It was over fifteen years ago that I turned my back on the sport of Dressage. I would catch whatever I could of the Olympics every four years – but beyond that I was content to ignore what was going on in the sport. So, when I decided to rededicate myself to horses and pulled back the curtain to see what I’d been missing, I was in for a rude awakening! This was a strange world that I did not recognize.
The first thing that I noticed was the glitz and glitter. A sport that once was formal and tailored now boasted of crystal studded browbands, etched silver stirrups and sparkly hoof dressings. Don’t get me wrong – I do not live on formality. Tail coats, vest points and stock ties are not my fashion of choice. But when you start to get sparkles, glitter and gaudy colors, the focus becomes fashion and not the horse. I’ve watched other horse competitions go down the glitter road over the decades, and it has never led anywhere positive for the quality of the riding or the welfare of the horses.
The next shock was when I decided to look into buying a new saddle. What I found seemed to resemble child car seats or high chairs – something built to support an infant with little muscle strength. I’d thought the seats of Dressage saddles were getting too deep when I was doing the sport. At that time I found it hard to get a saddle with a seat shallow enough to allow the mobility needed for proper use of your seat. Not only had the seats gotten unimaginably deeper since then, but there were now thigh blocks designed to ensure you were locked into the seat. Some even go so far as to wrap around the thigh! I had to wonder – in a sport where the aim is to develop a horse so his front end becomes elevated, why would you need something to keep you from sliding forward?
The biggest shock of all was yet to come. First, a confession – I still collect model horses. Every once in a while Breyer comes out with a model I can’t resist. So, I was very excited when they announced a new model of what was apparently the most famous Dressage horse in the world – Totilas. To show just how out of touch I was with the sport, I had no recognition of the name – so, I decided to Google him. Of course I found many glowing comments from admirers – and then I found a video on YouTube. I cannot begin to express the utter shock I felt at watching this horse perform! I did more Googling and found out he held the highest scores in the sport – my shock deepened! I watched more videos, struggling to understand how this horse that moved like a Saddlebred was the top horse in the world!
My first thought, because it is always my fall back position, was that I had somehow lost my eye and was missing the important qualities that made this horse world class. After all, multiple panels of judges couldn’t be that far wrong … right? So, I spent a lot of time surfing the internet, watching top riders, and getting more and more confused. Certainly there were more riders with straight backs and long legs, and fewer “gross” mistakes (e.g., missed changes or transitions) than in decades past. But there was a tension and overall unpleasantness to the whole affair. Extended trots resembled goose-stepping and covered no more ground than the collected trot. Hind legs trailed behind and backs curved downward. Piaffes were shuffling affairs with low necks – and not a single horse was at or in front of the vertical at any time. Everything I saw was completely counter to my own decades of studying Dressage!
How did the sport come to this? Had the rules changed? Were there new “discoveries” that I’d missed out on that made this all somehow make sense? It certainly wasn’t possible that such things could be successful on that scale, without agreement from all! I was reeling with confusion, and continued to dig for answers. In the process I began to learn that I wasn’t alone – there is a whole community of people out there just as alarmed and disillusioned with the state of the sport. I found resources like Epona.TV, and books by authors like Dr. Gerd Heuschmann (Tug of War: Classical Vs. “Modern” Dressage and Balancing Act). I also began to reach back for the old masters to reaffirm all that I thought I’d known. Through these resources I have found my equilibrium, and I have connected with like souls who have a mission to preserve Classical Dressage.
From this struggle to understand the current state of the sport developed a renewed drive to pursue and help preserve the art of riding that Dressage once was. What nearly caused me to throw in the towel before I’d begun somehow spurred me to deeper resolve! I am still not sure how much of my Dressage pursuit will take me into the competition arena – but I am more determined than ever to continue my own education and help preserve an art form in danger of extinction. Join me – the more the merrier!
Be good to your horses.