These are rare times in the United States. Dressage is in the news! Sure it is being described with the usual cliches, such as "horse ballet", but at least it is out there for the world to see and be inspired by, or so I would hope. Unfortunately, all of the press has not been positive for my beloved sport, but then again, I am not in love with the competition end of dressage. Dressage is being described and identified as "a sport for the wealthy". A sport for those who have money to burn and are willing to do so on well-bred, monstrous horseflesh, top of the line tack, trailers, trainers, facilities, and international hauling fees. The exorbitant spending of money that is necessary to compete in dressage at the highest levels can leave a bad taste in one's mouth. I would be remiss if I did not admit that I, too, feel alienated by those who can afford to indulge in our sport at that level. Realistically, it does not take much for horse shows and training, for high or low level competition purposes or at home, to become expensive. I suppose the dress code of top hats and coat tails does not do the sport many favors when beheld by the general public or those who have no established interest in dressage. Dressage has a European flavor, a sharp contrast to the American cowboy and his ranch horse, which probably gives some the impression that it is downright unpatriotic.
I have sat, shoulder to shoulder, with some dressage enthusiasts to whom I cannot relate. These were very wealthy people, who had the means to purchase very highly trained, expensive dressage horses. Such horses were turned out with tack whose price-tag was thousands more than the purchase price of my actual horse, let alone my tack, and, unfortunately, some of those individuals demonstrated that they believed having money equated with having expertise. I have bit my tongue on more than one occasion when a "purchased expert" tried to speak knowingly about dressage or horses. I have grimaced and watched the same type of dressage enthusiast punitively wallop her horse for missing a step. I have also watched a rider hand the reins of her expensive schoolmaster to a trainer for the clinic-ride rather than ride in the lesson herself. Was the highly-schooled horse who demonstrated piaffe under the trainer really such a lemon that he required professional help? The rider seemed to think so, as she openly listed and complained about all of the horse's faults throughout the trainer ride. I would love to have known what the trainer was thinking. Although this uninspiring display would be invisible to outsiders, I would not fault the public or media for poking fun at that side of my sport. I am sure that such narcissism is not the norm with professional trainers and riders whose mounts actually canter down the center line and garner the high scores, but someone still must fund the experience. Someone with deep pockets. Or several someone's cooperatively owning a very expensive horse.
But what about those of us who pursue this sport on a shoestring?
What I wish for the public, newly introduced to dressage, is the opportunity to see the intangible side, the priceless side, the partnership between horse and rider, established not over 30 days of training, but over years and thousands of hours together. I wish they could see the physical challenge of balance and strength, as well as the preparedness of the mind. Dressage requires a thinking athlete of the rider and the horse. For me this is one of the most appealing aspects of the sport, but unfortunately it is a daunting task to effectively describe the timing and coordination required to execute a nice shoulder-in, so that a non-rider could appreciate the sideways movement of the horse down the long side of the arena. It all comes down to knowing what you are looking at and knowing how that came to be. Perspective is everything and perspective takes time and knowledge. Suggesting this makes the sport sound elitist all over again, so please allow me to bring it back home.
Dressage is much more than a ring with letters and prescribed
movements or high price tags. Dressage is present in every type of riding as long as the
riding is concerned with training the horse as a partner. It is also worth mentioning that equestrian
events are the only sports where men and women truly compete on equal
footing. That is something that I have always admired.
Dressage is number one to me, because riding my horse makes me happy. Communicating with another creature with compassion makes my heart soar. The motion of the horse gives me a strength and power of which my own body is not capable. When I ride my horse, I can almost hear him thinking and when he tries to interpret my thoughts it is like nothing in the world. My horse is the epitome of inspiration and beauty in the flesh. Riding him allows me to be so close to him that horse and rider literally must move as one.
As I close this essay, I realize that I, too, have presented a cliche, but I really like that one. Cliche or not, it is just the truth. Dressage is, and should be, all for the love of the horse.