Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Piaffe in the Pillars. Painting by Ludwig Koch.

Tapestry depicts horse and rider in the Capriole.

Pirouette by George Hamilton c. 1700.

Mary Stuart in the Piaffe, Sidesaddle.

Capriole in the Pillars, 1890.

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle

Equestrian Portrait of Henry IV (1555-1610). King of France before the Walls of Paris, 1594.

Queen Isabel of France by Velasquez

Thomas Ritter on the Lipizzan Gelding, Siglavy Sophia-Dahlia, in the Canter

The Dressage Blog
January 18, 2010

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©Thomas Ritter 2010

Harmony is an interesting subject. Most people would probably consider it to be important or at least desirable, but I wonder how many people think about the nature of harmony. Some riders try to establish harmony by simply never asking anything of the horse that may be challenging. So they never ruffle any "feathers", but their horse never improves, either, because they never ask the horse to go to the edge of his comfort zone or to stretch a muscle that is stiff, or engage a muscle that is weak. Some riders seek harmony by yielding to the horse's pressure, so to speak. They release the aid or pet the horse and give up as soon as they encounter any resistance from the horse. They inadvertently reward the horse for saying "no", or even for dangerous, rude behavior like threatening to rear or buck. They try to create a harmony that is exclusively on the horse's terms, and they end up with a horse who is neither very obedient or safe to ride, and who will stay stuck at a low level. So, harmony at any price can't be what we should be looking for.

There are several areas in which harmony - or lack thereof - becomes visible.

One type of harmony is created by a balanced and supple seat, so that the rider becomes an extension of the horse. Involuntary movements of the rider's hands, legs, or head disturb the harmonious picture and have to be avoided. They distract from the horse, and they can disturb the horse by interfering with the gait and the balance. When we watch somebody ride, we should always notice the horse, not the rider. The rider should always remain in the background, whereas the horse should be the performer. General Alexis L'Hotte demanded this very emphatically: "Displacement of the seat is proscribed at all times; the rider must always remain welded to his horse. Movement of hands and legs must be secret and remain invisible to the eye. Finally, everything that draws attention to his person must be avoided by the rider. It is the horse who is executing the movements, the rider must merely try to be in harmony with him."

Another type of harmony is created when all parts of the horse's body are working together harmoniously. This is an expression of balance and suppleness, which gives the horse's movements an appearance of fluidity and effortlessness. The horse glides smoothly and noiselessly across the arena, in and out of turns and movements, and from one gait to another. Stiff joints and muscles create rough edges and prevent a graceful, harmonious picture, which is one of the reasons why the old masters taught that balance and suppleness are the cornerstones of dressage. Gustav Steinbrecht sums this up very well: "Correct dressage training is, therefore, a natural gymnastic exercise for the horse, which hardens its strength and supples its limbs. Such exercise causes the stronger parts of its body to work harder in favor of the weaker ones. The latter are strengthened by gradual exercise, and hidden forces, held back because of the horse’s natural tendency towards laziness, are thus awakened. The end result is complete harmony in the cooperation of the individual limbs with these forces, enabling the horse to continuously and effortlessly perform, with only the slightest aids from its rider, such regular and beautiful movements as it would demonstrate on its own only fleetingly in moments of excitement."

I want to point out that Steinbrecht considers complete harmony to be an end result, a point to which I will return shortly. Steinbrecht mentions one thing that cannot be emphasized enough, because it is a main tenet of classical dressage. The training process - if it is to be considered classically correct - must develop the horse's natural gaits to their utmost perfection through gymnastic exercises, but it must avoid anything that is excessive or unnatural. Any exaggerated or sensationalized movement destroys the harmony that the old masters sought. The classical ideal was always to make the horse move with the same beauty under saddle as at liberty and to make it look so easy and natural that nobody can see how much skill and work it took to achieve this level of accomplishment.

The Duke of Newcastle gives one of the best definitions of the goal of classical dressage:"It is in Horsemanship as in other things: regularity is beautiful, while distortion and compulsion must be without grace. There is an elegance moreover in Horsemanship, which looks as if it was natural, tho’ it proceeds from art. Thus, tho’ a perfect horseman rides with art, it seems rather natural than acquired by practice; and he makes his horse appear as if nature had produced such a creature for no other end, but to be conducted, governed, and rid by man. What is more, a good horseman rides as one may say with harmony; for his horse being of the same mind with himself, moves in such exact manner, steps so equally, and keeps such just time; turns, pirouettes, rises so equally, so easily, so lightly, that it is very agreeable to see, as well as a very profitable science to learn."

Newcastle touches on another type of harmony here. He mentions that the horse is "of the same mind" with his rider. I like this expression, because it implies that the horse is a willing partner, thinking along the same lines as the rider. The active participation and cooperation of the horse is extremely important, because without it, any quality work is impossible. If a horse is disobedient or disrespectful to the rider, there will be no harmony. So, harmony is a two way street. The horse has to make an effort to stay in harmony with his rider and vice versa.

These brief reflections show that a productive kind of harmony, in which the horse improves and moves up the levels, requires a certain amount of skill on the rider's part. Of course, there are degrees of harmony. Lower level riders and horses can be in relative harmony with each other as well, if they don't upset or aggravate each other. Sometimes, this is more like a truce, as I mentioned in the beginning. However, perfect harmony and consistency require a great deal of training for both horse and rider. That's why the old masters often refer to it as a goal, or an end result, because the harmony is lost as soon as the horse loses balance or stiffens a muscle, or if the rider loses his seat, even for a stride.

In the course of the training, the harmony is sometimes compromised when the horse learns a new skill. Humans don't always look graceful when they learn a new sport, either. The reason is that the new skill requires a different, more sophisticated body awareness. The horse has to carry himself differently, which translates into engaging and relaxing different sets of muscles than the ones the horse usually uses. These new muscles are typically not neurologically very well connected to the brain, i.e. they are not easy for the horse to access. Since the horse hasn't used them much in the past, they are not very strong, and they don't have much stamina. Some of them may be stiff and contracted. Discovering them, learning to access them, stretching them, and strengthening them will be accompanied by a certain amount of fumbling by the horse, which then shows up as a loss of harmony. Sometimes the horse will express that the exercise is difficult through his head and neck carriage. This should not worry the rider too much. As soon as the horse discovers how to execute the new request, the harmony will be restored. Actually, the harmony will be greater afterwards, because the horse's balance and suppleness have increased, and he is feeling more comfortable now than he did before.

Another case in which harmony has to be temporarily sacrificed is a retraining horse who has learned bad habits and perhaps does not respect the rider's seat and aids as much as he should. As the rider teaches the horse to respect the boundaries of the aids and to yield to the pressure of the aids, the horse may challenge the rider and protest against the demands at first. But once he accepts the leadership role of the rider and allows the aids to go through, the relationship between horse and rider will be much improved and the harmony will be as well.

So, there are different kinds of harmony that are not all created equal. The road from a lesser to a higher degree of harmony sometimes leads through some rocky terrain, where things appear to be getting worse before they get better. For the rider and the observer it's important to learn to recognize exactly what kind of harmony or disharmony they are dealing with in order to understand the situation correctly and to be able to take the right course of action.

Feel free to e-mail me with questions and comments. Read some of the feedback we've received on our Letters and Testimonials page.

Thomas Ritter

Thomas Ritter on the Lipizzan Gelding, Siglavy Sophia-Dahlia in the Canter

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