Classical Equitation and the Reflective Practitioner

by Daune Bronte-Stewart, Middlepart Farm, Saltcoats, Ayrshire


When I was introduced to classical equitation several years ago I was struck by how many examples the literature provided me with for my work in academia where I teach and research in the field of ‘systems’ theory and practice (the consideration and application of the concepts of holism to help us understand and solve complex problems). Many of the themes that I find reoccurring in classical equitation strike a note with important issues in modern ‘systems’ thinking and practice. Consequently, I have found myself drawing upon classical equitation literature in my work to help illustrate and give practical examples of such things as: the concept of holism, the value of concentrating on ‘process’ rather than ‘product’, the importance of theory as a basis for learning through action, reflective practice, the role of technique in methodology, and the idea of there being many ways to fulfil the same desire or expectation.

For me, all of these points have a direct relevance to classical equitation and maybe, in the future, I could pursue these in more detail. However, in writing today I have two aims: the first is to offer a brief evaluation of classical equitation and to highlight what, for me, are the most important points which set it apart from equitation in the wider sense. My second aim is to introduce a way of promoting thinking and reflection in learning that I feel is particularly relevant to students of classical equitation.

To help me in my aims I would like to use some work from one of the leading ‘systems’ thinkers and practitioners of the past 30 years, Professor Peter Checkland. To help his students plan, implement, reflect upon and report their work he produced a model to ensure that they addressed what he considered to be the different components of research. (Research, for him, is never of a purely theoretical nature: the development of understanding and knowledge results from putting theory into practice and learning from the experience ready for the next cycle of action.) His model is reproduced in Figure 1.

Checkland suggested that this simple model could be a useful way of representing the constituent parts of a process of learning (a ‘learning system’). Before relating this model to classical equitation it is probably useful if I explain it in some detail as the phraseology may be a little difficult. The model has three main parts, represented by the letters F, M and A.

  • F stands for ‘Framework of Ideas’ – this is the collection of ideas, or theory, which forms the basis of our personal understanding of the world. It contains the understanding that we have of the world and as such acts as a perspective through which we look at the world and make sense of it.
  • Our understanding of the world enables us to make decisions about how to act. It is sensible if our actions are consistent with our perspectives and so the model shows how the Framework of Ideas informs the method of action, the Methodology, M.
  • Our method of putting our understanding into practice is applied to a particular problem situation, or what Checkland calls “A”, the Area of Application.

Perhaps the most important aspects of this model are the arrows which represent feedback. The arrows indicate that when we put our theories about the world (F) into practice through carefully selected methods (M) we learn not only in terms of the changes and improvement we make in our area of application (A) but also about the way in which we brought about the change (the process or method we used) and about our original theory which inspired our action. Such an approach represents a never-ending cycle of investigation, reflection and learning. Furthermore, this cycle links theory and practice closely since theory without practice is sterile and without theory, practice cannot easily be developed and transferred to others: it becomes less defensible.

So how does this model relate to classical equitation? Let’s take the elements of the model one by one.

Classical Equitation and the Framework of Ideas (F)

With the classical tradition, unlike many other aspects of equitation, we are fortunate to have a rich body of knowledge, in the form of literature and art, which provides the basis of our framework of ideas: the principles of classical equitation. This theory is not completely unified since different authors have different views and methods but, overall, it does share particular beliefs regarding the nature of the relationship between man and horse and the cultivation/management of this relationship that enable us to recognise common characteristics and classify them as ‘classical’. Today, the Classical Riding Club’s own charter is a good example of a particular expression of such a framework of ideas. Likewise, the small quotes provided by individual trainers in the Classical Riding Club’s Trainers Directory are other examples of the stated framework of ideas of these trainers (and facilitators of a learning process).

Classical Equitation and Methodology (M)

The methodological aspect of the model seems to be a little more problematical. Enlightened instructors who can implement their appreciation of the theory of classical equitation in their teaching are of utmost importance. However, it seems that the ability of individual riders to find their own methods of applying the principles of classical equitation is vital if real, personal learning and understanding is to be achieved. The journey of developing a deep, personal understanding seems, to me, to lie at the very heart of the meaning of classical equitation.

My reading leads me to the conclusion that students of the classical tradition need not only to read and think about the lessons from past and present ‘masters’ but also be able to reflect upon their own process of learning, evaluate it and learn from experience. The writing of Paul Belasik in Riding Towards the Light is a wonderful example of a rider coming to an understanding of the fundamental role of process in learning and the enlightenment that this understanding enables. So reflective is Belasik that he is even able to report his moment of realisation as he sits at the top of a cliff in Portugal looking out to sea:

“Then, almost at dusk, in all its ridiculous simplicity, I feel the answer. All the tension is gone. ...These masters are not all wrong. They are all right!…I realise a very important phase of my apprenticeship is complete. It is now time for me to try my own way…I have to find my own path in order to have any chance at completing my training” (pp76-7).

Sylvia Loch’s The Classical Rider is another example of a story of learning. The ability to make one’s personal learning experience open to others so that they too can learn from these experiences is an uncommon and highly valuable skill and this skill seems to be developed in modern classical equitation literature. I suspect this is due, in part at least, to the availability and ‘validity’ of classical equitation theory since it provides the structure and principles from which to work forwards and perhaps question and amend, or build upon. It seems that anyone interested in trying to educate themselves in the classical tradition can think of the learning process as an Odyssey – the feeling I get from both Paul Belasik’s and Sylvia Loch’s description of their learning processes.

Classical Equitation and the Area of Application (A)

The final part of the Checkland model, ‘A’ (area of application) can be related to the rider/horse partnership. It is difficult to discuss this relationship here since, if we follow the logic of the model so far, we see it will be different in each case. If we are to sustain the ethos of classical equitation it seems that in seeking its practice we must not be tempted to force the results into set patterns. The changes we make as a result of the practice of the theory are likely to be different for each individual. For example, the same rider may adapt their practice with individual horses whilst still adhering to the same principles, there being many ways to achieve a desired outcome.

I’d like to use a quote from Sylvia Loch’s The Classical Rider, to illustrate this point:

“I told my pupil…’Classical does not mean unchanging, unyielding; it means the best, the right, the correct one for the horse. It works within certain laid-down guidelines, but it is always receptive, able to respond to the need of the occasion’.” (p162).

Perhaps the most important issue the FMA model highlights in relation to A (the area of application) is that, given the learning process is so much a product of the individual, it would be inappropriate to measure the success of the outcome of the learning process in the usual way of assessing ‘best’ – that is, by a firmly set out series of tests that are assessed numerically. In fact, the model prompts us to question the need to assess ‘best’ and ‘outcome’ at all although it seems that we do need some form of feedback (reassurance) to help us manage our learning process. It is interesting to note that the use of the FMA model leads us to a conclusion that is consistent with the Classical Riding Club’s attempt, through the ‘Pay-and-Display’ idea, to offer methods of personal assessment tailored to the individual human-horse relationship.

Summary and Conclusions

From the discussion above, I think that three main points can be made: Firstly, the FMA model highlights that classical equitation is particularly strong in the area of the framework of ideas. This is consistent with other fields of endeavour that have sought to explain and express subjectivity, feeling, emotion, and sensitivity. This position leads, fairly naturally, to placing emphasis on process as opposed to product. For my own part this highlights the difference between classical equitation and other ‘schools’ of equitation where it seems that the development of skill is often treated rather as a mechanical exercise. Such a mechanistic approach tends to result in a focus on methodology – that is the description of the method (often the ‘rules’) by which end results are achieved.

Secondly, methodology should not be seen as fixed in classical equitation. There are trainers and instructors (present and past) who we can use to help guide us but, given the nature of classical equitation, it is not appropriate to have set methods of applying the theory – we need to find our own ways of implementing the principles from the theory, through personal interpretation and practice.

Thirdly, for the rider/horse partnership to develop according to classical equitation principles the rider should reflect upon the learning process and gain appreciation of the meaning and value of the classical tradition. Such a learning process never ends. Interestingly, this suggests that “Classical” does not mean static, established, old-fashioned and unchanging. The discussion evolving from the use of the FMA model suggests that the concept ‘classical’ should develop and that modern writers and practitioners should be seen as forming and informing the classical tradition in much the same way as the masters of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Classical equitation, therefore, can be seen very much as a living and evolving art form – not something that is set rigidly in the past, without change.

The title of this article is ‘Classical Equitation and the Reflective Practitioner’. In using Checkland’s ‘FMA’ model I have tried to explain a way of thinking about the complex relationship between theory and practice, a theme which, to me, seems to be fairly central to classical equitation: the more we are able to inform our practice from established ‘good’ theory, the better chance we have of being thinking and reflective practitioners. Likewise, reflective practitioners are likely to have the experience and personal understanding necessary to re-evaluate, question, contribute to, strengthen and promote ‘good’ theory. Nuno Oliveira, reminding us of Beudant’s advice, “Observe and reflect”, explains the importance of the relationship between theory and practice:

“…I know that I still have much to learn, and will go on learning until my dying day, not only by riding, but by studying, thinking deeply, and observing.” (1988, p30).


  • Belasik, P., 1990, Riding Towards the Light: An Apprenticeship in the Art of Dressage Riding, J.A. Allen, London.
  • Checkland, P.B., 1985, ‘Optimizing to Learning: A Development of Systems Thinking for the 1990s’, Journal of Operational Research Society, 36(9):757-767.
  • Loch, S., 1997, The Classical Rider: Being at One with your Horse, J.A. Allen, London.
  • Oliveira, N., 1988, Reflections on Equestrian Art, (new edition), (trans.: P. Field), J.A. Allen, London.