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.


9 Responses to “in defense of dressage”

  1. WanabePBWriter Says:

    Perhaps the Olmpics could add a cutting horse event to deflate the elitist perception.

  2. Dani Nguyen Says:

    I rode dressage for years when I was younger. When I quit I was showing at second & third level. From my experience, even at that level and above the riders are just normal people. I certainly wasn’t rich. I’m not a fan of the Romneys but I think this is a pretty ridiculous thing to judge them over. Like you said, if it wasn’t dressage it would be some other sport.

    BTW, I thought Colbert’s segment on this was a riot. Kudos to him for giving it a try!

  3. Jacqie Says:

    Thanks for writing this! I learned to ride (never owned a horse though, my family wasn’t rich) doing English riding and dressage. Did some small shows. It’s just riding, really, taken to the most precise level. I enjoyed Colbert too, but I am sad that this is all many people will ever know of dressage.

  4. Georgiana Says:


    You don’t need to be rich to own a horse. My dressage mount was a large pony (Arab cross) that I bought for four hundred dollars. I babysat for my riding instructor and let her use him as a lesson pony in exchange for board and paid less for his upkeep then I currently spend on my dog’s food.

    There are tons of working students who work off their horse’s board around the barn. And there are plenty of great horses out there for little to no money. My kids had a great small pony called Ginger that was a rescue from the meat auctions, which we got for free so long as my oldest was involved in Pony Club. When he stopped going to Pony Club we passed her along to another member.

  5. Savannah Says:

    I live close to the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, Georgia, where they held the Equestrian events for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I love going over there and watching the horses and their riders practice. It is such a beautiful thing. Although, I have always loved and wanted a horse, I have yet to learn how to properly ride. One of my life goals is to own a horse of my own. I just don’t have the time/money/space at this point in my life.

  6. Re WIlliams Says:

    Boy am I glad that the international press does not cover the pettiness of US elections. It is über stupid to attack dressage. Hopefully it’ll blow over like most of the election crap does when the next ‘hot topic’ comes to light.

    p.s. I was talking to a singer at the Irish Pub music session and she mentioned Steam Punk parties. Thanks for educating me so I knew what she was talking about! Perhaps I’ll even try the one here in Oslo next year. 🙂

  7. Anna Says:

    The interesting thing is a lot of riders at elite level don’t actually own their horses, whatever the event. Case in point the British show jumpers that won the team event. Out of the 4 riders, 2 part own their horses, the others are sponsored by the owners of their horses and have no monetary interest in the horse itself.

    The horses that won/placed in the events can then be sold, used at stud or breed and so make money for the owners. By letting an elite rider use the horse, its shown at its best and so ends up being worth more

  8. Addison Says:

    I just want to say all politics aside. People riding dressage need to be able to not punish the horse while riding, if the horse is balanced and happy you don’t need to use curb bits and spurs. There are so many ways to hurt your horse that way. Many times people just ride in training level competition to get more money and they don’t care what they do to their horses. In your picture you are leaning so far forward that you most likely can’t feel the horses’s back legs (which you should while riding). Your stirrups are up so far making you sit forward. If you let your stirrups down and sit back you could do so much more with that horse.

  9. carriev Says:

    A) We’re using a plain snaffle and no spurs here.
    B) There’s no money in training level events. This is a local novice combined training event.
    C) I never said I was *good* at it.

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