in defense of dressage
August 3, 2012
Due to the illogical chaos of the American political process, this will be the most political thing I’ve written on the blog in months. And it’s about horses. No, I don’t get it either, but here we are.
Here’s a summary of why the equestrian sport of dressage is suddenly a topic of political conversation. Basically, dressage is being painted as a symptom of Mitt Romney’s wealth and tax-deducting shenanigans. And when Colbert spends the first ten minutes of his show on dressage, you know it’s a talking point. (The truth is, I’m very proud of Colbert for actually getting on a horse and trying it out.)
This negative attention is totally not fair to dressage. My proposition: Dressage is not inherently elitist.
Exhibit A: Me.
This is me, competing at training level dressage, with my Colorado-born Appaloosa Rosie. I supported my horse habit with my bookstore job and by working at the barn. Not a lot of money there, but we went to local shows and did okay.
A brief history of the sport: The earliest Olympic competitors in dressage were military cavalry officers. Like, actual cavalry officers who were showing off the skills they needed and practiced as part of their military service. (Men like Alois Podhajsky, who is credited with saving the Spanish Riding School during World War II, and who won the Olympic individual bronze in 1936.) The development of dressage as a sport mirrors the development of fencing as a sport: during the Renaissance, when gunpowder made armored knights on chargers obsolete, swordsmanship and horsemanship both became slimmer, sleeker, faster, more agile, and more about skill and precision than about brute strength. Horsemanship began to emphasize communication between the horse and rider, and riders realized that by fine tuning this communication, they could do amazing things with their horses. Piaffes. Pirouettes. Flying lead changes. Half passes.
These movements all had practical applications in cavalry warfare from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, until cavalry warfare itself became obsolete during the First World War. By then, horse people discovered that they really liked working with horses on these amazing skills, and the competitions continued even when the cavalries did not. The Spanish Riding School of Vienna has been showing off these skills to impressed audiences for centuries, and the fundamentals of dressage are in some ways the fundamentals of riding in general. If you’ve ever taken a riding lesson in an English saddle, you’ve probably been exposed to dressage. It’s popular because it makes people better riders, and trains horses to be better athletes. And it’s beautiful, elegant, and otherworldly. If you’re in the U.S., there’s probably a dressage show happening this weekend in your region. Like this one in Parker, Colorado.
The Romneys’ finances are a legitimate area of interest, but because they participate in what’s seen as an arcane, inaccessible sport, the sport itself is being derided. They could just as easily be spending that money on NASCAR or baseball, like so many of their economic peers do, and no one would think a thing of it.
This bashing of dressage is making me sad because I enjoy dressage both as a spectator and a rider. It’s very zen, because if you’re not calm and focused and in the moment you won’t do well. It’s an entire philosophy that sees horsemanship as a set of building blocks, a series of skills, all of which are important. You have to master the basics before moving forward. I never did anything in competition beyond walk, trot, canter, and halt. But really, practicing those skills was enough. And in our short career Rosie and I had some brilliant moments. (We once scored an 8 out of 10 on our “trot up center line.” Our best score on an individual movement ever. I’m still ecstatic over that. I can still remember what it felt like.)
It’s also making me sad because the accusation of elitism ignores the fact that all sports at the Olympic level are elite — elite in the sense that they’re the best, not that they’re snobs. That’s the whole point of Olympic competition. No matter what sport you’re in, it takes a lot of time, support, effort — and money — to get there. And just like all those other sports, for every elite, Olympic dressage horse and rider you see, there are thousands of normal people with normal horses just tooling around in their local competitions because they like it. Just like there are thousands of little girls taking gymnastics, or swimming at the Y, or casual runners racing in their local 10k. The discussion surrounding Rafalca has completely erased that aspect of the sport from the conversation. It’s giving dressage a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve.
End of Rant.