Classical Dressage: A Lifelong Journey with Horses


By Jessica Jo Tate

Classical dressage is important to me because I have seen it work with my own eyes. And more importantly, I have felt it’s benefits to the horse underneath me!

After studying classical principles for the last 30 years, I can say with certainty that it has not only helped me develop me into a good horsewoman but also into a good person. The lessons learned through a lifetime of classical dressage have stayed very close to my heart and continue to guide me on my mission to bring the principles of correct, classical riding to the show ring and beyond.

Like many horse crazy girls, I started my riding education at a nearby stable at a very young age. There, I learned the basics of English riding and how to safely be around horses. This opportunity was where I fell deeply in love with horses and where my love of dressage began to take root.

Charles de Kunffy came into my life to introduce me to classical riding when I was just eleven years old. As an eager student, I took all kinds of notes on his theory sessions and was delighted to ride my Saddlebred, Solo, with him when he came to teach. Little did I know then, this encounter would change my life and send it on a trajectory towards world-class riding through classical principles.

Charles continued to come to Wisconsin to teach clinics and circumstances made it possible for me to borrow a variety of different horses to ride for him. The experience clearly taught me that these principles applied to all horses, not just mine! These early years were the foundation of our decades long mentorship, of my life-long education through classical dressage and my deep seated passion for horses.

I truly think if you love your horse, like we all do, you should want to ride him in a way that truly benefits him. This is exactly what correct, classical riding does! This short list of some of the most important principles that Charles de Kunffy taught me illustrates that well:

  • Our seat is the main communication tool we have to help horses move more efficiently and pain free, and should be developed to that end.
  • All first energies must go towards rounding of the top line so that the horse can carry us pain free.
  • The horse makes the contact, not the rider. This means we don’t grab the reins and enforce a certain neck carriage onto the horse. We create the situation that the horse puts himself on the bit.
  • The horse must be taught to bring his hind legs more under the body and get connected hock to bridle by rounding himself up and lifting the rider.
  • Horses evade in 3 ways: Speed, Inversion, Crookedness
  • Horses are born crooked. Most horses need more right rein and more right leg, and less left rein until they are “straight and aligned.” Then the horse will be ambidextrous.
  • The horse will make his neck round and soft when his back has come up.
  • Slow can produce power and sitting.
  • Through the art of classical dressage, the rider can gain the virtues that will make them fantastic, enlightened people.
  • We are the custodians of the art. If we do not practice what has been passed down from teacher to teacher, it will be lost forever.

Having been an athlete my entire life, developing the body has been a fascinating and  wonderful challenge to me. I have always been very in tune with my body, so learning better ways to carry myself through developing certain muscles has been both necessary and life changing to a girl who rode 18 horses a day and ended up with a ruptured L5 disc! It also validated the importance of developing the body into its best balance, carriage, and suppleness to be pain free – exactly what I strive to do for my horses!

The history of classical riding was not only for military purposes and development, but also for the aristocracy. In order to become a future king or queen, one needed to learn to control their horse by, of course, controlling themselves. The art of becoming a good leader never ends. Classical dressage not only gives us the chance to learn to master our bodies with complete control, but also character.

As we all work towards the next best version of ourselves we should be mindful that we are in an era of instant gratification where “more is more.” We should always remember the gift horses bring us -the opportunity to remain grounded in ourselves and to let them teach us. They are mirrors into ourselves and we must be able to look at that reflection with compassion and understanding, so we can conduct ourselves in an elegant way.

It seems, more and more, that getting ahead no matter what the cost is a mindset that has been normalized. When I think about the most humane, thought-provoking, power developing, and kind way of riding, classical dressage is what comes to my mind. That is why it is important to me to continue to compete.

I worry that if the classical example is not out in the public eye, that it will be forever forgotten.   Always doing what is right by the horse, taking the time it needs, and doing it in an elegant way is what it’s all about. I love to compete because I love the extra challenge against myself and the training I have done on my horses. Of course, it feels good to win not in spite of the horse’s well-being – but because of it!

We must always put our love of horses and the process of training above all else, to work to develop ourselves while being with horses -and that journey never ends.

Jessica Jo “JJ” Tate is a United States Dressage Federation (USDF) Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist. She represented the United States in the 2007 FEI World Breeding Championships for Young Dressage Horses in Verden, Germany. Tate was also a World Cup finalist and was long-listed for the World Equestrian Games in 2006. She is on the U.S. Equestrian’s Developing Riders List. Recent notable wins include Dressage at Devon World Cup Grand Prix in September 2018 and the Global Dressage Festival CDI4* Grand Prix Freestyle in February of 2020.

JJ’s latest project is a platform providing world-class dressage lessons and more right at your fingertips. Learn more by visiting

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