Michel Henriquet speaks on the future of equestrian art

” It is possible to give brilliance and lightness to a horse only if he is brilliant and light himself,” says the prolific author Michel Henriquet, whos utilizing classical ideals, principles and training methodology.

By Kip Mistral. Photo Silke Rotterdam

“It is disappearing,” Michel Henriquet said quietly to me ten years ago, looking across his dining table with a level expression that hinted of sadness. It was the end of a day of talk about the rich history of “high” equitation in Europe. Pale mid-afternoon light filtered through the ancient windows of Fief de la Panetière, the venerable 16th century house in Autouillet, France that before his death in December 2014 he shared with his dressage champion wife, Catherine Durand. The company had lingered long over the end of a superb luncheon while Henriquet spoke of the future of equitation.

We had posed a question that is asked frequently today: Can classical equitation be successfully combined with competition dressage (contemporary equitation)? 

Henriquet answered: No. “Master Nuno Oliveira considered that it was impossible to reconcile the classical equitation, meaning the equitation of the School of Versailles, with the modern dressage,” Henriquet pronounced in a clear, powerful tone accustomed to directing students across the manège. “And I think the same thing.”

And Yes. “Catherine and I are successfully doing just that. But in order to compete successfully, she must act as if she isn’t riding with the légèreté (lightness) in which she and her horse are so highly schooled. And she must actually simulate the strong contact with the horse that the judges expect to see today in contemporary equitation.”

By this duality we know we are dealing with the constituents of an antithetical theme, and thereby a fascinating tale. So, as all good stories deserve a good beginning, let us start there…

“At the time of the revolution,” Henriquet mused, “the academic school of Versailles was disrupted, in disarray. The écuyers [expert riders] of the King–all nobles–were afraid of having their heads guillotined, so they fled France. They found work in the different remaining monarchies in Europe, especially Vienna and Germany (which is why Germany is such a big dressage center now). Then, with the reign of Napoleon, who was not a dressage rider, and all the different wars, classical equitation disappeared from France. And a real academic school of classical equitation was never reorganized after the wars; let’s not forget that Cadre Noir is a military school and there was no dressage at Cadre Noir. Today, the tradition of classical equitation essentially is lost in France; you have to go to Germany, Portugal or Holland to find people knowledgeable in classical dressage.”

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Michel working with Miguelista circa 1985

“Whenever a horse is forced into a rigid frame, philosophically the rider has lost claim to true equitation”

Defining Classical Equitation

In his book Henriquet On Dressage, Henriquet provides a succinct discussion on this “ultimate balance of the ridden horse,” termed the rassembler in French, as being the main objective in classical equitation: “The rassembler is achieved through flexion of haunches and hocks, carried forward and engaged, which produce the lightening and raising of the forehand and provide the energy necessary for impulsion at all times and in every direction. The correct rassembler allows for the distribution, at will, of weight and force between the forehand and the hindquarters. A shortening of the stride and bringing the hind limbs closer to the center of gravity assures the maximum mobility of every direction, making possible the harmonious and rapid variations of gaits and speed and the execution of the airs, and produces the brilliant elevation and extension of the limbs.”

“The ramener, which describes the placement of the horse’s head as close as possible in the vertical position, is only one element of the rassembler. It makes no sense without it. The erroneous principle of pursuing the ramener in isolation actually causes havoc; yet almost all school horses are introduced to the ramener without concurrent work towards the rassembler. The result is then a sad resorting to draw-reins, to which is added mouth damage by the bit. We are thus seeing what Colonel Podhajsky stigmatized as the false rassembler, provoked by traction going from the forehand backwards; a compressed equitation.” Author Henriquet is very concerned about the deleterious effects of such compression on the horse, and states further that a horse can hold the position of the rassembler only “if the rider collects himself in a position which unites each part of his body and establishes optimal muscular tonicity within a deep seat and a stable center of gravity.”

This discussion underlines the level of commitment required to develop the rider’s own balance and suppleness. “It is impossible to ride in the spirit of lightness and relaxedness if the student doesn’t have a back and a pelvis completely flexible, if the movement of the rider is not in perfect harmony with the movement of the horse. The hand has to stay perfectly steady. If the back of the rider does not absorb the movement of the horse, the hand is not going to be steady. To have this type of back, you need at least three years of intensive work on the horse every day. In the Vienna school (Spanish School of Riding), for the first year the students are lunged every day for 1½ hours, the second year 45 minutes. Two years of lunging. Only in the third year do they begin the dressage gymnastics and exercises. Nowadays, life allows few of us the time to do this.”

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“It is possible to give brilliance and lightness to a horse only if he is brilliant and light himself, and this is a matter of temperament as well as good conformation and athletic talent. “

We Don’t Do Anything in Particular…

On the other hand, Henriquet pointed out that he and Catherine were indeed competing successfully using the training principles of classical equitation. “In fact,” he asserted, “we don’t do anything particular. We train the horse in lightness and whether or not it is classical riding or competition, it is the same training. The difference is that in classical dressage the contact with the horse’s mouth is much lighter than compared to competition dressage. The judges do not understand that a horse can be ridden at a very high level with loose reins. The FEI requirement is that the horse must be ridden with contact. For the judges, contact is 5-10 kilos (11-22 pounds) of pressure. For Nuno and me, contact is measured in grams (ounces).”

In this way, twenty-five years ago French classical dressage entered the world of international competition with Catherine on an Iberian horse (Orphée). “After we decided that she would begin competing, Catherine began by becoming the vice-champion of France, the next year she was champion of France, the next year she was a member of the French Olympic team (with Orphée) in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. She continued to compete successfully on an international basis ever since.”

In 2004, Catherine won the French Cup (Coupe de France) of dressage with Carinho des Noes, a Spanish/Portuguese stallion, and many Grands Prix with both Carinho and a warmblood mare, Farahim. “In general Catherine pretends to have a great deal of contact with the mouth or the judges would think that she rides with loose reins, which is unacceptable according to competition rules nowadays. But isn’t it much nicer to watch a horse being ridden with loose reins rather than tight reins?” Henriquet asked. “There is freedom to it; you can see that the horse wants to perform the movement, not because someone is pulling like crazy on the reins.

On my second visit to the Henriquets a year later, I was struck by the collection, balance and suppleness of the two young German warmblood horses now in training with Michel and Catherine. Now at six and a half, with only 12 months under saddle since their purchase, both young horses were remarkably mature, physically and mentally. They worked daily with steady concentration in paces that are already elastic and rhythmic. Tall, strong and fit, the chestnut gelding (Paradies Zauber, destined to become a Champion of France) and the dark bay stallion were in such good spirits and condition that they were already working toward self-carriage.

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A New World of Horses and Competition

“It is possible to give brilliance and lightness to a horse only if he is brilliant and light himself, and this is a matter of temperament as well as good conformation and athletic talent. The horses used and favored in competition equitation have in the past not been typically brilliant and light,” Michel smiled. “But the breeding specialists of Northern Europe have begun to succeed in creating a new category of warmblood horses who are allowing us to rediscover the dazzling quality of the Iberian horses of the 18th century. The six-year-old warmblood stallion and gelding you have watched working here are perfect examples of this new horse. If you were to compare photos of even well-bred European horses from before World War II–when most of the breeding emphasis was centered on jumping–today, you will see a very big improvement in overall quality.” Michel continued, “Germany must be given credit for reviving the interest in dressage and for organizing rules for competition. The main advantage of the competition came with the obligation of every rider to respect the same rules. However, balancing the advantage to the development of the establishment of competition is the disadvantage—the fact that the elegance and lightness of classical equitation was progressively sacrificed through the regulation of competition equitation. Riders get into routines with their horses and do the same thing over and over to gain security and regular movement.”

“For example, if you are riding in lightness with loose reins and your horse has a small loss of balance, this slight incident might have a big effect on your performance, far more than if you are riding the horse in a very strict frame where horse and rider are locked together. In this sense, the sensitive balance involved in riding in lightness can represent a risk. On the other hand, whenever a horse is forced into a rigid frame, philosophically the rider has lost claim to true equitation.” “This loss is felt for many reasons. For one, the old masters insisted on preparing

“This loss is felt for many reasons. For one, the old masters insisted on preparing a horse with gymnastics, which means preparing the whole body of the horse through specific exercises to supple him, to improve his athletic force and ability, to give him vitality and confidence. Today you see riders working on details in endless deadening repetition. They work in the round of the court in the three gaits with compressed transitions between gaits—as if they train only for the dressage tests—and little or no suppling to muscle the horse and make him flexible yet strong. And incidentally, support his strength as a sound riding horse late into his years. Too much emphasis is placed on the extension of the legs and the so-called “big” gaits.”

Differing Opinions

“One of the big issues in competition,” Michel went on to suggest, “is that of contact. The German style of riding requires full contact of the horse’s mouth with the bit and the rider’s hands. How do you measure full contact? Conversely, how do you measure lightness? Judges can see it but they don’t know how to give it a grade like they can the extended trot, which can be measured. So if the horse “loses” the contact, the judges penalize the performance. If you have a horse that is light and in self-carriage, the reins are loose and to the judges this demonstrates lost contact. The rider is penalized for this even though light contact shows a much higher mastery of the task of riding, and of the horse’s training level and fitness. Catherine is sanctioned all the time because she is riding without enough contact, although it is only logical that if you have a light horse, you have to be a better rider.”

“Another issue is that of the important grade of the ensemble, the rider and the horse evaluated together, referred to as the general impression. The typical problem within this grading is that the judges don’t pay attention to a rider who has, for example, a poor position on the horse, whose legs are moving, or has a hand that is too high or controlling. This poor rider gets the same grade as a good rider. I have questioned judges on this subject, and they answer that they judge only the horse. Yet how can it be even argued that the position of the rider on the horse is not the basis of good equitation and that good equitation is more likely to confer brilliance and lightness to the horse? How can good marks be given for a general impression when the rider’s legs are never still, the head bobbing, the hands pulling at the horse’s mouth?”

“There is a final problem, which is having a big effect on the evolution of competition, and this is the practice of awarding credentials to judges to judge riding levels that they have themselves not mastered from the saddle. Very few judges have presented themselves in competition up to the Grand Prix level. They understand the functions involved in judging, surely. But in this case, the judges have not mastered the training techniques for both horse and rider, for riding above the level where they themselves stopped riding. And if they do not understand what is involved in training a horse and rider to a certain level, how can they identify and judge correct form if they don’t fully comprehend it?”

So why go on in competition?

“Despite the modern perspective on competition dressage, and also because of it, Catherine and I are attempting to elevate ourselves to the next step, to international competition. Our objective is for Catherine to take all of our experience combined, and with the young horses we have now and are carefully training using the principles of classical equitation, go up against the 15 best riders of the world. And beyond this…our work is to continue to keep alive an equitation that is lovely for the rider and lovely for the horse. It is simply lovely to practice, to do.”

“This is the real allure…to ride a horse that is light, not heavy, in the hand…it is to ride simply for the pleasure and the beauty.”

“But the breeding specialists of Northern Europe have begun to succeed in creating a new category of warmblood horses who are allowing us to rediscover the dazzling quality of the Iberian horses of the 18th century.

Photo: Silke A. Rottermann
Michel conducted Catherine to Champion of France twice, the Olympics once and to many Grands Prix. Both photos Copyright Silke Rotterman

“But the breeding specialists of Northern Europe have begun to succeed in creating a new category of warmblood horses who are allowing us to rediscover the dazzling quality of the Iberian horses of the 18th century. “

Michel was able to see Catherine again being made Champion of France in 2013 in the musical freestyle, riding Paradies Zauber, one of the very horses that they bought from Germany and trained at home. Following Michel’s passing on December 8, 2014, Catherine has continued to work with her trademark energy and focus, riding her horses every morning, and in the afternoons since she is a doctor of dermatology she goes to her office to see patients. She continues to compete, run Fief de la Panetière and the boarding, training and instruction operations, and is breeding horses for her future with the help of her old friend, Carinho des Noes.

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Kip Mistral
Kip Mistral

Kip is a lifelong horsewoman who found an avocation in exploring classical equestrian traditions through research, writing and publishing. Her “avocational” projects have included over 100 published articles, editorship of an equestrian magazine, co-authoring a bestselling training manual, and blogging here on the website.

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