. The famous “one-tempis” used in Grand Prix come from Baucher; before him, they did not exist.

With the 20th century came more changes. The World Wars all but destroyed the cavalry and the aristocracy, as did the numerous revolutions. WWII almost destroyed the Spanish Riding School, and the school at Bueckeburg closed in 1950 after the war. Dressage itself also changed and became a sport. It became a hybrid of the Renaissance methods and “forward” methods of the 19th century, and this is what we see today. However, new classical schools opened or reopened, such as the Royal Andalusian School at Jerez, Spain, the Cadre Noire in Saumur, France, the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art in Sintra, Portugal, and a few smaller ones, such as the school at Bueckeburg. Passionate scholars of the old equestrian art were responsible for these new schools, and modern “old masters” helped these efforts or rose from them.

The German military tradition yielded many private and state-run riding schools that have produced Olympic athletes and champions, and some other militaries carry the tradition, such as the one of Chile. While these are more “modern,” they still use a great deal of classical principles.


Modern dressage, however, has come under fire more recently with the advent of “rollkur.” This uses hyperflexion (curling under) to achieve a certain posture, but it can very easily yield unsavory results. Modern biomechanics experts have openly decried this method of training, citing the “old masters” from ages past. It is fascinating how modern science has proven the value of the methods of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, showing how perhaps modern dressage might be trying too hard to “reinvent the wheel.” This has put the sport under a microscope and caused a great deal of division among dressage riders. Riders now distinguish themselves as either “classical” or “competitive,” and sometimes the gap seems immense. However, many classical riders compete well.

Where is dressage going from there? It is hard to say; people enjoy competing because it provides “results” for efforts. However, others prefer the scholastic art of the classical tradition. Will the two ever come back together? Some say they are already, but others say the efforts to make competition more classical are not enough. Just as the history is more complicated than we thought, so is the present and the future. However, there is little doubt that there are few places that actively promote and teach the art as it was up to the 19th century, enhancing it with a modern understanding of biomechanics.

If you are interested in learning more, look at Werner Poscharnigg’s book The Austrian At of Riding. It is a wonderful book about the history of dressage. If you’d like to read some of the original works, here is a list of works and online copies: List of writers on horsemanship – Wikipedia Many are not translated to English yet, but many are.

The history of dressage and how it has developed over the years is fascinating, and our understanding of it constantly changes. We continue to learn and discover things that were once lost, and again, we change our perspective.