Michel Henriquet: The Vanishing Point of Lightness

Michel Henriquet: The Vanishing Point of Lightness

(© By Kip Mistral. First published in Equine Journal, October 2005.)

“It is disappearing,” Michel Henriquet says quietly, looking across his dining table with a level expression that hints of sadness. It is the end of a day of talk about the rich history of “high” equitation in Europe. Pale mid-afternoon light filters through the ancient windows of Fief de la Panetière, the venerable 16th century house that he shares with his wife, Olympic and international Grand Prix champion Catherine Durand. The company has lingered long over the end of a superb luncheon while Henriquet speaks of the future of equestrian art.

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

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 pronounces 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. She must pretend she is not following in the tradition of centuries of master teachers of classical equitation who so prized this lightness as a symbol of the subtlety possible in the relationship between horse and human. Instead 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…

Bringing the Past Alive: In Search of a Classical Master

The School of Versailles to which Henriquet often refers actually represents the philosophy of high equitation developed in the environs of the Manège du Grande Ecurie du Château de Versailles (Grand Stable of the Château of Versailles, completed 1683). Here Louis XIV established a riding school with two dozen or so satellite academies in and around Paris. Equitation characterized by lightness and harmony, faithful to the standards of the ancient Greek cavalry general Xenophon, was taught and studied. The masters of the School of Versailles further sought and refined the best thought and training in European court equitation of the 17th and18th centuries. Versailles was the Mecca of equitation.

“At the time of the revolution,” Henriquet muses, “the academic school of Versailles was disrupted, in disarray. The écuyers of the King–all nobles–were afraid of having their heads guillotined so they fled France. They found work in all 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.”

Interestingly, when Henriquet began his riding career as a young man in the 1950’s, he instinctively went in search of the lost School of Versailles and this search for the grail of high equitation became a passion that has directed his life. “I researched equitation by examining ancient paintings and books. I realized by looking at European paintings from the 17th and 18th century (pointing to the Flemish [equestrian] painting on a place of honor on the wall) that the lightness, the balance you had on the horse at that time was completely lost in modern times. There were no books currently in print about training horses and riders in methods that would render this graceful balance. I read Xenophon and began to collect and study 16th, 17th, 18th century instruction books written by the masters: Salomon de la Broue, Antoine de Pluvinel and Francois Robichon de la Guérinière. That’s when I realized that in all the royal stables of those times, the best horses were Spanish horses. If the techniques in the books were the music, then the horse is the instrument to play it and I decided to look for the instrument to play the music. At the same time I began a search for a master of equitation who understood how to create the exquisite balance.”

“I found the royal Iberian horses in Spain and Portugal, and then was told that in Portugal I could find an equitation resembling the 18th century French court equitation, so I decided to go there. At the last minute an emergency kept me in France and I sent a friend in my place. Three days later he was back, saying that he had found a master of classical dressage and had already invited him to visit the next day. And the next day I was drinking champagne with Nuno Oliveira. Nuno had been studying throughout his life with Portuguese riding masters whose training descended from the French lineage of high equitation. Before I met Oliveira, I had found the music, the techniques of 18th century equitation, through books, and I had found the instruments, the royal horses. With Nuno I found the master, because books were not enough. Happily, Nuno was about my age, and we became the best of friends. From this time until he died some thirty years later in 1989, I never spent more than two months without visiting and working with him in Portugal, or him coming to me in France. In this way, Nuno Oliveira brought French classical equitation back to France.”

Defining Classical Equitation

Michel Henriquet does not make a value judgment in comparing the equitation of the classical school and the equitation of the modern Germanic school that today holds the reins of competition dressage. They are different, he says. However, it seems it can hardly be argued the most obvious hallmark of classical equitation is that exquisite légèreté in the contact between the horse and rider. With reins loose or even dropped, the fully instructed horse is able to execute and sustain difficult movements in elegant self-carriage and with regular cadence. An example of such meticulously cultivated and poised athleticism is demonstrated by Catherine and her Olympic equine partner Orphée in the cover photo on Henriquet’s most recent equitation book Henriquet On Dressage: Michel Henriquet with Catherine Durand.

Henriquet writes eloquently in his Dressage Today article The Art and Sport of Dressage “The supreme expression of equestrian art is a centaur’s monologue, the manifestation of the improbable. In this sense, it is a desperate art, as its success cannot rely on technical merit alone. Here, as in dance, art is born out of graceful gesture, of harmony that cannot be formulated. Each horse has his own expression, and it is the rider’s task to reveal it…in the haute école the horse is not trained, but instructed. The horse must have a gift. This is what distinguishes the equestrian art from simple training—a mere pattern of procedures—and from sport, the value of which is measured more on performance than aesthetics.”

Can Equestrian Art Survive Today?

If classical equitation can’t be combined with competitive equitation, how can equestrian art survive?

Henriquet has indicated that there are almost no classically trained masters who know the process of creating a classically light rider and horse. Even if that were not true, few people have the time for this demanding work that takes a lifetime to master. Lightness is demonstrated not only by the hallmark loose rein which makes it so clear that the horse is performing the movement in self-carriage, but by the overall equilibrium and suppleness of the horse and rider.

In fact, 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.” Clearly, 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 1 ½ hours, the second year 45 minutes. Two years of lunging. Only in the 3rd year do they begin the dressage gymnastics and exercise. Nowadays, life does not allow us to do that.” It is to such exacting standards that Oliveira was alluding, and Henriquet agreeing, when they state it is not possible to truly reconcile equestrian art with competition dressage.

On the other hand, Henriquet says that he and Catherine are indeed competing successfully using the training principles of classical equitation. “In fact,” he asserts, “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 academic 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 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).”

Yet in spite of such rules, almost twenty years ago, French academic 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 second 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) at Barcelona. She has continued to compete successfully on an international basis ever since. 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 asks. “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.”

Watching Catherine school her Grand Prix horse (Carinho des Noes, a tall, deep-bodied, dark truffle chocolate-colored Andalusian/Lusitano stallion), one is awed by the extraordinary suppleness of an “instructed” horse and rider in the classical tradition. Carinho moves under Catherine with catlike elasticity and power, in full confidence and perfect cadence, a meditative expression in his eyes. One never sees Catherine’s hands or legs move as she puts him through all gaits with what appear to be faultless transitions; even so Henriquet opens the window of the gallery to say to her “A little more lightness, please!” With a small smile of acknowledgement, Catherine lifts Carinho in feather-light canter pirouettes and one-tempi changes, finally bringing him in his magnificent trademark trot smoothly up to the gallery to piaffe in front of the microphone. The amplified hoof beats drum like a heartbeat, like a metronome, regular and true, as the horse works in perfect attunement with the rider.

This stallion is so fit and concentrated, clearly loving the sensation of building up and restraining his power…he looks as if he could stay in piaffe forever. One remembers that less really is more. The subtlety, the rein so seductively loose, the grace is hypnotic. In this moment, time could easily fall away. One can imagine watching such a schooling session in one of the royal academies of 18th century France, where time was not of the essence, where it was understood there were no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no competition…only horses, and the teaching and learning of equestrian art.

And In the End…

By the end of the day, we have come to understand that the life lived in pursuit of equestrian art is probably going to be lived for itself. How are people outside of France going to see the exquisite light riding? “I don’t know anyone in France who rides like this,” Michel Henriquet says ruefully. “Perhaps there are two or three in Portugal, since Nuno Oliveira died in 1989. All my life I tried to promote the equitation of Master Nuno Oliveira, but I don’t do it for the money because there is no money to be made. I consider myself an amateur trainer and I’ve never won any money with my horses. I rode my horses at night after working twelve-hour days as the commercial director of the mills of Paris at the company headquarters. I live with my retirement pension; the income from lessons that we give here at the barn and the boarding barely makes even with the expenses. We don’t make one dollar of profit out of this training facility. Since the very best young horses cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and we cannot buy them, of course that affects Catherine’s ability to compete at the very highest levels—which would in turn serve to demonstrate the excellent results of classical training in the competitive arena.

Catherine works with tremendous energy and focus, riding five horses every morning, and then since she is a doctor of dermatology she goes to her office in the afternoon to see patients. On this day, after schooling her morning horses and missing her own delectable meal, she has departed to show in a local competition on the Hanoverian mare Farahim, a big mare that Henriquet says is not easy to ride but once collected performs as beautifully as an Iberian horse. The Henriquets are known for their love of Iberian horses, but also train and ride Germanic horses to prove that dressage in lightness can be applied in any breed and is not only talked about in books. In 2005, Catherine won the French Cup (Coupe de France) of dressage with Carinho and many Grands Prix with both Carinho and Farahim.

We are loathe to believe, but must believe after all we have learned, that Henriquet is right. Despite his tireless efforts, with so few classically trained teachers and few students who feel called to learn equestrian art, with the great monetary investment involved in both a long career of training and the purchase of talented horses for this work, we must be witness to the vanishing point of equestrian art as it was known for centuries. Yet Henriquet concludes his comments with an ultimately encouraging remark.

“Any horse can be ridden with lightness. Temperament and conformation are really important, but most important is the person who rides the horse. Riding is more than winning. Xenophon said this thousands of years ago when he wrote he was looking for the divine connection. The act of riding has to be more than a style. It has to be a philosophy, a state of mind, a surrender to pure release…to lightness itself.”

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10 Comments

  1. sharon matthews
    July 25, 2017 / 2:56 pm

    What a wonderful thoughtful article.

  2. george gold
    July 25, 2017 / 3:02 pm

    Wonderful!

  3. Ursula Davis
    July 25, 2017 / 6:57 pm

    Love this article!! I want to read more.

  4. September 2, 2017 / 1:57 am

    A gorgeous read, Kip. There is nothing more beautiful than fine art. Oh to become a lifetime student of such brilliant Masters.

  5. Terrie Corcoran
    September 2, 2017 / 4:06 pm

    Lovely article, I am so happy there are people who work to keep this art alive!

  6. Carol vernal
    September 2, 2017 / 4:11 pm

    Thank you

  7. Michele Holiastos
    September 2, 2017 / 9:04 pm

    Thank heavens for your article…I am an ex-student of Mestre Nuno Oliveira where I trained at his Quinta da Brejo in Portugal. It is the high light of my training in the principles of classical equitation focusing on lightness. I feel so honoured and fortunate to have learnt from this great master and to ride his wonderful horses who were also great teachers. Unfortunately when I came back to Australia eager to pass on my knowledge the modern german style of dressage was being promoted along with many breeders of the bigger build warmbloods with their enormous movements resulting unfortunately in a more heavy handed contact.
    Competition instead of beauty has taken over and the “finesse of lightness in dressage” is not comprehended. So thank you for instilling in me some hope with your wonderful article.

    • Kip
      September 3, 2017 / 1:17 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Michele. As I see it, people don’t get to really see beautiful riding, so what they tend to learn from each other is not necessarily beautiful.

      Classical riding was and is an aristocratic pursuit, both literally and figuratively. You had a once-in-a-lifetime experience immersed at Quinta da Brejo and it gave you a vision for what is possible. You know that you can’t add water and stir to make a schoolmaster horse…it takes many years of patient work and experience-building to create an equine artist, and some horses definitely are that. It is a journey for the horse as well as for us humans. Smart horses understand the importance of their education and they will employ what they learn for their own purposes. Horses are incredibly generous when treated with kindness, tactfulness and appreciation. And the more they learn, the more they can and will offer their rider. “Do you want this? This? Or this? I have all these things to give!”

      Something classical is something so fabulous, that it never gets old. Beautiful riding happens when the horse can be proud and not tyrannized. It doesn’t matter what discipline it is. Now you’re talking classical!

  8. JP Giacomini
    September 4, 2017 / 6:52 pm

    Lightness is first the particular biomechanics that derives from a particular balance. What matters first is to know WHY the horse needs lightness (he will function better, longer, happier in that balance, but it will cost an effort from both horse and rider to achieve it. The next thing is to know HOW to develop it.

    Lightness is more a reality stemming from dressage (the transformation of the horse by gymnastic and behavior modification) than of equitation (the technique needed to ride the horse as is). Nuno said many times that “Art is TECHNIQUE transfigured by LOVE. Without technique, love does nothing much for the ridden horse. Here is a paraphrase worth pondering about Oliveira : “To him, all good things – horse training as well as eternal salvation – came by grace; and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

    Best regards, my friend

    JP (see articles about last 2 issues of Warmbloods Today by yours truly

    • September 4, 2017 / 8:36 pm

      Hi JP, I think of lightness as starting in the human mind. That takes the question beyond techniques of riding, training, instructing and into the realm of being or becoming present. Then we can see how urgently the horse needs our help in balancing him/her under our weight and in all the thousand things we ask the horse to do. Being present gives us space to watch ourselves, if we dare, and discover who we really are, not who we want to believe we are. I think your quote “…grace comes by art, and art does not come easy…” is a perfect jumping off place for this journey. Thanks for your comment, JP. All best to you, Kip

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