Making Sense of Baucher Part 3: Comparing Baucherism, Steinbrecht’s Gymnasium, and German School Dressage

François Baucher’s training methods brought a unique system of developing a horse in lightness, yet his techniques countered some of the fundamental, prevailing ideas of horse training in his time. His methods continue to offer a philosophy that at times significantly differs from German School riding that we now see most commonly in dressage.

This has led to quite a bit of skepticism, criticism, and controversy over his methods, as his philosophy offers an alternative view to some common, closely held beliefs about the proper training of the horse. Here, we’ll explore the key differences between Baucherism and Steinbrecht’s Gymnasium, and see how their different philosophies became reflected in their different techniques.

Steinbrecht’s Gymnasium

In his time, Gustav Steinbrecht was one of Baucher’s most outspoken critics, and authored the classic handbook of horse training, the Gymnasium of the Horse. As a student of Louis Seeger (a passionate anti-Baucherist), Steinbrecht commented very critically on Baucherism, while he explained and advocated instead for the training techniques of the Old School (following the methods of François Robichon de la Guérinière and the Marquis of Marialva). These Old School methods and Steinbrecht’s work then became a foundation for German School riding.

But where did Steinbrecht’s and Baucher’s philosophies actually differ? 

On what specific matters did they see things differently, and how did they train differently? 

Sometimes amidst the disagreement we can come across between these two horsemen, it can be difficult to objectively and precisely examine how and why they approached training differently, in order to get the most from their different points of view.

3 Key Differences Between Baucherism and Steinbrecht’s Gymnasium

To bring some clarity to the controversy between Baucher and Steinbrecht, and so to some of the differences between Baucherism and German School dressage, here we’ll look at the following 3 key differences between the two systems:

  1. Working the sources of movement, or working the movement by the movement?
    Where Baucher sought to improve the horse’s movement by working the physical sources of movement, Steinbrecht and the Old School sought to improve movement through working the movement itself.

  2. Seeking continuous collection, or constant collectability?
    Where Baucher sought to develop a horse to collect itself and then remain in balance continuously, Steinbrecht and the Old School sought to create an easily collectible horse, and to shift the horse’s balance forward or backward depending on the movement. 

  3. Creating independence from the aids, or keeping the horse connected by the aids?
    Where Baucher sought to make horses light and so ultimately, mostly free of the aids, Steinbrecht (and the Old School) sought to keep the horse continuously connected by the aids.

Comparing Systems

Given the strong disagreement between Baucher and Steinbrecht, and general disagreement between the French and German Schools, it’s extremely important to clearly and objectively analyze their methods to fully understand and get the most out of them. While some think that these systems are opposed, they simply work the horse in a different way, through different systems of understanding. 

Nuno Oliveira is one interesting example of a master rider that successfully combined both systems, depending on the needs of the horse. When asked by his long-time student Bettina Drummond about this, he confirmed that of course, he used both systems. She recounts:

“Then when I went to Mr. Oliveira, I said “What you just did to disengage the horse forward in the shoulders was Steinbrecht.” And he said “Of course.” He quoted me the page number in the book. And I said, “Wait a minute, you are training me in the French system; what is this German stuff coming in?” I had this concern that I was going to start pulling on the reins and cranking on the horse’s mouth if I do anything German. He looked at me as if I had completely lost my mind. And he said, “Steinbrecht is just Baucher on the other side of the Rhine. It is just put on a different muscle structure and a different equilibrium on a horse.””

Bettina Drummond, Eclectic Horseman

Now, let’s look at the key differences between these systems in more detail.

  1. Working the sources of movement, or the movement by the movement?
    One of the biggest differences between Baucher’s and Steinbrecht’s work is how they went about developing the horse’s balance and improving its gaits; either by working the sources of movement, or the movement itself.

    Baucher sought to fix any issues that showed up in movement (asymmetries in flexion and activity in exercises, weight on one or both shoulders, etc) at their roots – the physical parts of the horse’s body that when used together, created the particular movement and issue. He didn’t attempt to improve issues directly by working the horse in the problematic movement itself, because he understood problems in motion to be the symptoms of underlying resistances in the body set in motion. Greater movement, in his view, simply added momentum to these resistances, thus making it harder and more inefficient to resolve them in the movement itself.

    He found that it was much more efficient to resolve these issues by breaking them down and releasing resistances in the separate parts of the horse involved in the movement, such as in the neck, hindquarters, and particularly in the jaw. This led him to develop his various flexions and mobilizing exercises in place (at a halt), and often in work at a walk. He explains;

    “We now know which are the parts of the horse that contract the most in resistances, and we feel the necessity of suppling them. Shall we then seek to attack, exercise and conquer them all at once? No; this would be to fall back into the old error, of the inefficiency of which we are convinced. The animal’s muscular power is infinitely superior to ours; his instinctive forces, moreover, being able to sustain themselves the one by the others, we will inevitably be conquered if we set them in motion all at once. Since the contractions have their seat in separate parts, let us profit by this division to combat them separately, as a skillful general destroys, in detail, forces which, when together, he would be unable to resist.”

    François Baucher, New Method of Horsemanship, 9th edition

    And so Baucher diligently worked to resolve the underlying issues in the parts of the horse individually, such as by increasing flexibility in the neck or strength in the hindquarters. Only once these issues were resolved and lightness and balance were established, would Baucher then ask the horse again for greater or faster movement.

    Baucher found that this slow work at a halt or in walk allowed him to work the horse more meticulously, which improved the horse’s flexibility and strength more quickly and precisely. This also allowed him to discover small resistances and resolve them before they could manifest as larger issues when the horse moved faster or performed more complex exercises.

    Steinbrecht, on the other hand, worked the movement by the movement (following the methods of the Old School). He focused on generating and maintaining the forward-going “thrust” of the horse as the fundamental key to all further training. This is embedded in his most famous axiom, which he states in saying;

    “As the first main principle of the art I urge every rider to “ride your horse forward and set it straight!””

    He explains the meaning of riding forward and so preserving thrust, by explaining;

    When I say forward I do not mean driving the horse forward in the fastest and most extended gaits, but rather for the rider to take care to maintain an active thrust of the hindquarters in all exercises such that, not only in movements in place, but even when moving backwards, the forward motion, namely the desire to move the load forward, remains in effect.

    Why did he see thrust as so important?

    Steinbrecht saw thrust as the basis of everything. He understood that it was only through motion that one is able to shape the horse through training. Without movement, Steinbrecht believed there would be nothing to control, and so no way to influence the horse. Further, Steinbrecht thought that thrust must be secured in order for the hindlegs to correctly take increasingly more weight as collection is developed through training, yet while ensuring appropriate contact can be maintained. He writes;

    Only after the thrust has been developed fully and correctly will it be able to securely withstand the later rearward displacement of the load. If thrust is not fully developed, the shortening aids find no support. Premature collection either produces horses without impulsion or disobedient horses. The drive forward is the basis of all dressage training and cannot be established securely enough.

    Thus, his training (and eventually that of the German School) focused on working the horse in freer paces to thoroughly develop thrust, and he worked the horse very little at the walk.

    In his view, work at a walk or halt was highly advanced work which could only be included later in training. Because these exercises involved less thrust, they would require a horse to already have a thoroughly established thrust for adequate contact to be maintained, and so for the trainer to use these exercises effectively.

    Instead of working the sources of issues in movement and improving them individually à la Baucher, Steinbrecht also focused on always working the horse as a whole using seat, leg, and hand aids together. He writes about resolving the various issues that may arise in movement by saying;

    Although these inadequacies often become apparent at a quite defined location, it would be foolish to want to overcome them by locally limited exercises. Rather, their origin must always be searched for in the whole and must be overcome by joint activity of hands, seat, and legs.

    As we can see, while Baucher found it much more efficient to work the movement by breaking down issues and improving them at their physical sources (with slow, deliberate, and pinpointed work), Steinbrecht found it important to always work the horse as a whole by coordinating the aids in freer paces, in which he could work the movement by the movement.

    In comparing these two approaches, General Faverot de Kerbrech (a prominent student of Baucher’s) noted that the Baucherist system appeared particularly good at improving the balance of even horses with difficult conformation, because of its focus on improving the horse’s position, balance, and lightness before movement. He explains;

    “The ancient horsemanship would work the movement by the movement, by giving the instinctive forces of a horse a more or less correct direction; but it was never capable of making light an ill-built horse, because it did not know the means for changing its natural balance. I had understood that the education of a horse lies in his equilibrium, and all my studies aimed at finding the way to improve the defective balance of a horse, since I was convinced that a well-balanced horse was almost trained [‘dressé’]”

    Faverot de Kerbrech, as qtd. in Racinet Explains Baucher

    In a nutshell, the first key difference is that Baucher worked the sources of movement the physical areas of strength or weakness to improve balance and collection, in order to then improve movement. Meanwhile, Steinbrecht (and the Old School) worked the movement by the movement, to indirectly improve the horse’s body and so develop collection. 

    However, Baucher and Steinbrecht also had different goals and methods when it came to achieving balance and collection – and this is the second major difference we’ll explore.

  2. Seeking continuous collection, or constant collectability?
    While both Baucher and Steinbrecht aimed to develop balance and collection through training, their approaches were quite different. Baucher sought to develop horses that remained continuously collected (in balance) through all gaits and exercises, whereas Steinbrecht and later the German School sought to create horses that were constantly collectible, with a balance that would be actively shifted according to a movement or exercise.

    This takes some explanation.

    For Baucher, it was of great importance to keep a horse in balance at all times (equal weight on all four legs). This would give the horse its maximum mobility, and thus the ability to perform any movement with ease at any moment. By bringing the “forces of the horse” into equilibrium, Baucher found this state of balance essential to be able to guide the horse with the least required effort (i.e., with the greatest lightness), and for the horse to follow with the greatest ease. Any imbalance, in his view, would create resistances felt by the rider, and prevent the horse from performing as brilliantly.

    By always keeping the horse in balance, Baucher saw extended and collected exercises not as opposites, but rather as different expressions of balance with more or less speed. Jean-Claude Racinet explains in his book that;

    “According to this theory (and practice), from piaffe to extended trot, a horse keeps practically the same balance, which is realized by a constant engagement of the haunches, that is, a forward “locking” of his pelvic bone, a constant elevation of his withers. Extension is no longer the opposite of collection; it is simply the expression of collection in speed and, as such, can only be asked for at an advanced stage of the training.”

    Jean-Claude Racinet, Racinet Explains Baucher

    One can now see how differently Baucher and Steinbrecht viewed working at slower and faster paces!

    Where Baucher saw extended paces as an advanced exercise, because the horse would need to move with collection in speed, Steinbrecht saw collected paces (or work at a walk or halt) as an advanced exercise, because the horse would need to move slowly while maintaining sufficient thrust and contact.

    For Steinbrecht (and later the German School), developing the horse’s balance meant creating a highly flexible and adjustable balance in the horse that could be changed depending on the movement. For extended paces, the horse would be asked to shift its balance more forward towards the shoulders, while for collected paces, it would be asked to shift its weight more backward towards the hindquarters. For example, Steinbrecht writes that;

    “…the rider, if he demands speed from his horse, will relinquish the balanced carriage and urge with his seat and his aids a carriage toward the shoulders.”

    Steinbrecht also described in detail how once a horse’s balance is developed through working the hindquarters, that the rider can then shift the balance with ease;

    “The trainer must devote his undivided attention to working the hind legs, particularly the hip and knee joints, if he wants to bring out of his horse everything that nature has put into it. He has accomplished this task, and has trained his horse to perfection, if he has brought the two forces that are based in the hindquarters, thrust and carrying power (the latter in connection with spring force), to their greatest development, and is able to weigh their effects and their ratio to one another precisely and at will. He is then able to displace his horse’s center of gravity from the shoulders to the haunches and back to the shoulders, or he can maintain it in balance, depending on whether he permits the thrust or the carrying power to prevail; or he lets both appear in regular alternation (a perfection of training which is evident only in the true dressage horse).”

    Interestingly, by developing the horse to frequently shift its balance depending on the exercise, this naturally encourages the use of a consistent contact, and creates a need for a “throughness” (durchlässigkeit in German, meaning permeability) of the horse to be able to shift the balance at any moment.

    This is often done with the half-halt to shift the weight backwards from the shoulders. In order to be effective, the half-halt requires that a horse be “through,” meaning that the effect of the hand reaches through to the hindquarters and affects them to carry more weight, which shifts the balance back.

    As we can begin to imagine, these different approaches to collection – by creating a continuously collected horse, or a constantly collectible one – have led by necessity to different uses of the aids.

    This brings us to the final major difference between Baucher’s and Steinbrecht’s systems: The use of the aids and definitions of lightness.

  3. Creating independence from the aids, or keeping the horse connected by the aids?
    Baucher and Steinbrecht used the aids in different ways according to their different approaches to developing the horse and its balance. Where Baucher used seat, hands, and legs much more as a means to an end to create lightness and so increasing independence from the aids, Steinbrecht used the aids more continuously to always keep the horse connected.

    But first, what did Baucher mean by lightness?

    While Baucher and Steinbrecht both aimed to develop horses light to the aids, they defined lightness quite differently. Having studied both of their systems, Nuno Oliveira explained that;

    For some, lightness means the absence of resistance in the jaw, and the positioning of the head and neck made sure by the semi-tight reins. For them, the horse is light when, accepting a gentle contact, the jaw gives way without weight in force. The horse, at this moment, starts to give in to the bit. For others, lightness is found in the horse’s obedience to the rider’s leg action, controllable by the hands which direct while not feeling any resistance.

    Nuno Oliveira, Reflection on Equestrian Art

    Baucher had found the first definition – lightness of the mouth and particularly of the jaw, to be a prerequisite for achieving balance. If there was ever a resistance in these parts that was then felt by the hands, Baucher saw this as evidence that the forces of the horse were no longer in equilibrium. Thus, to bring a horse into balance he increasingly focused on first establishing lightness, such as with flexions to achieve a “mellow mobility” of the jaw.

    Because Baucher sought to maintain this state of balance continuously, and didn’t seek to frequently shift the balance of the horse, his need for the aids was greatly reduced. Baucher would use the aids to ask the horse for a movement, make an adjustment, or to reconfirm lightness, after which he would release the aids and let the horse perform without his interference.

    Following his axiom of “hand without legs, legs without hand,” Baucher was able to further reduce his use of the aids as they would no longer act against one another and they became more subtle. As training advanced and lightness and balance became more secure, his need for the aids lessened, and the horse could be ridden at times on the complete release of the hands and legs – the “descent de main et des jambes.”

    In this way, while the aids would still be used, the horse became ever more “free” of the aids as it did not rely on them to frequently moderate its balance.

    In Steinbrecht’s Gymnasium, on the other hand, lightness was understood according to Nuno’s second definition – the “obedience to the rider’s leg action, controllable by the hands which direct while not feeling any resistance.” Essentially, lightness was defined more by the “throughness” of the horse that connected it together, by allowing a rider’s hand aids to permeate through the horse to affect the hindquarters. In this system of training, using the aids continuously and in a combined way was seen as essential – both to moderate the horse’s balance, and to connect the parts of the horse set in motion all at once.

    Let’s delve into this more deeply.

    Steinbrecht explains that maintaining a consistent contact can allow one to both give quick and reliable aids from the hands, and evaluate the movement of the horse;

    Just as with the driving aids, where the legs should always have a natural, soft contact with the horse’s body in order to guide the hindquarters, the reins as the guide for the forehand should also always be held with soft tension. This produces a light but steady seat of the bit on the bars, and that is called the contact the horse establishes with the rider’s hands. It tells the horse the direction to take, and the rider is not only able to quickly and reliably express his will, but he also has one more connection with which to evaluate [the] position and movement of his horse.

    This becomes particularly important in order to frequently and quickly give half-halts to shift the balance of the horse. Unlike Baucher, who left the balance (once established) virtually unchanged, Steinbrecht frequently shifted the balance of the horse, and seems to have used a consistent contact in part to facilitate this.

    Because Steinbrecht worked the horse in motion, connecting and coordinating the various parts of the horse simultaneously also became much more important. In working “the movement by the movement,” all the parts of the horse are set in motion all at once.

    With so many parts working together, it becomes impossible to work any single part individually, as all affect one another in motion. Steinbrecht explains;

    The horse is a harmonious whole in which the individual parts mutually support one another. The horse is unable to move without the cooperation of the entire driving mechanism of the skeleton moved by the muscles.

    Thus, by working the horse as a rule in forward gaits, it made much more sense to work the horse as a whole, by coordinating all parts using combined hand, seat, and leg aids.

    The horse was then kept connected by the aids via the “throughness” that was developed, that allowed the rider to make frequent adjustments with the hands (to support the forward driving leg aids) that affected the hindquarters, which connected the entire horse together.

    As we can see, because Baucher and Steinbrecht approached training very differently, they chose to use the aids in ways that best suited their approaches. Where one system prioritizes lightness as a confirmation of balance, the other prioritizes “throughness,” and constant connection via the aids.

In a Nutshell

Baucher’s work countered many of the prevailing training systems in his time, and drew criticism from prominent horsemen such as Gustav Steinbrecht, who instead advocated for following the methods of the Old School. However, Baucher’s ideas brought an insightful perspective to developing the horse in lightness and balance by efficiently resolving issues at their physical sources, such as in the jaw and neck. His work has gone on to influence great horsemen such as Nuno Oliveira, and continues to inspire many classical riders today.

In today’s dressage where we mainly see riding based on the German School, there is often a lack of awareness about Baucherism and its alternate philosophy – yet there is much to learn from both systems. It’s likely that there is no one method with all the answers, and that different horses and different riders may benefit at times from using different methods. Thus, learning and understanding both systems and their differences can help us deepen our understanding and further our riding. 

Let’s look once more at the 3 key differences between Baucherism and Steinbrecht’s Gymnasium:

Baucher had found that working “the movement by the movement” – as was done by the Old School – to be highly inefficient. He focused instead on working the sources of movement – improving the physical areas of strength and weakness in the horse using a system of flexions and mobilizations, which allowed him to more quickly and precisely resolve issues in movement at their roots. Steinbrecht, on the other hand, believed the horse could only be influenced through motion, and so developed the horse in freer gaits by working “the movement by the movement.”

Finding that the horse was made most light and mobile when developed and kept in balance, Baucher began to develop horses to remain in a balanced state of continuous collection. This allowed him to reduce his use of the aids, and improve the movement of even horses with challenging conformation. Steinbrecht, meanwhile, developed horses to have a constantly collectible balance, which would be adjusted according to the movement.

By discovering that lightness was key to achieving balance, Baucher worked to create independence from the aids, which allowed him to ride the horse on the release of both hands and legs as training advanced. Steinbrecht, however, focused on keeping the horse connected by the aids by coordinating them continuously, and developing sufficient thrust, “throughness” and contact.

Both Baucher and Steinbrecht were masters in their own right – and when considering both systems, it’s important to objectively analyze each method, and understand the logic and differences between them. Our greatest opportunity lies in learning from the years of experience of both of these master horsemen before us, taking what we find valuable to improve our riding using their knowledge.

The question that remains now is; what will we take forward with us?

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