An influential horseman who brought a new philosophy of riding in lightness, François Baucher worked to develop a system of training to bring any horse into balance. The author of the now often-quoted principle of “hands without legs, legs without hands,” and whose work greatly influenced the riding of horseman Nuno Oliveira, Baucher was in fact a highly controversial figure in his time whose work was often rejected.
Perhaps the most fundamental of his discoveries was that balance and lightness can be achieved through the systematic suppling of the horse’s body, and continuous relaxation of the lower jaw. By taking a closer look at Baucher’s work and philosophy, we can deepen our understanding of his techniques to bring a horse into balance, and develop our riding in lightness.
Here I’ll aim to crystallize four key principles of his philosophy and provide some historical context, to help bring more light to his work and how it might help us in our own dressage work. These principles are based on readings of both Baucher’s New Method of Horsemanship (9th edition), and Jean-Claude Racinet’s book Racinet Explains Baucher.
“Lightness, always lightness! This is the basis, the touchstone of all beautiful execution.”– François Baucher | New Method of Horsemanship
Baucher evolved his concepts and methods considerably over his career. His later work (the “second manner”) was published only in the 12th edition of his New Method of Horsemanship, and was circulated much less than his earlier work (the “first manner”), especially in English. This can cause some confusion as a search for his work can yield very different accounts of his methods, because his first and second manners can at times appear to contradict one another in their philosophy. Because of this, it seems particularly necessary in Baucher’s case to study his work as a whole to make sense of these differences and his progression.
Baucher the Man
Born in Versailles, France in 1796, François Baucher developed his methods while working and performing with the circus, which at the time was primarily where horsemen would showcase their skills. He performed spectacular shows including piaffe and passage, as well as passage backwards, canter backwards, pirouettes on 3 legs, and tempi changes, the last of which he invented. While very popular with the public, he divided equestrians into those that admired his innovative ideas, and those that vehemently opposed his unconventional work. One of his greatest and most outspoken opponents in his time was Louis Seeger, who very thoroughly condemned his work in his publication Monsieur Baucher and His Art: A Serious Word with Germany’s Riders.
Even so, Baucher’s methods became so well recognized that they were successfully tested and nearly adopted by the French cavalry. However, with a shift of the head of the French army to a passionate anti-Baucherist commander, Baucher’s techniques were then forbidden in the cavalry in favour of more conventional techniques.
About 8 years after he published the first edition of his Method, Baucher also suffered a terrible accident in Paris while working a young horse in hand. A chandelier fell onto and injured him such that he could no longer perform publicly. This turning point in Baucher’s life appears to have spurred the beginning of a reformation of his methods that became his second manner, or deuxieme maniere, that made less use of the legs, and separated the aids with the principle of “hands without legs, legs without hands.”
This appears counter to his first manner, in which he used both hands and legs quite strongly at the same time. Baucher also initially relied on creating a headset or ramener (forehead on the vertical, with the poll being the highest point) in the first manner to induce lightness. However, he then found that this flexion of the poll was better understood as the result of lightness in the second manner, and that it need not be asked for directly.
Desiring his horses light in hand and in perfect equilibrium, Baucher sought to discover the root of any and all imbalances and difficulties in movement that could limit a horse’s progression. He resolved to trace and ameliorate horses’ issues from their root, which led him to develop a simple system of releasing physical contractions, primarily through suppling exercises and attaining relaxation of the jaw. This was how Baucher brought his horses into balance and lightness, and made their movements easy. Considering both his first and second manners together, his philosophy can be understood as essentially grounded in the following principles:
- It is the physical contractions within a horse’s body that cause difficulties in movement, and that prevent a horse’s progression in training and development.
Baucher writes in his book that “…first, I lay down the principle that all the resistances of young horses spring, in the first place, from a physical cause…” and explains that it is natural differences in conformation, and so different distributions of weight and areas of physical strength and weakness (resulting in “forces” of uneven strength), that account for differences in ability and movement. From this, he concludes that in order to enable a horse of any conformation to move well, we must first bring his distribution of weight and areas of strength and weakness into balance. Then will the horse be able to perform movements easily, which before would have been difficult. He writes:
“…besides the natural stiffness peculiar to all these animals, each of them has a peculiar conformation, the more or less of perfection in which constitutes the degree of harmony that exists between the forces and the weight. The want of this harmony occasions the ungracefulness of their paces, the difficulty of their movements; in a word, all the obstacles to a good education. In a state of freedom, whatever may be the bad structure of the horse, instinct is sufficient to enable him to make such a use of his forces as to maintain his equilibrium; but there are movements it is impossible for him to make until a preparatory exercise shall have put him in the way of supplying the defects of his organization by a better combined use of his motive power.”
Here, Baucher is essentially explaining that through the education of the horse using suppling and preparatory exercises, the horse will be brought into a better balance under the rider, and so able to move more freely and magnificently. Based on this premise, Baucher aims to supple the horse first, in order to ready it for movement. This leads us to a second principle:
- Physical contractions can be efficiently released through flexions of the jaw and neck.
Baucher’s key discovery lies in this principle. He refined his use of flexions over the years and increasingly found the relaxation of the jaw to be the key to balance. He writes that:
“Long and conscientious observations have shown me that, whatever be the fault of formation that in the horse prevents a just distribution of his forces, it is always in the neck that the most immediate effect is felt. There is no improper movement, no resistance that is not preceded by the contraction of this part of the animal; and as the jaw is intimately connected with the neck, the stiffness of the one is instantly communicated to the other.”
This is a particularly interesting observation considering the jaw, and specifically the hyoid apparatus is a major meeting point for muscular and fascial chains extending throughout the horse’s body. This could mean that Baucher was able to pinpoint where he could indirectly influence all of the horse at once, and release contractions throughout these chains by releasing contractions in the jaw. I’ve explored this possible connection in more depth in an article on the hyoid apparatus and using the bit to influence movement. For Baucher, this suppling was at least a very insightful discovery, and it became the touchstone of his method.
He emphasizes the importance of suppling the neck and jaw by writing:
“The equilibrium of the whole body is perfect, its lightness complete, when the head and neck remain of themselves easy, pliable and graceful. On the contrary, there can be no elegance, no ease of the whole, when these two parts are stiff.”
How Baucher goes about doing this sets him apart from horsemen before him, as with the following principle:
- It is more efficient to breakdown contractions by suppling the horse part-by-part, and to establish equilibrium prior to movement.
Baucher found that if a horse was worked in motion under saddle without first resolving its natural disharmonies, every natural unevenness of the horse would gain momentum at faster gaits. This would then magnify the irregularities and increase their resulting issues, such as having too much weight on one or both shoulders, or having difficulties staying straight. The “resistances” caused by these disharmonies would thus cause difficulties in training, and would slow or prevent the horse from progressing.
So, Baucher focused on beginning the horse’s education at a halt with flexions, and prioritised work at a walk. In his view, this allowed him to breakup and resolve problems much more easily, precisely, and thoroughly, by working the horse one part at a time. Baucher explains that:
“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… 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.”
Thus Baucher worked his horses carefully part-by-part, and often trained in slower gaits in order to do so. However, this was to become one of the most common criticisms of his work: that his methods didn’t encourage enough impulsion (due to training often at a halt or slower gaits), and that his horses could end up behind the bit.
Racinet points out that Baucher was not actually against movement. Rather, he explains that Baucher saw it as much more efficient and effective to create balance and lightness first, and then ask the horse for movement in this state of equilibrium. Then, all movements could flow more easily and gracefully from this state of balance.
As he stated in the quote above, Baucher found the traditional method of “working the movement by the movement” inefficient. Indeed, there may be some evidence to his thinking, as he was able to develop horses and riders to a high level extraordinarily quickly.
For example, General Decarpentry (a student of Baucher and a leading horseman of his time) remarked in his book that in the tests put to Baucher’s methods in the French cavalry, within a few weeks officers were able to advance to a stage with their horses that, using the old methods, would have taken about one year to reach.
Baucher also once took to training a previously un-rideable three year old stallion, Gericault, stating that he would show him at the circus within a month. A month later, he was able to perform flying lead changes, canter pirouettes, and lateral work with the stallion calm and collected before a crowd. Such stories certainly make one appreciate Baucher’s skill and feeling to be able to attain such results so quickly, and make one give some thought to his methods.
This brings us to what I see as the last principle of Baucher’s philosophy, that focuses on lightness:
- A horse can be brought into balance by fostering lightness. This balance gives horses their maximum mobility, and so the ability to perform even high-level movements with ease and grace.
Throughout his career, Baucher increasingly focused on obtaining a relaxation of the lower jaw to create and confirm a horse’s lightness, before asking for movement. He found that by ensuring a constant lightness, whereby a horse was required to carry itself without the support of a rider’s hand, it would develop its balance much more easily and quickly.
In this way, Baucher discovered that lightness enabled balance.
Baucher combined this with releasing physical contractions, and, in the second manner, integrating flexions with the horse’s head raised. Together, these exercises essentially worked to lift the withers and shift the horse’s weight back. This would cause the pelvis to tilt under, to create a constant state of collection and balance.
Baucher’s focus on enabling horses to reach their optimum state of balance could also be what helped him train a variety of horses to a high level very quickly, even if they had less than perfect conformation. By working to balance the body of each individual horse through suppling and training exercises, Baucher created a system of training that enabled any horse – not only those gifted – to achieve high levels of training. On how he worked with conformational challenges, Baucher explains:
“But, it is objected, since you allow that these difficulties are caused by the formation of the horse, how is it possible to remedy them? You do not possibly pretend to change the structure of the animal and reform the work of nature? Undoubtedly not; while I confess that it is impossible to give more breadth to a narrow chest, to lengthen too short a neck, to lower too high a croup, to shorten and fill out long, weak, narrow loins, I do not the less insist that if I prevent the different contractions occasioned by these physical defects, if I supply the muscles, if I make myself master of the forces so as to use them at will, it will be easy for me to prevent these resistances, to give more action to the weak parts, and to moderate those that are too vigorous, and thus make up for the deficiencies of nature.”
Baucher’s Contribution to Horsemanship
Baucher contributed his knowledge of the importance of suppling a horse, and especially the jaw, to enable a horse to develop lightness, self-carriage, collection, and balance. He sought out the root of issues in training and movement, which led him to discover physical contractions as the source of many training issues. He then designed a series of flexions and mobilization exercises to remedy them, and through this encouraged the idea of creating equilibrium prior to movement.
Despite the controversial reputation of his methods, many of his practical training principles have spread and even come into common use. Classical riders have since taken up many of his methods, including classical master Nuno Oliveira and those influenced by his work. Racinet also explains that some of his methods can even be seen as far as in the US cavalry handbook, such as with the principle of “hands without legs, legs without hands.” The lateral flexions common in western riding and colt starting today even appear to be influenced by Baucher, although these highly modified versions. As an influential horseman in the history of classical riding, Baucher provides much food for thought, and continues to be an important reference for those interested in developing their riding in lightness.