The Dressage Controversy

I suppose some folks aren’t aware that there is a controversy within the dressage community. And quite a few might say, so what, and wonder, what could it possibly have to do with me! A fair enough question.

For those who have been riding with me you know that I have a dressage background. As I mentioned in the last post, I think dressage training should improve any horse. Not only how he looks but also how he rides. Of course this presumes that the rider can ride. And that is the main focus of my teaching: developing riders’ seats, balance and effectiveness in the saddle.

So this brings me to the Controversy. Should dressage be “about” how to ride the already fabulous horse in competitions? Or should it be “about” how to improve ANY horse? Personally I vote for the latter. The argument makes for some interesting viewing on a new DVD titled, “Classical vs. Classique, with Christoph Hess and Philippe Karl“. (click the link to order the DVD.)

Representing the competitive world is Christoph Hess, the head of the instruction department at the German Equestrian Federation. On the flip side is Philippe Karl who is a master of the art of French riding. Two very different approaches and philosophies about what is “right”.

The DVD begins with a section which is a lively debate between the two men. Then each man brings out a horse and rider team who they believe exemplifies their respective systems. Each ride is followed by the other man pointing out the pros and cons of what they see. Not surprising, the German saw two much “trick riding” in the French demo and the Frenchman saw the German horse was behind the vertical for the entire ride and thusly never truly collected. After the demo rides, each man gives a “lesson” to someone with a problem horse and again there is critique after each ride.

It was all very interesting. Even though I would tend to “side” with the French approach the demo (showing he French school) was flawed, IMO, by the fact that the French demo rider was not nearly as skilled in her system as the demo rider for the German school was in hers. That was too bad as it gave quite a bit of ammunition to Mr. Hess and deservedly so. On the other hand, to give credit where due, this was actually part of Mr. Karl’s point, to show what a less than stellar rider can accomplish on a less than stellar horse. In any case, the lesson portion of the program went better for the French side.

Now it was the German’s turn to present a less than stellar rider. I wasn’t too impressed with the outcome of the German lesson since very little change was made in either the horse or the rider. Whereas in the case of the French lesson, after the demo rider rode the horse a bit, Mr. Karl had her get off and HE got on. Mr. Karl didn’t get on though until he had removed the flash noseband and loosened the stranglehold the “crank” noseband had on that poor horse’s jaw. It was no wonder that the horse was grinding his teeth. After he got on the horse he went to work changing the horse’s balance, getting the horse’s neck to become longer and looser and of course the grinding ceased. In a matter of ten minutes or so the horse made a profound change after which the original rider was able to get back on a feel the difference.

This was a real joy to see and was the best part of the video. I would really like to see an entire video dedicated to such transformations. Truly an inspiration.


  1. Hi Sharon, as one of your very beginning students I would like to say that the small amount of dressage riding that Tesoro and I have attempted showed remarkable changes in him on our first trail ride this year. You and Lauren know what his hooves were like so ring riding was his main exercise from sept. 07 until june this year. He was as fit as the heavily trail ridden horses we went with and these weren’t easy trails! There were 2-3 ft. step downs, steep climbs and rocks as well as sand- T” never faltered.Every horse needs this. Thank you for helping both of us in so many ways. Gwen and Tesoro

  2. I watched this yesterday, and thought that both Mr. Karl and Mr. Hess scored points, with Mr. Karl winning the debate with the following items he pointed out:

    1) The articles that describe what dressage should be are not being followed, why are the judges ignoring the standard? Hess had no good answer for that
    2) When Hess countered that training is different than showing, and that a horse can be ridden behind the vertical to achieve the vertical during competition, Karl asked (basically) “Why? A standard is a standard………”
    3) When Hess gave (rather faint) praise on Karl’s “problem” student and the improvement both her and her horse made under Karl’s instruction, but then countered with what he would have done differently, Karl countered “Well, what I did WORKED, and in a short period of time.”
    4) Karl was completely correct when he said that when art becomes a sport and money gets involved (breeders, trainers etc.) things are going to go downhill for the horse – that’s the same in ANY discipline.

    These things to me were game-set-match for Mr. Karl because there is no way that Mr. Hess could refute those arguments.

    I did think that Mr. Hess made a good point when he said that Karl’s demonstration horse clearly loved jumping, and he should be in a show jumping type of career because horses should be allowed to do what they love to do. But, his further criticism was off base. I did NOT think the little black horse was unhappy with his dressage work at all, he just liked jumping better.

    I also really appreciated seeing the Spanish Walk done correctly and I now understand it’s value because it 1) stretches the connective tissue in the shoulder in a gentle manner, 2) strengthens the small upper muscles of the shoulder and back 3) clearly provides a good rythmic gymnastic exercise as a prelude for passage and piaffe.

    Good video and I’m glad I joined HORSEFLIX!