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Harmony is born out of a genuine empathy for the horse and a compassionate awareness of the mental and physical impact of the work on the horse.


The History of Academic Equitation

What is the Difference Between A Dressage Horse and a Sport Horse?

By Tonja Dausend 


Initially, the horse was used in the service of man, to ease burdensome tasks such as plowing fields, transportation and even hand-to-hand combat.

During the Renaissance, civilization became more advanced and time could be devoted to artistic interests. During this period the classical principles of horsemanship were rediscovered in the Greek writings of Xenophon and transformed into an art form with the purpose of enhancing the horses’ natural strength and beauty. Thus, Artistic Equitation, also known as Classical Dressage, was established. Horses became specialized. Selection was based on soundness, temperament, strength, beauty and a square frame that increased their aptitude for vertical leaps and collected movement. The understanding of the horse’s nature was developed to such a degree that the use of artificial methods, which forced the horse’s cooperation, became obsolete. Training was based on friendship, understanding and honest respect for the horse. Trauma to the horse was unacceptable. Suppleness, balance, impulsion and active, pure gaits could be developed naturally while preserving the horse’s enthusiasm for the work and extending his useful life. This compassionate form of fine horsemanship came to be known as Classical Dressage.

During the time of the French Revolution the elegant dressage horse and the art of equitation were scorned as icons of the aristocracy. Achieving natural beauty and nurturing the horse’s zeal were luxuries not afforded during that time. The classical horse was replaced by a more versatile and utilitarian type. The military required that horses go quickly and efficiently across the countryside with ground covering strides. These horses were bred with a more rectangular frame, a lower set neck, a longer back and longer legs for faster, extended movement. Eventually as horses became obsolete to the military, fox hunting, eventing and racing gained in popularity. Military horses excelled in these areas and they successfully found their niche in life as “sport horses.”

While the military was replacing the dressage horse with the sport horse, a fine thread of Classical Dressage still ran through the military schools. In the Olympics of 1912, a “dressage test” was included. The dressage test was only open to military officers and was designed with military needs and military style horses in mind. While movements of artistic equitation were respected by the military schools, the tests were adapted for competition and geared toward the conformation of the military horses. Over time, the test adopted a style of its own which is seen in the show ring today. However it is only a dim reflection of the Classical Dressage from which it originated.

© Tonja Dausend 2002, 2003, 2008

This information comes from the History of Academic Equitation Timeline Poster.