So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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Equestrian Sports and Activities: Dressage

If Racing is the Sport of Kings, Dressage was that of Emperors
The Count-Duke of Olivares executing a Levade
Painting by Velázquez, the Prado, Madrid

With all apologies to lovers of Scotch, I must admit that my uneducated taste buds cannot tell the difference between fine Scotch and Listerine. However, I am a connoisseur of equine form and movement. I can think of no other equine activity that shows off the beauty of equine movement better than dressage. I would argue that the beauty of a well-schooled horse and an experienced rider easily equals that of fine art, beautiful music or gourmet food. I really hate to hear commentators dismissively refer to it as "horse dancing."

The Penultimate: Many are Called, but Few are Chosen
Dressage Poster
I have spent hours watching “Dressage Unlimited” on RFD TV and Olympic dressage events on Oxygen while the rest of the world watches "Survivor Bali Edition." I wonder if people are put off by the formal attire. Perhaps if we outfitted the riders in habits modeled on the Women’s Olympic Volleyball Team or if the men were dressed in outfits similar to the speed skaters, we could get more viewership. However, I will tell you a very well-kept secret: competitive riders have a physique that equals that of most other athletes. A 130-pound person on average burns 236 calories an hour while doing typical riding and 354 calories while grooming a horse. Low impact aerobics clocks in at 295 calories. It is also extremely difficult to eat snack food while schooling a Dutch Warmblood at a sitting trot.

Although dressage is very much about horse and rider, it is not so much the rider but the horse that is my focus of interest. The rider’s movements must flow naturally with that of the horse and that is much harder than it looks. However, it is in the horse’s movements where most of the visible action is. This is deliberate. The rider's use of aides must be so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible. The relationship of the dressage horse and rider is a long one, and dressage horses are usually much older than those used in other types of equestrian competition. Riders usually have several horses at different stages of training. It takes a special person and a very special horse to do dressage. My horse has been known to do a beautifully extended sitting trot that is in my mind’s eye every bit as good as that of the horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. That is, of course, as a bold lie on my part as I have ever told, and I know it. If you are a fellow rider maybe you can forgive me my affection for my mount’s imagined abilities. I really know that neither of us is cut out for the dressage ring as much as I admire the sport. Perhaps no other equestrian sport requires more time spent in focused schooling as does dressage. A would-be dressage rider needs a good instructor and a great deal of commitment both in time and money to advance in the sport.

You might argue that dressage’s origins go back to the first person who deliberately schooled the natural movements of a horse to a high standard of perfection, but modern dressage dates back to the Renaissance. The various courts of Europe vied with each other to have the finest horsemen and schooling facilities. Authors wrote elaborate theses on horsemanship and, of course, the military value of having superb control over one’s mount was never lost on an aristocracy whose origins rose from a medieval military elite. A well-known relic of those days is the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. The school was first named as such in 1572 and the facility was even older. The name came from a time when both Spain and Austria were part of the Hapsburg Empire and Spanish horses were imported by Emperor Maximilian II and settled on a stud farm at Lipizza (Lipica) in the province of Slovenia. The Lipizzans became the signature breed of the Spanish Riding School. I have seen their performances, visited the Winter Riding School Hall in Vienna and the stud farm at Piber, near Graz, Austria. I saw sights that any horseman could admire regardless of his riding interests. Classical dressage, such as performed by the Spanish Riding School, includes a number of movements known as “airs above the ground”, originally needed for military riding that are not typically used in modern competition dressage and involve various controlled rears, jumps and kicks. These include the levade, capriole, courbette and ballotade. My horse could execute all of these very well, but only while we were trying teach him to load on a horse trailer.

Bet you thought I was joking.
My horse's levade while trailer loading
P.S. He does just fine now--Thank you, Mark!
loading2 loading1

The chestnut mare working on
her half-pass. Any rider
can benefit from a little dressage.
dressage training

A dressage rider works in a ring with signs bearing alphabetical letters marking points where various gait transitions should occur. In free style exhibitions the horse and rider perform to music, a great blend between the rhythm of the horse and that of the music. In dressage the horse is basically doing things that any horse is capable of doing but doing them in a flawless, controlled, flowing way. Likewise the rider’s use of aids (in other words, the controls: hands and legs) is nearly imperceptible. If you stare intently you can notice their use but just barely. I often wonder if you put a well-schooled dressage horse in a ring would it run through the test without its rider? It almost seems as if it could. Dressage is not just what the horse is asked to do but how the horse and rider execute the movements. For example, a judge is looking for rhythm, tempo, regularity in all movements, relaxation, smooth transitions, subtle contact between the bit and the horse’s month, proper impulsion in movements, straightness of stance, balance, collection (the ability of a rider to shorten the horse’s stride while maintaining impulsion) and extension (the ability of a rider to lengthen the horse’s stride without breaking into a faster gait). Put an inexperienced rider on a horse and you will see none of these things. In fact, you will see the polar opposite of these things. An advanced dressage rider makes them look so easy, but any experienced rider knows it can take a lifetime of riding and training for horse and rider to achieve them. I suppose that there are people who might look at the above list and see in them something similar to what I hear when a wine connoisseur rattles off the qualities of a fine wine. However, I assure you they are not subjective qualities. They are concrete, quite real and perceptible to the trained eye.

The Prix St. Georges Dressage Medal
Fédération Equestre Internationale
Prix St. Georges Medal
Of course, it is not only how the rider executes the movements but what those actual movements are. Some of these movements have conventional riding names that are recognizable to anyone having a basic knowledge of a horse’s gaits. Other movements are given more technical names; for example, we have the piaffe, passage, flying change, pirouette, turn on the forehand, etc. I will not try to define all of these but will only say they are beautiful to look at and hard for a rider to achieve.

I hope that you now understand why a purely accidental horseman can spend more time watching dressage than watching "Survivor Bali Edition." Horsemanship is more than just being on a horse: it is also about developing an understanding of that almost spiritual interface between horse and man. Dressage is a great window on that understanding, both for the dressage rider and the spectator. However, I find the ride much easier for the spectator. Watch enough and you too may find yourself a connoisseur. Now, just where did I put that “Scotch for Dummies” book?


The Accidental Horseman.

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