Michel Henriquet: For the Pleasure and the Beauty

Michel Henriquet: For  the Pleasure and the Beauty

(© By Kip Mistral. First printed in Equine Journal May 2007. Photographs by Frédéric Chéhu unless otherwise noted.)

It is a beautiful fall morning at Le Fief de la Panetière, the 16th century estate and equestrian facility near Versailles that Michel Henriquet shares with his wife, Catherine Durand Henriquet. My Dutch friend, Ellen Schuthof, and I are spending a couple of days watching lessons given by Michel and Catherine in both the lovely outdoor court and the indoor manège. This is my second visit to the Henriquets and as in the year before, I am struck by the collection, balance and suppleness of the horses trained by Michel and Catherine.

Last year, I saw Catherine give a stunning demonstration on her beautiful Grand Prix horse, the ebony Portuguese-Spanish stallion Carinho des Noes. Since then– after a long search through Europe—in Germany the Henriquets found a warmblood stallion and a gelding, just started under saddle. Convinced the young horses had great champion potential, they recruited a partner to help purchase them. The acquisition of these superb raw talents puts them another step further along in their program of developing German horses to prove that lightness can be taught to any breed, not just Iberian horses, and that, swimming against the current of today’s competition dressage style, horses ridden in lightness can also win in serious competition.

Now about six years old, with only 12 months under saddle, both young horses are remarkably mature, physically and mentally. They are ridden daily, working with steady concentration in paces that are already elastic and rhythmic. Tall, strong and fit, the chestnut gelding and dark bay stallion are in such good spirits and condition that they are already working toward self-carriage.

Michel guides an assistant trainer who rides the Henriquets’ massive four year old Lusitano stallion, who has been under saddle only 16 months. While he also makes occasional suggestions to Catherine who works the warmbloods, from time to time he stops to offer French classical training theory to the students and visitors observing.

In my view, these horses working so beautifully and confidently at their young age, with minimum contact on the bit and sometimes in self-carriage on loose reins, are amazing. I marvel to myself at their rapid progress under the Henriquets’ guidance, and I wonder aloud why everyone in the world doesn’t strive first and foremost for lightness in equitation.

How could this ancient vision—the exquisitely light classical collection of a well-suppled, balanced horse that can hold himself in self-carriage—have been overwritten by the modern vision of stressed, tense dressage horses often seen working uninspired patterns, not only compressed but severely overbent in the bridle, held in the vise grip of a tight frame?

Michel gives me a patient look. Although he suffers no fools, he is a very kind man and knows by now I’m an idealist. “You are so astonished that classical equitation is essentially extinct today. I think you are too innocent.” Yes, innocent and confused. I really do not get it. I ask some more innocent questions.

So, where in time did “the disconnect” happen? I know classical training of horse and rider takes a long time, but modern dressage riders also spend a lot of time training themselves and their horses. I also realize that the lineage of classical teaching has been almost lost over the last two hundred two years because so few masters today have been classically trained in the pure sense.

And how was the “old” value of beauty for its own sake—the art of equitation—lost? Why do the principles and practices of truly classical equitation and competition equitation seem to contradict each other when the modern rules of dressage competition say they are supposed to be the same?

“These questions and their answers, in the end, address the difference between the values inherent in equestrian art,” Michel replies, “compared to all other riding. And they are certainly about history.”

Our ensuing conversation winds its way through the day like a stream, between lessons and around a delicious luncheon in the Henriquet kitchen, on into the late afternoon in Michel’s library. Ellen and I relish this experience, as Michel weaves his answers to my questions into a perspective that clearly links the past and present, cause and effect.

“Before equitation competitions began taking place in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century,” Michel begins, “high school equitation was perfected to showcase the high level of training of fine horses and fine riders. In a day when everyone rode horses, equitation was considered an art form, intended to glorify the rider’s status, and the horse of choice for hundreds of years was the graceful Spanish or Portuguese horse. There were certainly competitions for prizes in royal carousels, for instance, but not organized public competition. However, competitions did begin to gain popularity over the first several decades of the 1900s, and of course we saw equestrian competitions in the Olympic Games during that time.”

“Tragically, the horse population in occupied Europe was virtually destroyed in World War II, bought or commandeered by the German forces for cavalry use and lost in battle. So, when peace came and people wanted to start riding for pleasure or competition again, there were few horses of quality available. The only horses left behind from the war were heavy, cold-blooded farm and draft horses, so Northern European breeders used what they had. They crossbred their heavy horses with lighter ones to meet the post-war demand for equestrian recreation. This was the beginning of today’s “sport horse,” which started reaching some level of quality in the 1980s and 1990s.”

“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 smiles. “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–and today, you will see a very big improvement in overall quality.”

As if by magic, the Henriquets have managed to produce a gourmet meal of baked herbed chicken, salad, the ever-wonderful French baguette, wine and succulent fresh apple tart, while they are both riding and teaching outside. As we sit down and survey the repast spread across the red-checkered tablecloth, Ellen and I smile at each other. We’ve been outdoors in the cold all morning and we are hungry! If the discussion were not so enthralling, it would be hard to concentrate on talk, the food is so good.

Michel continues. “Germany must be given credit for reviving the interest in dressage and organizing rules for competition. The main advantage of the competition came with the obligation of every rider to respect the same rules. Also, many more competitors than before began to take interest, which makes competition more challenging. It must be said that 40 years ago, there were only four or five Prix St. George riders in France, with no Grand Prix riders at all. In Italy there were three Grand Prix riders, three or four in Holland, a few more in the northern countries. In Spain where the bullfighting culture was so strong, there were none. But in Germany, there were many dressage riders full of passion, and because of this they won. I have in my collection a film from the 1936 Olympic Games. The winner of the Gold Medal in the dressage competition, a German, rode a horse that was completely light. He was doing, at that time, what they later lost.”

“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 got into routines with their horses and did 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.”

“But this de-evolution in equitation was possible because by this time, there were no old classical masters to control it. The lineage of the great 18th century European classical masters had been violently interrupted at the time of the French Revolution, when the School of Versailles that so influenced European equitation, and all its satellite academies, were closed. Although the French academies were reopened later, they were no longer consecrated to high equitation as before. The great riding masters fled France for their lives and found work in the different monarchies in Europe, especially Vienna and Germany, which is why Germany is such a big dressage center now. The great German master Gustav Steinbrecht published his life work in the very important classic book “Gymnasium of the Horse” the year he died, in 1885. But by the turn of the 20th century, there was little work for masters of classical equitation and since they didn’t go into the competition scene, they had no weight at all by this time. And that is why true classical trainers have virtually disappeared today.”

“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.”

“Last year Catherine and I made thirteen journeys to other countries while we were searching to buy the young horses–Germany, Holland, Belgium to name a few. When we were shown horses or happened to see them working around us, all we saw was riders training for this extreme extension, which is very tiring for the horse. And we saw endless work in circles, also tiring for the horse. If you compared these horses to classical dancers, you would only be making the dancers run for exercise. They would never be allowed to learn to form their bodies through the subtleties of dancing. We saw the shoulder-in exercise performed once only, in Germany.”

“So the horse doesn’t benefit from this kind of training and neither does the beauty of the performance. But that is what wins.”

Michel and Catherine are working together with great focus to prove that high-level competitions can be won today with the old classical training techniques he learned from the original books written by great European masters in his priceless collection, and by more than thirty years of continuous work with his friend and mentor, Nuno Oliveira.

“One of the big difficulties in competition,” Michel suggests, “is the issue 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 difficult 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 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 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 venerable 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.”

NOTE FROM AUTHOR: Michel Henriquet passed away Decemer 8, 2014. For nearly 50 years, Henriquet dedicated his life to the equestrian art, its history and practice. He was a former member of the national dressage commission within the Fédération Française d’Equitation and technical dressage advisor for the Cadre Noir. He conducted, among other dressage training, his wife Catherine (vice-champion and champion of France) to the Barcelona Olympic Games and to the Cup of France. Michel Henriquet was a prolific author of innumerable articles and seven books (Henriquet On Dressage: Michel Henriquet with Catherine Durand, was published in English by Trafalgar Square, 2004), Founder of the Movement for the Restoration of the Grand Ecurie of the Château de Versailles, Vice President of the Association for the Academy of Equestrian Art of Versailles, and Vice President of the Association for Lightness in Equitation.

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