Dressage Factions and the Real Reason to Compete.

WMclarabesteyeI’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.

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

25 thoughts on “Dressage Factions and the Real Reason to Compete.”

  1. I don’t disagree with most of your points. That said, I don’t get a warm fuzzy from Sandy Mowry’s words. Having done both, showing and/or titling means very little to me. Mostly, it means throwing money at an organization that often does very little (that I applaud) for my chosen sport or breed. And it always means stress for me and my animals. (Not competition related stress and anxiety, but stress in all the little forms that chip away from the actual enjoyment of competition.) Dogs (and horses) who stay home and work quietly on making progress are no less loved or valued. I know you know that, but Sandy seems to imply that a competitive animal is more … valued, “special,” love-worthy and smarter …. than the faithful lap-warmer or steady trail pony that works just as hard to get things right as the highly esteemed ribbon winner. I’ve had exposure to some amazingly talented animals and handlers who’ve never seen the inside of a show arena or venue, and therefore I find it a bit arrogant, hurtful even, when anyone implies that showing is the hallmark of love, devotion, worthiness, skill, perseverance or intelligence. IMO, it just ain’t so. Naturally, YMMV.

    • I do respect your opinion, because you have actual experience. I no longer show myself, but I encourage the experience for those who want it, and I would never require it of everyone. The truest benefit is always the relationship we gain. Thanks for your comment.

    • I didn’t interpret the authors words to mean that competitive riders love their horses more. What I normally hear from classicalists is that competitive riders don’t care about their horses, that we use them up and spit them out like they’re objects. What I thought this post was trying to say is that competition riders love their horses as much as you love yours, but we see value in sharing our horse’s sucesses with the world. Neither classical, nor competitive, riders love their horses more/less than the other.

      • I didn’t interpret the author’s words to mean competitive riders love their horses more. However, the person Anna happened to quote (Sandy Mowry) repeatedly says, “A title means …. ” That’s pretty explicit. In other words, Sandy sees an award as proof (to the owner and the world) that a team has experienced something others (who don’t chase ribbons or titles) haven’t, as a result of working toward an award or goal. I simply don’t believe a title proves there has been more love, inspiration, time spent, goodness or any of the other perks Ms. Mowry claims are linked to working toward an award or title. Absent the pretty ribbons, certificates or letters after a registered name, non-competitive pet ownership can, and often does include every single one of those perks too. As for classical vs. competitive? I can’t comment. It’s not my game. That said, I’ve been around long enough to think Anna probably nailed it. 🙂

      • I’m not wild about every word of that quote either. And in my personal journey, I learned things competing that not only helped my horse, but aided in my personal growth. In other words, I had issues that got in my way. Show success meant that I had to work to overcome things.

        Slightly sideways, there are people making tons of money on videos who have never put their skills in the show ring and that is certainly a choice they are free to make… it doesn’t mean they are better or worse…just that they are not quantifiable in the way we compare.

        Thank you for such interesting, thought provoking comments!

  2. Fundamentally, I agree. However, there seem to be many who are training and riding in traditional ways who share the experience of horses BTV, poll low, being the ones always rewarded – even at the lower levels. So, they aren’t necessarily just staying home, but it’s easy to get discouraged. The more the wrong thing is rewarded, the more it is copied, because people tend to want to succeed, and it’s easy to feel you must be “wrong” if everyone else wins. And a training method doesn’t have to be “cruel”, like rollkur, to be damaging to the horse.

    It sounds good to have the lower level amateurs use their voice … but my former mentor, who co-founded the USDF ‘L’ judges program, recently attended a national judges forum. When he asked the leader, a long time friend, why she didn’t point out the faults in horses being behind the vertical and being ridden with tension, she shrugged and answered “That’s just how it is now.” If national judges have “bought in” to the modern trend, how will low level amateurs change that?

    So, I agree that the bickering is not the best route, and the divide between “Classical” and “Competitive” is not a clear one – neither having a clear-cut “style” or method. However, there have to be those voices willing to point out (sometimes loudly) the flaws in the harmful training practices, and which horses show the clear effects of those practices, or those coming up will believe the winners are always the best.

    • It’s always sad to see the bad guys win, and in our imperfect world, sometimes it happens. I wish judges did show more leadership, but if they buy into the trend, then it’s up to amateurs, who pay their salaries, to mention it. Tell show managers, USDF, the technical delegate at the show. Amateurs are keepers of the flame as well as judges, and their voice has a place.

  3. I like your comparing dressage to dog obedience. I showed Scottish Terriers in obedience years ago. I have brought a lot of those practices to riding. I’m only 2 years into lessons and don’t have my own horse. But I am constantly talking to, encouraging and praising my school horse when we are working. I may seem strange but it is a hold out from working with dogs. My horse needs to hear praise when he tell well, and we simply repeat something that we need to work on and when we have success he gets all the praise and love. Working with an anmimal is a relationship and a partnership.

  4. I think that one of the reasons there is so much division between different types of riders and between disciplines is that most of us have forgotten the original reason for dressage and for horse shows. I’m lucky enough (due to my age) to have had teachers that grew up with horses as a way of life. And I’ve also been lucky enough to carry on that tradition in my job- I pony racehorses for a living. Every day,my livelihood as well as my safety depends on my pony horses’ skills. Originally competitions were a way to showcase these types of practical skills in both horse and rider- skills that were necessary for daily work. As I understand it, classical dressage was a system designed to develop agility, lightness, and communication in both horse and rider. Nothing could be further from that ideal than rollkur. I see the same thing in other disciplines. Walking horses were bred to cover long distances quickly and comfortably at a walking pace (often on a plantation). The “big lick” is totally opposite of that goal. The only place suitable for big lick horses is on the artificial surface of a show ring. The purpose of reining was somewhat similar to dressage- to show the agility and lightness- as well as the quickness in turns and acceleration necessary in working with cattle or horse herds. Now the show ring has completely eliminated the rollback. What they call a rollback is a sliding stop and pivot. If you were chasing a cow, he would be in the next county before you got your horse stopped and turned around. Almost any judged competition I can think of seems to be going this way. To my way of thinking, when performed the way they were originally meant to be, the different disciplines simply showcase the fantastic versatility and abilities of our horses. It is truly amazing that this one species of animal can jump high fences, pull heavy loads, canter or trot in place, turn on a dime, work cattle, provide a smooth and easy gait, and/or be quiet and steady enough that even the most inexperienced of riders can enjoy them. The fact that the best of these horses and their riders can perform all this as if the two are one entity should be truly awe-inspiring to anyone who takes the time to think about it. I completely agree with you that the different disciplines should appreciate the good in each other. I also think they all should work harder at policing themselves instead of making excuses and throwing the other disciplines under the bus. A good horse and rider in ANY discipline is a truly beautiful thing to see. Thanks for another interesting and thought-provoking post.

  5. I too love Sandy’s comment. I don’t find competition fun (though I appreciate those who do), and I’m definitely onboard with the idea of not giving up your space (competition) because someone riding in a cringe-worthy manor is rewarded with a ribbon. My friends ride different sports: I’m the only DQ wannabe. What we do share is an appreciation of sync and softness, rythym and communication. The desire to do right by the horse. If that is the true basis, we are on the same page, even if the words are different. Great to get slightly different approaches to common goals. Nice to see this hot topic so respectfully debated.

    • It is about the desire to do right. And I am always proud of my readers for being thoughtful and well stated. The comments are frequently inspiring to me and I just love everybody. Thank you all, and especially you, Jane. Horses first.

  6. Anna: I have to admit up front I didn’t read your entire article this time. I am not a dressage rider and in fact I am not a rider at all anymore. I run with my horses, walk with my horses, be with my horses, meditate with them… So not as an expert on the principles of riding but on the knee jerk response I get when I see rollkur (which I only recently learned the name) having been applied to a horse, it most definitely makes me feel ill. I try very hard to come from the heart on all aspects of life and never want to judge anyone but this practice completely baffles me. It baffles me that someone would come up with such an act, it baffles me that others would get on board with it, and it baffles me that it wasn’t immediately discouraged and banned. I don’t pussy foot around however. I have nothing to lose. I don’t care what others think of me. I care about the welfare of the animals. I won’t be banned from entering dressage competitions as a competitor OR an observer because I don’t go to them and wouldn’t endorse any of it. Perhaps the old original dressage was “natural” I don’t really know. All I know is worrying about whether you offend dressage riders for their acts of cruelty and their forcing horses into unnatural and uncomfortable positions will do good for man or horse. Speak out or don’t speak out but don’t apologist all the way through and try to say that there are people out there who are dressage experts and don’t practice this. Those people too need a shake up because if they don’t practice it and they don’t condone then they are allowing it to happen to horses by doing and saying nothing. Its time to step up and advocate for these horses and stop this madness. No apologies to anyone.

    • Agreed. Advocating is what I do every day. All day.

      If you got the idea that I support anything remotely like rollkur, even once in the more than 500 blogs I’ve written, I have done a horrible job of communicating and I am sorry.

    • Ha. That’s like saying you condone, and are just as responsible, for horses being starved somewhere else because you own a horse also.

      I have never seen rolkur at a single competition I’ve gone to. Not once. Who exactly should I beat up to stop rolkur?

      Or maybe you believe I should sign a petition? Well, I did that already. What exactly do you props I do to rectify the situation? Mind you, I’m poor, and I have a regular job that works me to the bone, and I no one gives a crap what I say.

      Thanks for painting all dressage riders as evil jerks who need a “shake up” for allowing abuse to occur.

    • Ms. Grey, if you had read through the entire article, you would have found that Ms. Blake made some excellent points on ways to combat the practice of rollkur in dressage as well as questionable practices in other disciplines. Since the mere mention of the word rollkur offended you so much that you quit reading, you missed the whole point of the article. You did however, illustrate her point quite well I think. Denouncing rollkur on a site dedicated to good horsemanship is merely preaching to the choir. It is not helping anything. Since by your own words you don’t know about dressage, then you don’t know what percentage of people use rollkur. You don’t know how many people in the discipline are speaking out and are actively combating it. You don’t know that overflexion and being behind the bit, while undesirable in good horsemanship, are not always caused by rollkur. While your righteous words about stepping up and advocating may make you feel good about yourself, they are in no way helping a single horse. Meanwhile you are disparaging a large number of people (Ms. Blake included) who are speaking out in a knowledgeable and thoughtful manner that will actually help do away with this despicable practice.

  7. You are a wonderful writer; fluid and (seemingly) effortless…a joy to read. Of course the subject matter is the initial attraction, but ethics and universal truths weave through your writing and transcends the Equis smitten audience – I forward your blog to others. Will start your book this week!

    If you are ever in the Boston area, there is a vibrant horse community on the north shore and in my town ( West Newbury) in particular; perhaps a reading at one of the many independent bookstores in neighboring Newburyport?

    Best, Dee

    Dee Brenner Program Coordinator ARTZ / I’m Still Here Foundation Mobile: 781-879-7237 E-mail: [email protected] Web: http://www.ImStillHere.org


    • Thank you, Dee, for reading the blog. I always mean it to be about more than horses. I appreciate that acknowledgment. I do love booktalks and will let you know if I get to your part of the world. No plans right now, but not from lack of desire. Hope you like the book as well. Thank you for commenting.

  8. You ALL need to see Jessica von Bredow-Werndl’s freestyle at FEI European Championship at Aachen last month – I happened to see it on Equus online today. She rode the freestyle with a snaffle and a saddle pad – no saddle – no double bridle!!! Fantastic exhibition of how it could be done! No leg movement – very light hands and that stallion was great. What a rider!

    • Snaffles are legal now at upper level, and when using a full bridle, many riders use the snaffle only. I’ll look for this video, but again, so many great riders do ride with kindness and sensitivity, reminding us that riding is an art.


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