The Fine Art of Classical Horsemanship
By Karen Brown

Dr. Thomas Ritter is one of a very exclusive group of people in the United States dedicated to the preservation of the classical art of horsemanship. An international clinician and author, Dr. Ritter and his wife, Shana Ritter, run a small, classical dressage riding school reminiscent of the great schools of Europe, such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. Though Dr. Ritter has an extensive travel itinerary, he has managed to schedule 2 visits to our area this summer and fall.

Dr. Ritter will be conducting a clinic at the K Bar M Equestrian Center July 31 through August 3, 2003. “The focus of this clinic will be on helping riders to feel their horse’s movements and on teaching them to think, to analyze, and to give them exercises that help them to make their horses straight, balanced, and supple, so that they can eventually reach their full athletic potential,” says Ritter. He will return to the K Bar M on October 10-12, 2003 for a 3-day private camp.

Ritter Dressage, located in McMinnville, Oregon, is a comprehensive Classical Dressage Program devoted to dedicated students of classical horsemanship of all levels. This is a SCHOOL OF CLASSICAL RIDING that is dedicated first and foremost to the well-being of the horse, as well as to the promotion of the principles, the culture, and the spirit of classical horsemanship.

On occasion, Dr. Ritter accepts outside horses for training. “ Shana and I train a variety of breeds - mostly Lipizzaners, Andalusians, and warmbloods. We breed Lipizzaners and Andalusians with a focus on small numbers, but high quality,” says Dr. Ritter. Quoted from the website, Shana describes their training program as such: “Classical Dressage Training preserves the horse’s soundness and happiness, all the while developing the horse systematically according to the time-honored and tested principles based on biomechanics and psychology of the horse. We do not discriminate horses based on breed or sex, provided their movement and gaits are suitable for dressage, and their temperament is willing, generous, and suitable for the Ritter Dressage Classical Program.”

HORSEMANSHIP FOR RIDERS OF ALL DISCIPLINES

Regardless of your discipline of choice, you will find a tremendous wealth of knowledge and insight pertaining to all aspects of riding and training horses within the context of “classical horsemanship”. The articles listed on Ritter’s website under the heading “Zen in the Art of Dressage” most definitely apply to every rider and every horse. Any rider, competitor, or recreational horseperson will greatly benefit from a visit to this site.

For example, the buzzword these days is “partnership”. Read the article entitled “Connection” for another perspective on how to achieve that goal and what it really means. Getting ready for a competition? Take a moment to read “Goals and Mindfulness”; it just might help you get there faster and better prepared. Are you often frustrated by your horse’s inability to do as you ask? Well, take a deep breath and prepare your ego for a moment of truth, then read “The Horse is Your Mirror”. Each of the articles on this site deserves a slow first read, and many re-visits thereafter.

THE MAN AND HIS METHODS

Following the strictly defined footsteps of his mentors, Dr. Ritter strives to understand each horse as an individual. He places the soundness and well-being of the horse above all other considerations. The horsemanship tradition to which he subscribes has a two-fold objective: in making the horse safe and obedient, and, in restoring and perfecting its natural gaits under the rider. The methods employed to achieve these goals are the very foundation of dressage, i.e. rhythm and tempo, relaxation, balance/self-carriage, lightness, flexibility, impulsion, straightness, and ultimately collection.

Dr. Ritter studied classical dressage in Germany with Masters of dressage Thomas and Dorothee Faltejsek, as well as Egon von Neindorff, for eight years. During this time he received a comprehensive education in all aspects of the training of horses. He has been certified as an instructor by the German Federation Nationale since 1985. For the last 4 years he has been studying under former Spanish Riding School chief rider Karl Mikolka. In keeping with his personal philosophy that education never ends, Ritter continues to study at clinics with such well known notables as Arthur Kottas, head trainer/instructor of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, and Charles de Kunffy, of the former Spanish Riding School of Hungary.

Shana Ritter teaches all levels of dedicated students and works together with her husband in the training of all the horses. She also oversees all facets of the Ritter Dressage Breeding Program. She maintains a strong focus on developing an independent seat with all her students and by applying the methods she learned through her studies with the Masters, she is successfully guiding a number of students on the journey to becoming skilled equestrians.

PRESERVING THE ART

Dr. Ritter feels it is critical to preserve the art classical horsemanship as taught and handed down by the masters of yesteryear. As he puts it, “First of all, Classical dressage is the only training system that accomplishes 3 things: it develops the horse systematically to fulfill his athletic potential, it keeps the horse sound as a result of his training, and it keeps the horse happy and interested in his work. Other approaches may show results in one or two of these areas, but classical dressage is the only one I have seen that is successful in all 3 areas. “

“Secondly, the art of classical dressage and baroque horses represent my cultural heritage that I want to help preserve and promote. Unlike painting or sculpture, dressage is a living art that must be studied and experienced and discovered anew by each generation and by each individual rider. The works of equestrian art, that took many years to create, die in an instant with their artists. Especially before the invention of film and photography, nothing but memories remained of them. Because of its complexity, dressage can only be taught, learned and passed on through hands-on, personal, practical instruction and demonstration. It has to be lived every day with every horse. Books, videos, and lectures are helpful supporting teaching tools, but they are not in themselves sufficient. Nobody has ever learned to ride merely by reading books or watching videos. The dependence of this art on a healthy oral tradition obligates every educated rider to contribute his share to ensure the survival of classical dressage - nowadays more than ever before, since there is no more government support at all. Whereas other arts still receive both public and private sponsorship, there are no more government funded riding academies. There are no more university chairs of academic dressage, as they existed in Europe before the 20th century. As a result, the basis of truly educated riders and horses has been constantly diminishing for the past 200 years, to the point where they have become an endangered species. It is up to a few individuals with small stables to carry the torch. If only a single generation allows the stream of the living oral tradition from teacher to student to be severed out of a lack of interest, or a lack of funding, it will be lost forever.”

“Finally, I enjoy the company of horses, taking care of them, and training them. That is the best part of every day. This is what makes the sacrifices and the long hours worthwhile. This is why Shana and I would never trade our job for an office job with a much higher salary and much greater security.”

Ritter concludes with the following quote from Gustav Steinbrecht (The Gymnasium of the Horse, p. 125):
“If we are serious in maintaining the equestrian art as a fine art and not let it be degraded to philistinism and puppetry, there is only one way: we must try to follow the old masters.” 

GETTING ON COURSE

When asked about the state of dressage in America, Ritter explained, “There are many riders who truly want to become the best rider they can be and who want to learn to develop their horses to the full extent of their potential, but they suffer from the size of the country and the relative scarceness of qualified instructors. What we need - not just here in the US, but everywhere - are riding schools like the Spanish Riding School before its privatization in order to be able to supply quality instruction for professionals who can then pass their knowledge on to their students.”

“In the absence of a good local instructor, you have to rely on books, videos, and clinics. The clinic system is very unsatisfactory compared to a school, where the student can ride trained horses, observe highly educated riders, and receive daily lessons. But it’s the best thing we have in this country, and a dedicated student who takes regular clinic lessons and does his homework in between clinics can still progress with his horse, even if it is at a slower pace than in a school setting.”




To learn more about Dr. Ritter, visit his website.

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