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Classical vs Modern dressage circa 1842!

Classical vs Modern dressage circa 1842!

with Dr. Kerry Mack

Sweden's Carl Bonde and Emperor 1912 Olympics


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 in the classical schools such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Cadre Noir in France. These principles are recorded in the modern writings of people such as Podjhasky and de Carpentry, going back to the original texts of Dela Gueriniere (1630’s) and even earlier books such as that of the Duke of Newcastle. The critics of competition dressage even cite Xenophon before 200 BC as if he would be on ‘their” side and not our side.


What you may not be aware of, is that this debate is not new. Back in 1842 a Frenchman called Baucher 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 newfangled ideas. 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 western tradition of cowboys Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. Buck is one of the so called horse whisperers, inspiration for the book and movie The Horse Whisperer and the subject of a documentary released this year, “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 what books have influenced you, or what do you think we should read?”


He suggested “Racinet explains Baucher” published by xenophon press in 1997 written by Jean Claude Racinet. I bought a copy and found it very interesting. I will here present an overview of what I have learned about Baucher with an emphasis on what I think is most useful and interesting today, and where his radical ideas fit in contemporary methods. I am not presenting all his ideas in detail, nor is this an academic critical review, rather my own hopefully practical take on Baucher.


Jean Claude Racinet was a French riding master who immigrated to the USA. He wrote and taught prolifically based on Baucher’s work. He was particularly interested in lightness (legerete in French) as opposed to the German concept of “durchlassigheit” (throughness in English). He was definitely a part of the anti modern dressage debate. He was a scholar who sought to examine the foundations of the equestrian art, was a skilled rider and trainer and a linguist fluent in French German and English. He was really well placed to bring this theory to a modern audience. He presents Buacherism referenced to the translations of others as well as his own translations, and refers to Buachers students writings as well. 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 Napoleon’s time. He was an analytic thinker who tried to develop a system of training that could be taught to others and applied, for example, by cavalry officers for the betterment of horses and the humans who depended on them. He was especially interested by lightness, by which he meant 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, an 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 on most things (sibling rivalry shaping history). Baucher was relegated to the circus, where many skilled horsemen showed their prowess at the time. One clear legacy we have today is the one tempi changes (flying changes every stride) which he invented.


Bauchers ideas evolved over the course of his interesting life and in fact his later ideas (second manner) did contradict his earlier theories. In the 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 of the jaw to be supple. Now I find that this is a really helpful idea. Baucher gave detailed and illustrated instructions as to how to flex the jaw. From the ground he would pull on one rein to flex the neck. There are a series of these excercises. Actually I don’t find these instructions as useful as the idea of attending to whether the jaw is relaxed or not. 


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