Watching the Dressage competition at the Olympics was inspirational. And horrific. There were impeccable riders with fluid bodies and invisible cues. And riders who were brutal, with hard hands and cruel methods. There were horses who were light and brilliant; who moved with such freedom and elegance that it took my breath away. There were horses whose bodies were so filled with tension and resistance, that I choked just watching.
In other words, pretty much the way I feel when I see high-dollar horses compete. There have always been two ways to train and ride, and one look at the horse’s eye tells the truth.
Social media predictably exploded: Some defend abuse and some deny it. Some just like to pour gasoline on the fire. Rumor, guilt by association, and out-and-out lying stand beside positive training. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be critical and ranting has a real value. If enough of us do it, horses will benefit. Still, tearing the entire sport down from the cheap seats is too easy.
But let’s be clear. The problem is not dressage. Or eventing or racing or reining. The problem is that we lose sight of the thing every horse-crazy girl knows. You always have to put your horse first. Obviously the biggest challenge going up the levels in dressage is to lift our own humanity, along with our horse’s movements, to a more balanced and beautiful place.
A few weeks back, I got a call from my local dressage chapter looking for volunteers and I was ready to scribe the next Friday morning. A scribe sits next to the judge and writes down the comments and scores for each movement in the test. It’s like taking dictation but there isn’t much room to write and tests move right along. I’ve scribed for international judges and learner judges and always come away with something valuable to take back to my clients.
Each rider comes in for a brief warm-up, greets the judge, and when the bell rings, enters the arena. Some of the rides are smooth and sweet. Some come apart and we’ve all been there. Some of the riders are cool and relaxed with lots of experience. Some are new and giddy to be out with their horses. There were pre-teens and women of a certain age and everyone in between. Some horses are fancy with lively dramatic gaits and some are steady and kind partners of no particular bloodline.
There were no cruel bits or bloody spurs. I saw no horses behind the bit and each rider did their best to keep quiet hands and soft legs. Everyone wore helmets. The horses were well-groomed and well-loved and the riders polished their boots. Because pride of appearance is the first way we show respect to the discipline we love.
We shared pizza for lunch and people congratulated each other. This judge was somewhat quirky, which I don’t have to tell you is totally normal for the horse world. But her comments were consistent, she didn’t give away any free marks, and if some riders were unhappy but they were good sports about it. In the afternoon the judge showed me photos of her own horses. I think she was missing them.
Toward the end of the day, during the obligatory afternoon thunderstorm, a rider finished her test with the usual salute and released her reins. Her smile was as bright as the tall stockings on her horse. It was her second test that day and an improvement over the first. She blurted out, with so much wild enthusiasm that it bordered on shrill, “Thank you! Thank you for coming!” We almost flinched at the howl of good will!
Driving home I thought, “This is my dressage.”
Dressage isn’t owned by millionaires or elite breeders or any particular country. The vast majority of dressage riders in this country ride below second level, on horses they’ll keep forever. They own this sport as much as anyone else.
Some years I have clients who compete and I’m on the other side of the judge’s table. Sometimes the horses I work with never compete but practice dressage, working to gain strength and suppleness and balance. Riders might ride in a different saddle or not always wear tall boots, but they all agree that riding a twenty meter circle is a lot harder than it looks.
Dressage literally means training; that’s our commitment. We try to improve, not to please a judge but to help our horses
I don’t mean to sound biblical, but doesn’t most disagreement boil down to good and evil? Isn’t the challenge always how to live up to our best potential? I don’t deny the dark side of dressage. I hate hyperflexion and cruelty; horses never stand a chance against human ego and greed. At the same time, watching a young girl and her horse quietly navigate a dressage test is a fine and beautiful thing.
Dressage will change for the good of horses. We’ll demand it. Change comes slowly, but I hold hope because of this girl and her good horse. Amateur riders with a horse and a dream are the reason I refuse to hand my beautiful sport over to the haters.
Back at the Olympics, the woman who won the individual gold medal in dressage wore a helmet. She and her horse didn’t have an easy start in the beginning; she needed courage and wits to match his fire and sensitivity. They forged a partnership out of chaos. Sound familiar? For their final test she was nervous, aware of the distance they’d come and her desire to do well. But once they started moving, she said, it was as if her horse held her hand.
A gold medal rider in two Olympics is talking like a horse-crazy girl. That’s my dressage, too.