Meet 'The Maestro' Philippe Karl
Searching for a small riding faculty in Baden, Switzerland, we find the barn tucked away inside an industrial complex. A person would never guess there were horses here, much less one of the world’s most important dressage masters. Once inside the indoor arena, we find class is already underway. The small group of spectators numbers around fifty, “shhhh”…one of them cautions as we enter, “the maestro is speaking.”
The “maestro”, is in fact famed dressage instructor Philippe Karl. He’s here conducting a clinic, checking up on his students to evaluate their progress since their class together the previous Fall. He’s watching intently as a student navigates a tall Swiss Warmblood gelding around the arena. The student is demonstrating shoulders in at the walk.
“Shoulders in…yes…ok,” Karl’s voice is somehow simultaneously both powerful and quiet; almost soothing. “Put in more outside rein…stop, don’t change, the horse is telling you it is right….that is a nice walk….stay light….walking like a cat….yes.”
“Look for the smallest effort and then open your hands, loosen the rein and say thank you to your horse….A kinetic hand is more important than a strong one.” PK
His foundation is in the French tradition of classical riding. As a young man, Philippe Karl gave up medical school to work with horses full time; that was over forty years ago. By 1972, he’d risen to head of the riding section at the Centre d’ Enseignment. Later he joined the famed Ecole Nationale d’ Equitation where he focused on historic riding traditions becoming an Ecuyer at the Cadre Noir in Saumur, France, in 1985.
“At the end of one year, if you calculate how many kilometers people make riding circles for no reason….it’s crazy. It’s not the circle that is bending the horse.” PK
In 1998 he ventured out on his own and in 2004, founded his now legendary l’ecole de legerete, known in English as The School of Lightness. Philippe Karl has a singular goal; to change Dressage as we know it. He sees the art form moving in the wrong direction. Karl is one of the most outspoken critics of modern Dressage with its emphasis on horses producing an exaggerated “look” in competition rather than horses being correct.
“It’s easier to play the piano with boxing gloves than to bend the neck of the horse with four reins.” PK
Watching Karl work with his students and listening to his colorful way of speaking, I was struck by a remarkable resemblance Karl has to Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. Karl may never have heard of or met either of these men but their minds are the same. Like Hunt and Dorrance, Philippe Karl, ultimately is working for the benefit of the horse.
“There is high tension in Piaf so you must be able to stop it otherwise it’s quickly turning against the rider. It can become an explosion, you must be able to control the explosion…..Quickening the result is never good.” PK
It’s interesting to note that according to Philippe Karl, one of the purest forms of classical riding can found in the ‘California School’, also known as the tradition of the California Bridle Horse, which has it’s roots in the old world Spanish riding school. Do to their isolation, however, this classical form remained largely unadulterated as if in a time capsule.
“Teach the language that is understood, then the gymnastic is easy….Action, reaction, combined with the transition, each transition is a critical moment….When it’s good it’s bad to prolong, when it’s bad it’s good to stop.” PK
One student at a time, Philippe Karl devotes all of his attention to the rider that is in front of him. Unlike most clinicians, he does not work with groups of amateur riders he works one on one and Philippe Karl is only working with professional instructors these days; devoting his remaining years to passing on his vast knowledge to the next generation. With his dedicated following around the world, he just might pull it off, he just might change Dressage for the better.