Caveat: This was presented to me in a 'the TRUTH of TRUE dressage' sort of way, so many grains of salt will be needed.
I mentioned my interest in western dressage being based in not wanting to hustle along a horse that really doesn't want to power along like WB. Short back, short stride, heavy shoulders. Limits. We haz them. But he's really cute and does try for me. I wanted to try him in a discipline where harmonious, calm, light, and obedient will trump fantastic movement. It's a little heart breaking to know we'll never see big scores in standard dressage no matter how hard we work. And I know it takes power and balance to do a collected jog, don't get me wrong, but it seems like a kind of power that won't make Theo blow his top or refuse to play. He likes to be powerful. He does not like to extend.
"Sounds suspiciously like work, mom"
I trotted for a minute and she announced with great conviction 'I know exactly why your horse won't extend. He doesn't like being off balance and he's too on his shoulders to extend right now'.
Well, yeah. Duh. I've been working on shifting his weight back for nearly three years. But I'm going to just nod and go along with this because she doesn't know me and from what I hear, she rarely teaches anyone with a formal dressage background. I also love to collect tools for my toolbox and as Theo hasn't read any of the books on how to correctly horse (whip tap means slow down in his little pony mind, for fuck's sake), I need all the help I can get.
This was when she started explaining that western dressage is based on French training while competition dressage is based on German training. German training starts with getting your horse as big and forward as possible, then brings them back to collection using lateral movements. French training starts with balance and lightness, then adds the bigger forward. French training includes 'classical' dressage and the Spanish style of dressage. It suits short backed horses that aren't made to be huge movers, the ones that can piaffe all day but find extensions challenging. German training is better suited for ground devouring WBs that take the bit and soften because they were bred for it.
She really, really didn't like German dressage. She really thought the more physical ride didn't suit 95% of the population and set a lot of people up for failure. She prefers to focus on balance and keeping them as light in the hand and leg as possible. French is apparently coming more into fashion when you see the much lighter contacts in the GP ring. By her defintion, Vitor Silva is French. I don't think he'd be happy to be called French, but she did qualify that 'French' was a misnomer and it covers a lot of western Europe.
The idea is that western dressage is focused on lightness and harmony. Even on the score sheets, submission is replaced with harmony. Gotta say, I like that. A calm, accurate, obedient test is what they're looking for. After all, a working ranch horse is useless if it's bouncing about with lots of power and expression but can't halt and stand.
I personally feel like clumping dressage into these two 'schools' is a massive oversimplification. I usually hear it from a clinician or trainer trying to explain how they train TRUE dressage while the others are leading me astray (or worse, depending on the level of preaching going on). It's a spectrum and most trainers are actually in between these two schools. I've heard it in enough places to be familiar with the two concepts and to have a good idea of what I'm going to hear if someone uses it to describe their training. It gives me a rough guess on whether or not they'll suit my horse.
With Fiona, the German way of training was the way to go. She wanted to move, ate up the ground in her gaits, and wanted to reach to the bit. She would lengthen any time I let her, I had to ask her to come back. German focused trainers loved her and she worked well with them.
Exactly one setting: GO
With Theo? Yeah, that's not happening. He needs to learn to sit and develop power while keeping his jaw relaxed and his back lifted. Then we'll have an extension. Not an 8, but a solid 6. Vitor has been, hands down, the best fit for Theo in terms of understanding how his pony brain works and his body moves.
He's thinking about nap time in this picture
So I can't say that I'm a student of one school or the other. It depends on the horse I'm sitting on. But it does help me understand why some trainers have more success with Theo. He's not a WB. He'll never be a WB. We'll always aim for our obedience and accuracy marks because our impulsion and extension scores will be low.
Which school is better? Neither. I've seen both go off the rails and I've seen both succeed. I don't believe in absolutes. Pick and choose from all schools to find the combination that suits your horse. For Theo? It's a good thing I took French in high school.
Je veux que mon cheval aille de l'avant, s'il vous plaît