[© 2020 Kip Mistral. I recorded this uncut interview with Michel Henriquet at his estate, Fief de la Panetière, Autoillet, France, Sunday, February 27, 2005. The internationally well-received article “The Vanishing Point of Lightness” I wrote based on this interview and was first published in the Equine Journal, reprinted in L’Annee Hippique and multiple other publications. Photo courtesy of Catherine Henriquet.]
“Marvellous animal, the horse deserves of his rider the understanding of his character and potential. The art of riding is the school of surrender and humility. Its practice, if well executed, makes of the human a greater being.” Nuno Oliveira
Is there a “glass ceiling,” an intangible barrier, for classical equitation, the fine art of riding?
Master Oliveira considered that it was impossible to reconcile the classical equitation, meaning the equitation of the School of Versailles, with the modern dressage.
And I think the same thing.
For instance, in the 1960s the quality of competition in dressage had fallen so low the FEI had thought of removing from the Grand Prix the piaffer and the passage. At this time the notion of collection was based on compression, when in reality the collection in the school of classical riding is based on flexibility, grace and lightness.
In modern equitation, as well, different breeds of horses have evolved the past 50 years in a better sense. Scandinavian and Germanic horses are now lighter and “closer to the blood.” And this improvement has allowed competition riders to work their horses in a better sense.
As far as I am concerned, I have been more a researcher in equitation than a rider. I began my riding life by looking at ancient books and I realized by looking at Spanish and Flemish paintings from the 17th and 18th century that the balance on the horse you had at that time had been completely lost in the present.
I began to collect old books from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that explained the fine art of classical training and riding, such as La Guérinière. After buying the books, I decided to look for the instrument with which to play the music–which was the horse–and that’s when I realized in all the royal stables the best horses were Hispanic horses.
I got addresses of Spanish breeders, and went to the south of Spain and realized there that the horses had almost completely disappeared. But they still existed by tradition in certain Spanish families and especially in the bullfighting families. That is where I met with the Domecqs, who were at this time the most prestigious family in the breeding of Spanish horses. But I did not find in their equitation a resemblance with the classical equitation of the 18th century (as taught La Guérinière for example). It was a rougher and tougher equitation.
At this time I was told that in Portugal I could find an equitation resembling the 18th century French court equitation. I decided to go to Portugal. Unfortunately at the last an emergency kept me in France—my wife was soon to have our second child—and I sent a friend in my place.
Three days later he was back telephoning and asking to see me. He came, sat down in my living room and took some pictures out of his pocket. Because I had been disappointed so many times in my search I was skeptical to see what would be on the photos. My friend told me that he had met with a young master of classical dressage and that he would be visiting me the next day. This was Nuno Oliveira.
The next day I was drinking champagne with Nuno Oliveira and this moment became in my mind the very first day of what I would call my equestrian adventure. Oliveira had just sold and delivered a horse to Geneva, Switzerland and had accepted my friend’s invitation to spend a day with me. Oliveira thought by going to France he would finally find the art of equitation the way it had been in the 18th century.
Oliveira told me in confidence ten years after we met that he was feeling a little self-conscious and concerned that he wouldn’t be good enough for all the great riders in France, but in fact he found us very nice. From this day until he died in 1989, I never spent more than two months without one of us visiting the other. One year later, with the help of the magazine L’Eperon [The Spur] I presented Oliveira to the entire French equestrian world, (the Cadre Noir, the champions of France in jumping, General Noiret, the director of L’Ecole de Cavalerie (the military school), and about three hundred other people.
We showed films of Oliveira riding and Oliveira also rode a horse that I had bought one year prior. I didn’t want him to ride but everyone insisted. He rode this horse and one week later the President of the FEI called me and told me “Monsieur Henriquet, I had dinner with the General Noiret, chief of the Cadre Noir, and I told him that I had met with this incredible young Portuguese rider and from now on he could send all his students to him in Portugal!” That was the beginning of Master Oliveira’s fame.
I was actually the first foreigner to come and visit Oliveira in his hometown. We became great friends.
In 1989 he died in Australia. Two days before he had left Europe he was with riding with me in France. He died in Perth where he was giving a clinic, in his bed, with a Walkman on his head, listening to Verdi opera.
Before Oliveira I had already found the techniques of 18th century equitation, then I found the instruments. With Nuno I found the master, because the books were not enough.
After he died I published in French, two or three years ago, a book named “Correspondence” all the letters that we exchanged about technique in equitation gathered in 30 years [“30 Years with Master Nuno Oliveira: Correspondence, Photographs, and Notes”]. In the beginning I didn’t want to publish the private correspondence but did it because I was asked.
Your most recent book is “Henriquet on Dressage,” let us speak of it.
This is the book I would have liked to find 30 years ago. You take a young horse, a young rider and you study the evolution of their training at the same time. It’s a project growing before your eyes, the birth of a horse and rider and looking at them developing together.
In America competition dressage riders, who often model themselves upon the successful Germanic competition dressage riders seem to associate “classical” riding with the airs above the ground, such as capriole, levade, croupade etc.
Yes, since 1950 the Germans have imposed their conception of modern dressage in general worldwide. After World War II, there were no more real dressage riders; only the Germans were courageous enough to ride and compete in dressage. Other than that it was all jumping.
In the first part of one of the books I wrote, I gave my opinion on equitation and my opinion on the great riding schools such as Vienna, Saumur, etc., and in the second part of the book there is a journal that documents my work with the first Portuguese horse I ever trained. From a historical point of view it is very interesting because I do a summary on the history of equitation and compare the different philosophies of the School of Versailles [like Guérinière, who worked in parallel with the methods of the School of Versailles] and Baucher.
Oliveira made the synthesis of the techniques of both schools. He took the best of both schools in his own riding. He is the only rider in the world who has done this work of bringing them together in an intelligent way. Many riders have tried to achieve that without success. He took all of Guérinière and a little Baucher and made a great combination. La Guérinière is all good, but you see in Baucher that some techniques are very good and some are very dangerous.
Do you think that it is possible to change the heavy Germanic style of competition to the lightness of the French court riding of the School of Versailles? And how did you and Catherine end up competing?
I previously told you that Oliveira thought it was impossible to compete using the techniques and philosophies of classical equitation.
This year Catherine won the French cup of dressage with the classical lightness and an Iberian horse. She also won the French championship of dressage 10 years ago, and she won twice the French championship of dressage. She performed with the French team at the Olympics in Barcelona. She is also a doctor.
I was technical advisor to Cadre Noir in Saumur in 1980 when Colonel Christian Carde, chief trainer, came to see me at our farm and saw me riding a Lusitano horse named Orphée. He then asked me why wouldn’t you compete with this horse? I said I’m not interested because the horse is an Iberian horse, he is atypical and would be lost in all the German horses, he would not be understood, therefore he is not adequate for dressage competition in Europe.
But Colonel Carde asked me as a favor to compete with one of my horses; as a technical advisor for Cadre Noir it would be good for Catherine or me to compete. Two years later, Catherine was second champion of France, the next year she was champion of France, the next year she was at the Olympics. Never before had anyone seen an Iberian horse working at this level. That is how French academic dressage entered the world of international competition.
I did this for only one reason, to prove to the world that true academic classical dressage and Iberian horses could stand out and be honored and respected. So Catherine, Orphée and I were the first team to show in the history of dressage that an Iberian horse could win in competition. It then followed two horses from the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez began competing. Since then Spanish horses have competed and won at the Olympic level.
Unfortunately nowadays in France very few people are involved in dressage at an international level.
Why are so few people involved in classical dressage?
Why so few people are involved…it’s a very long story. It’s a very long story. At the revolution, the academic school of Versailles was disrupted, in disarray. All the ecuyers of the king, who were nobles, were afraid of having their heads guillotined so they left France. They sought work in all the different remaining monarchies in Europe, especially Vienna and Germany (that’s 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, there was no classical dressage at Cadre Noir. Today the tradition of classical equitation is lost in France, you have to go to Germany, Portugal or Holland to find people knowledgeable in classical dressage.
For twelve years I have been fighting like a tiger to maintain the tradition of dressage in France and his biggest opponent has been the chief curator of Versailles.
The restoration of the Grande Ecurie complete, I had all the private funds to take over the Grande Ecurie, Catherine was willing to be consultant, Arthur Kottas was willing to be chief trainer. It was my dream.
The cradle of the equestrian culture of 15th and 16th century was Portugal. Then after, during the Renaissance, the art of riding shifted to Italy. Why? Because Ferdinand of Aragon, the king of Spain, when he chased the Arabs out of the country, went to take back the kingdom of Naples which belonged to the Spanish crown. It was a war. He went there with his Spanish horses. And the Italians of the Renaissance who were passionate about music and art began to create the first academies of riding with Spanish horses. In the 17th century, all Europe went to Italy to learn painting, music and equitation.
The French messieurs de Pluvinel and de la Broue went to study equitation in Italy. When they returned from Italy to France, Henry 4th took them as Grand Ecuyers de France. That’s when they created the first academy at the Tuileries. After the manège at the Tuileries Louis XIV in 1680 built the Grande Ecurie de Versailles with a big inauguration at 1682. At this time the mecca of equitation was Versailles for the entire world. Spain and Italy were not at the pinnacle anymore, it was all about France, until the masters were forced to leave in 1789 because of the threat of being beheaded.
In your opinion, what is the difference between the Portuguese and the Spanish horse?
There is absolutely no separation between the Lusitano and the Spanish horse. The difference is conformation and looks but the difference is based on the breeding and not on the country. You have Portuguese with Oriental faces and Spanish horses with a subconvex profile, only because of the taste of the breeder and their bloodlines, not because of the country. The temperament is exactly the same. Of course the Spanish think their horses are better and the Portuguese think their horses are better. Me, being a specialist of both Lusitano and Spanish horses, there are very high quality horses and very bad horses in both breeds. If you really want to find the difference, the Portuguese typically has a shorter and less elegant neck but he has a stronger back and haunches. Contrary, the Spanish horse has a greater and longer neck and haunches and croup that are less powerful. So the best thing is to find a horse that has the best of everything.
You see we are not professional, we are amateurs, and Catherine shares her life between being a doctor and riding, but she wins. Of course we don’t have the financial means to buy the horses that would be able to win at an international level. Those horses are being sold from 300-400-500,000 Euros at 3 years old.
In 2004, three three-year old horses were sold at 550,000 Euros each. If you want to be the first five riders in the world, you have to spend this kind of money.
Might you breed your own competition horses?
One can’t be a rider, a trainer and a breeder. If you want to be a breeder, you have to buy breeding stallions. For example, my Lusitano stallion Carinho des Noes can be sold for around $150,000. In fact, everybody is waiting for us to sell him. I bought him for $20,000, I was lucky with him. When I got him, he was barely rideable and his training was really poor.
So how do you bring classical riding into competition?
In fact, we don’t do anything particular, we just train the horse in lightness and whether it is classical riding or competition, it is just the same training. The only difference might be 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.
For them, correct contact is 10 pounds- 20 pounds (5 kilos-10 kilos) of pressure. For Nuno and for me, contact is measured in grams (ounces). That is why Catherine has to simulate contact during competition. Nevertheless, Catherine has won 5 Grands Prix out of 10 this year in France. Catherine in general pretends to have a great deal of contact with the mouth in order to please the judges who would otherwise think that she rides with loose reins, which is unacceptable according to competition rules nowadays.
If the head of the horse has the right place it is much nicer to ride as well as to look at. It is much nicer to look at a horse being ridden with loose reins rather than tight reins. There is freedom to it, you can see that the horse wants to perform the movement, it is not because someone is pulling like crazy on the reins.
Catherine is currently competing a Hanoverian mare and she is going to ride her exactly the way she would ride a Spanish horse. And it is a very strong mare, measuring at least 17 hands. The work is just the same. At this point the breeds don’t matter.
Don’t the judges see that there is a difference in the way the horse moves?
Yes. Lately we have seen a few judges change their mind and be more favorable to a lighter contact with the mouth. Also, we are witnessing now a change in the way of riding of certain German and Dutch riders who finally understand that it is nicer to ride in lightness. Also, one has to understand that horses have evolved in the past 30 years, they are lighter than they used to be. 30 years ago horses were tall, heavy and draft-like. That’s one of the reasons why German equitation was prevailing in the world.
So the size of the horse drives the style of riding? Someone is breeding the horses, so which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Temperament and the evolution of the breed of course depends on the humans who are breeding horses. As a generalization, Scandinavians and Germans tend to breed taller and stronger horses because they are a taller and stronger people. And also, always, Germanic riders have always been stronger than Latin riders.
Would they be likely to change their minds about their style of riding, then?
As I said previously, there is a positive evolution in the last 30 years. Horses are lighter and lots of people like me write that it is better to come back to lightness. The only purpose of us going into competition with our modest means is to show and promote this dressage in lightness. Of course you have riders who write about dressage in lightness but they have never trained a horse to the Grand Prix level and they have never competed at this level.
I tend to be annoyed by riders who write about lightness but do not demonstrate and promote it and do not compete in order to show it to the world. All those writers are theoreticians and not riders. The difference between us (Catherine and I) and the rest of the writers who write about lightness is that I do write in magazines and books about lightness, but we apply our theory in a concrete way by competing and showing.
Temperament and conformation are really important but most important is the person who rides the horse. Catherine rides with lightness so we can prove that any horse can be ridden with lightness, any breed, any horse…it is a philosophy.
The big difference between Germanic art and Latin art, and therefore there is a big difference between Germanic riding and Latin riding, painting, sculpture. I am not saying one is better than the other, they are just different. Germanic riding is heavier and tougher on the horses. Latin equitation has always been refined, more sophisticated, less military.
Riding has to be more than a style, doesn’t it first have to be a state of mind?
Xenophon wrote of looking for “the divine connection, a state of pure release.
If you look at the books of the 18th century, the reins are loose. But Catherine will have to be always careful to never let her reins loose because it obviously annoys the judges, and at this point judges still don’t understand what lightness is, but she will have a very light contact. The Chief of the French dressage team came to me, asking me to please tell Catherine to show contact with the reins or they will be annoyed again.
Can people learn about the lightness if they can’t see the reins loose?
No, that’s why we did the meeting here with Colonel Carde and 80 visitors. Catherine showed the three, four and five year old horses and finished with Carinho with nothing in the mouth, only the string halter, and she did a complete Grand Prix routine with him. Therefore proving that contact with the mouth is not required to ride Grand Prix.
We plan to make a video on dressage with lightness beginning with breaking and riding the young horses–three, four and five years old—and they will be Portuguese and German horses. We’ll demonstrate lightness and balance.
How did you train this stallion Carinho?
He was not psychologically deranged, because his previous owner had always treated him well and always ridden him with a light hand, never hurt his mouth. But it’s a horse with a very hyper temperament, very forward, with a very elastic trot. But when I bought the horse he was in good condition when I bought him at 12 years old.
Another problem with Carinho is that he had never experienced a full double bridle, and the double bridle is obligatory for Grand Prix. When I thought the horse ready for Grand Prix I suddenly realized that this horse had to be tacked up and ridden with a full double bridle to get used to it. Normally you get a young horses used to a double bridle, and then you have the time to ride him so he gets used to his bit by the time you get to Grand Prix. We couldn’t wait for 4 years to get him used to his bit or he would be senile, so we had to do it overnight.
How are people in other countries going to see the light riding?
I don’t know anyone in France who rides like this. Perhaps a little in Portugal, a small handful of riders. Once Oliveira died…Joao is talented but not serious. He has an eight-year-old son who might be a decent rider.
All my life I tried to promote Iberian horses and the equitation of Master Nuno Oliveira. I don’t do it for the money because there is no money to be made. It costs me much more than it earns me. I’m an amateur and I live with my retirement pension. I was a lifetime commercial director of the mills of Paris, working 12-hour days from eight in the morning to eight at night, and then I rode my horses. I’ve never won any money with my horses. The income from the lessons that we give here at the barn, and the boarding, barely breaks even with the expenses. We don’t make a dollar of profit out of this training facility.
In a way knowing this makes the story better for me.
Because then it is more romantic.
The truth stands for itself and you kept yourself and your ideas free.
Yes, I told Catherine to do the same thing, and stop working as a doctor because she doesn’t earn much money working part time. But she says she’ll never stop.
So is the art of riding becoming obsolete because life today does not allow us the time to reach a state of perfection?
More or less. The ultimate balance and harmony on the horse can only be achieved after years of heavy training.
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, completely relaxed in order to move with the horse’s back. It is impossible to ride in lightness 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 for the first year, the students are lunged every day for one-and-a-half hours, the second year 45 minutes. Two years of lunging only. Only the third year can they take up the reins and begin the dressage exercise gymnastics and exercises. Nowadays life does not allow us to do that.
The seven classical arts are considered to be Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Literature, Music, Performing, and Film. I believe that there is an eighth art…classical equitation.
Sadly, though, for this art there are no more teachers…not enough time…and it is very difficult work.
It is an art that will be lost, but it is not going to be forgotten.
Michel Henriquet passed away December 8, 2014, training Catherine and other students to the end.
For more articles I wrote with Michel Henriquet, see: https://www.kipmistral.com/michel-henriquet-the-vanishing-point-of-lightness/ and https://www.kipmistral.com/michel-henriquet-for-the-pleasure-and-the-beauty/
For more information about Michel and Catherine Henriquet, see: http://henriquet.fr/.
The choice of horse must first be a love affair.
When the rider feels and loves his horse,
working to help his horse develop both physically and mentally,
it is now that a rapport will develop that the horse will never forget.
~ Nuno Oliveira