I’m a traditionalist when it comes to the art of dressage. I love the structure, the fundamentals, the words of the classical masters. Dressage is the peaceful partnering of a horse and rider in a dance. It’s a discipline of intuition, subtle cues, and long term goals; a relationship that’s forged by patience and time. Dressage is freedom of expression within limitation; a waltz, a sonnet, a bird in flight.
The modern world hasn’t improved on dressage. Like every other riding discipline, some of us mistakenly train harder, faster, and younger. Some horses are enslaved by dominance; money is given priority over art and time. So it goes; humans are an imperfect species.
Now there are different versions of dressage; dressage in Eventing, as well as Western Dressage, Cowboy Dressage, and a few lesser knowns. It’s all good as long as it’s held to the same beautiful standards of balance, relaxation, and responsiveness. The more horses being ridden to these ideals the better. I’m still a traditionalist but being inclusive just makes sense for horses.
The bicker-fest I dislike the most is between proponents of competitive dressage vs classical dressage. I also think it’s the silliest. There, I said it.
Competitive dressage is famously the home of Rollcur (hyperflexion of the horse’s neck achieved through aggressive force), a practice that’s common in western disciplines like reining as well. There are always bad apples, but when I see rollkur, I think it’s a sure sign that the rider has lost himself. I hate rollkur but to name-call all competitors, as if rollkur was the standard majority opinion; as if most riders showing their horses are wicked–is just not fair or true.
The other extreme is classical dressage, claiming the high moral ground. They pridefully decry every rider infraction, judging others harshly from the rail, while never putting their principles to the test. They see any competition as ugly, while they rise above it all–riding only for themselves. The practice of any art becomes elitist when kept in a hot-house.
Again, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t like separation and I believe fighting between factions only makes us weaker. Dressage is a tradition that has survived centuries for a reason. It’s a mistake to judge any discipline by the worst expression of it, whether it’s on a jumbo-tron or in a back pasture.
The most frequent complaint about competitive dressage is that the fundamentals aren’t rewarded. That horses ridden behind the bit, even at the lowest levels, get rewarded by judges while others, riding in a more correct, compassionate way, don’t get rewarded. The problem with this opinion is that, taken at face value, it means the best of us are staying home, giving ground to riders more interested in the color of a ribbon than the welfare of their horse. They will take over our sport if we stay home and whine about it. Hold your ground.
If dressage is the perfect riding discipline, as I believe it is, then trust it. Do the work and trust your horse, in time, will be the best advertisement for kind, perceptive training. Trust dressage to shine through.
Fact: There are plenty of elite dressage competitors who visibly uphold kind training traditions and they deserve your support. Rollkur is not the majority opinion. Fact: The vast majority of members of the United States Dressage Federation are adult amateur riders at training or first level. It’s your organization and if you don’t like the way it’s going, use your voice to make it better. Get a group of like-minds together and stake your claim in some temporary stalls at a show. Don’t let your corner of the horse world be sold out to haters.
Aside from politics, is there a reason to show a horse? Being competitive isn’t a dirty word but how many of us feel uncomfortable about it? It’s a complicated question for women on our culture. Rest the politics and the emotional baggage–just ride your horse. It’s okay to not consider yourself a competitive person. Truth be told, it’s an advantage.
Once we manage to tame our egos, this might be the best reason to show a horse–I’ve held onto the following passage for years. Yes, it’s written about dogs, but the translation to horses is easy. It makes me teary; it defines competition honorably…
What is an Obedience Title, Really? by Sandy Mowry
A title is not just a brag, not just a stepping stone to a higher title, not just an adjunct to competitive scores, a title is a tribute to the dog that bears it, a way to honor the dog, an ultimate memorial. It will remain in the record and in the memory for about as long as anything in the world can remain. And though the dog herself doesn’t know or care that her achievements have been noted, a title says many things in the world of humans where such things count.
A title says your dog was intelligent, adaptable, and good-natured. It says your dog loved you enough to do the things that pleased you, however crazy they may have seemed. In addition, a title says that you loved your dog, that you loved to spend time with her because she was a good dog, and that you believed in her enough to give her yet another chance when she failed, and in the end your faith was justified.
A title proves that your dog inspired you to that special relationship, enjoyed by so few, that in a world of disposable creatures, this dog with a title was greatly loved and loved greatly in return.
And when that dear, short life is over, the title remains as a memorial of the finest kind, the best you can give to a deserving friend. Volumes of praise in one small set of initials after the name. An obedience, or herding title is nothing less than true love and respect, given and recorded permanently.
Ride your own path; defy classification. There’s a schooling show this weekend–we plan on having fun and loving our horses; it’s a choice.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.