The Academic Art of Riding with Marijke De Jong

Since I began reading "The Art of Horsemanship" by Xenophon and "Reflections On Equestrian Artby Nuno Oliveira, I've become interested in using classical methods for training my horse, Bahamut. During my research I came across Marijke de Jong and a riding discipline that she uses and teaches called the Academic Art of Riding. She has read, studied and applied countless hours of "Straightness Training" to her horses, including her horse Maestro, the reason she started studying the Academic Art of Riding. Marijke has written an ebook called "An introduction to Straightness Training." 

These straightness training methods can be used for any horse and rider, regardless of discipline. Find out how these classical methods work and how they can be implemented into the training of your equine partner.

by Raina Paucar

Marijke with Maestro

Raina Paucar for Equitrekking: Marijke, how did you became involved with horses?

Marijke de Jong: I started riding at the age of eight on a Shetland pony, named Sacha. From that moment I was hooked and spent all my time thinking and dreaming about ponies. I loved brushing them and I enjoyed riding in the forest very much!

Nowadays, I teach the Academic Art of Riding and coach instructors who are specialists in ‘Straightness Training’ to improve straightness and balance. My specialties are my knowledge about natural asymmetry in equine bodies and of course the solution to this straightness training to improve symmetry in the horse’s body. 

Equitrekking: How did the Academic Art of Riding originate?

Marijke de Jong: The Academic Art of Riding is a training method based on the knowledge of the Great Riding Masters such as:

  • Xenophon (430 – 354 BC)
  • Antoine de Pluvinel (1552 – 1620)
  • François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688-1751)
  • Gustav Steinbrecht (1808 – 1885)

Understanding a horse’s nature is one of the first basics. All of these old masters made this their principal consideration. They always put the needs of the horse first–– in favor of the physical and mental welfare of the horse.

Originally there were two kinds of schools: Schooling for war or Calvary training and Schooling in the Academy or ‘Manège'.

In training for war, a horse is taught to be obedient and calm and quick on both hands. They must be able to make fast departs, stop suddenly and turn easily on their haunches. They must also be accustomed to fire, noise from drums, trumpets and cannons and the flapping and waving of banners or flags. They must not be afraid of anything.

With schooling in the Academy or ‘Manège', the old masters see riding as a form of art. This art offers horse and man a task in their life that can be performed with dignity until a great age, and gives quality in life to both man and horse. Schooling in the Academy means performing all of the artificial gaits, airs and figures invented by the masters who excel in this art. They wanted to reach the highest possible level, without neglecting the rules of nature.

What the gymnasium was for the young Greek at the time of Xenophon, the riding arena was for the horse. The gymnasium was the institution in which a young Greek developed the gifts of his body to the fullest. He achieved the greatest harmony through daily exercises. In the arena, the horse developed his muscle structure through a system of stages of ever-increasing exercises. These exercises followed one another in a logical sequence. It enabled the muscles to put the skeleton into the carriage that's required for service under saddle. It also allowed the body to move with strength and agility.

Marijke riding Romanesque

The mindset of the old Grandmasters is carried on by the academic riders of today. These riders aim to bring the historical art of riding from the past, back to life again. The schooling starts with in-hand work and lungeing with the cavesson in a circle. This is to teach the horse to carry his weight on the hind legs and use his back muscles.

The Academic Art of Riding uses side movements. When both hind legs are equally strong, the horse is asked to carry on both hind legs, resulting in the piaffe and pirouette. The levade represents the maximum development of the carrying capacity of the hind legs. It forms a bridge between the low airs (movements executed on the ground, like circles, side movements, piaffe, passage and pirouette) and high airs (movements executed above the ground, such as the croupade, ballotade and capriole).

Eventually the rider will ride all airs, only with a curb and the reins in one hand. The rider is leading the horse’s shoulders between the reins, and the horse’s hips between the riders legs, with a minimum of aids. The main aids are the inner vision of the rider, his energy and center of gravity.

Horseback riding according to the Academic Art of Riding may appear, because of the name, to be only for elite dressage riders. Nothing is further from the truth, since all horses and ponies, untrained, experienced or even with a problematic background, can be schooled following the method of the Academic Art of Riding.

Equitrekking: What led you to study the Academic Art of Riding?

Marijke de Jong: My horse Maestro is the reason I started studying the Academic Art of Riding. I used to experience a lot of trouble with my horse Maestro many years ago. He was very unbalanced and many tasks were difficult for him, which caused him to fight against almost everything. Let me mention a few of his problems: He wouldn’t lunge and would break free. Cantering was nearly impossible. At high speeds, he would race through corners, like motorbikes do. He would suddenly accelerate in the trot, without my asking him. Making turns to the left was difficult and when I asked him to, he would often rear. I had a serious challenge, but all the conventional methods made him even more unhappy and unbalanced.

Until then, I followed the conventional dressage training methods. They weren't working for this horse. In my search for a solution, I started reading the equestrian wisdom of the past, and I found the solution by doing massive amounts of research in equestrian literature. I started to study the old books written by the Great Grandmasters and horseman of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was impressed by the ideals of lightness and the proud expression that both rider and horse presented in their pictures.

By reading and carefully studying this old riding literature, I discovered that natural asymmetry in the horse has been recognized for hundreds of years as a serious cause of riding problems. In the seventeenth century a Grandmaster in the art of riding, Antoine de Pluvinel, described the natural asymmetry of horses. In the eighteenth century, François Robichon de La Guérinière wrote about this phenomenon in his books.

Grandmaster Gustav Steinbrecht, who was living in the nineteenth century, dedicated his entire life to straightening the horse, and gave us his famous words, “Ride your horse forward and set it straight.” 

All horses are asymmetrical by nature and according to these old masters, there are more left-bended horses, like there are more right handed people. This asymmetry is something with which people and horses are born. After learning all of this, I started to see Maestro in a whole new light. He was not just a mentally troubled horse. He suffered from his natural asymmetry. It was very difficult for Maestro to carry me, as a rider, with all this troubling asymmetry in his body and limbs. By carefully researching the literature of the old masters, I discovered that many of their training exercises were aimed at straightening the horse. It solved the problems caused by natural asymmetry. So, I found the Academic Art of Riding was the solution.

With Maestro, I started to train him based on the Academic Art of Riding. It lead us all the way to performing Piaffe and more. I succeeded in resolving Maestro’s asymmetry problem, so that he was able to perform comfortably in all that he was asked to do. Thanks to the straightness training exercises of the old masters, Maestro is now mentally and physically in balance. It’s a great pleasure to ride him now.

Romanesque focused and supple under Marijke

Equitrekking: What is the difference between Dressage and the Academic Art of Riding?

Marijke de Jong: In the Academic Art of Riding the horse is trained according to its possibilities and talents, concerning both body and mind. The big difference between this and dressage, is that dressage is for the horse, and the horse is not for dressage. After each and every training session, the horse should return to the stable or the pasture with the same good spirit he had when he left it.

Equitrekking: What are the benefits of training with the Academic Art of Riding?

Marijke de Jong: The benefits of the Academic Art of Riding for my horses and for every horse are:

  • The horse will develop physically; it will become more supple and easier to maneuver, it will become stronger, easier and lighter to collect.
  • The horse will develop mentally; it will become more self-assured and will scare less easily.
  • The horse will become more loyal and affectionate towards the rider and will show less resistance and stress.
  • It will keep the horse healthy and provide longevity; gymnastic exercises will help maintain your horse as a riding horse, until a very old age.

Because of the thorough gymnastic training, riders and horses become partners that work together in harmony. The ultimate goal for academic riders is to reach a perfect harmony resulting in a kind of fusion between horse and rider. It seems like rider and horse become one! As a trainer, it made me realize that theory is one of the most important factors in training horses.

Guérinière is quoted in saying, “Without the theory, the practice will always be uncertain. In order to attain excellence in this art, it is necessary to be prepared for the difficulties encountered in the practice by a clear and firm theory.” 

Equitrekking: Can you share a story about how this training has helped a particular horse?

Marijke de Jong: I met my very complicated Maestro in 2003. He was handicapped in a way by his natural asymmetry and the fact that this was not recognized before. Maestro was an extremely right bended horse. He would be left handed if he were a person. His left front leg had a better coordination than his right front leg. He also had a strong pushing right hind leg, and this leg was more stiff. It could bend less easily than his left hind leg. Because of his heavy head and neck, his front legs carried more weight than his hind legs.

Because of this and his right bending, his left handedness and his pushing right hind leg, his point of weight moved to the left and to the front towards the left front leg. So considering all his four legs, his left front leg carried the most of his weight. The diagonal movement of the point of weight was most clearly visible on the circles. On the right rein, the circle always got bigger. On the left rein he fell into the circle or he wouldn’t turn. In trot and canter he always lost his balance and went faster and faster and became vertical–– unbalanced with a stiff back.
 When he walked along side the wall, he tended to lean against the wall with his shoulders and step too much to the inside with his inside hind leg. 

It was very difficult for Maestro to carry me while riding. By reading the literature of the old masters, I discovered that a lot of their training exercises were aimed at straightening the horse. Maestro and I started to travel the road of the Academic Art of Riding. It lead us all the way to performing piaffe and more.

When I thought about this, I realized that many more riders and horses could be helped and reach much higher levels than they expected. Straightness training worked so well for Maestro, that I taught other people. They had success with their horses as well. To be able to pass on my knowledge and experience to other horse owners, who struggle with their own “Maestro”, is very special. There are now many straightness trainers in the Netherlands and many horses have been saved and improved enormously. So now it is time that the whole world knows about this.

Equitrekking: How can the Classical principles of riding be applied to all riders and disciplines?

Marijke de Jong: The classical principles are not only for the high and mighty in dressage. It is for everyone. I own and ride Dutch Warmbloods, a Spanish horse and a Frederiksborger. My students bring along their own horses. Every breed has passed through my venue here, from Tinker to Icelandic Pony to many Iberian horses. Everybody and every breed is welcomed, and the classical principles can be applied to all of them.

We have to straighten every horse, because every horse is asymmetrical from nature. So every horse in every discipline needs straightness training based on the classical gymnastic exercises. A straight horse that has developed symmetrically in body and limbs, is symmetrical in movement, so he can do all exercises to the left and to the right equally.

A straight horse is a light, supple, strong, confident and calm horse that is a pleasure to ride. It makes every horse perform better in his own discipline, whether it's jumping, western, dressage or something else. Straightness training can solve many problems and can create a wonderful harmonic relationship for you and your horse.

Realize that you can start with this training on any level, whether you are a beginner or an experienced rider. If you just take small steps and start slowly, it all falls together. Once you become involved with gymnastic training more closely, you’ll realize how important it is, and finally, how easy it is to understand.

Equitrekking: Can you show us a simple exercise for a beginner learning straightness training?



The Circle:

The circle is perhaps the most difficult exercise for the horse, because in nature horses don’t make circles over and over again. In nature you can see Levades, Caprioles, flying changes and passages, but a perfect round circle is seldom seen. The circle is a very difficult for a horse, but at the same time, a very important exercise.

Why is it so important? A crooked horse bends easily to one side and with more difficulty to the other side. So the first step is to make the horse bend equally to the left and to the right. This is a muscle problem that can be resolved by stretching. The circle is the proper exercise to realize this. By stretching the short muscles and contracting the longer muscles, the horse can take the proper lateral bending and make a circle perfectly round. 

This exercise is first done in hand with a cavesson. The cavesson is very easy to use in training. It’s the ultimate tool to help horses become more symmetrical. The cavesson was invented by the old masters to teach the horse to bend, halt, place the head and hindquarters correctly, and to make his body and limbs supple and flexible, without harming the mouth.

Learn more about the Academic Art of Riding:

Free eBook An introduction to Straightness Training

Straightness training home study course

You can find Marijke de Jong on: Twitter @RidingAcademy and Facebook

About the Author: Raina Paucar is an adventure loving equestrian and female jockey. She likes to ride and compete in many disciplines, explore new places, read great books, gadget hoard, play games, take pictures and write. She currently exercises racehorses and works with her own off-the-track-Thoroughbred (OTTB). Her career in media focuses on equestrian lifestyle. You can add her to your Google+ circles, subscribe on Facebook and follow on Twitter.