Alternative Dressage Competitions?

I was recently reading a piece about a new Dressage competition that was started in Finland.  The gist of it is that two competitors ride side by side, in mirror patterns  “consisting of 5 or 6 ‘flashy’ movements”.  The audience registers their approval by the level of applause, and three judges decide who moves into the next round.  It’s a bit like some phases of professional dance competitions, where couples keep getting eliminated until you have a winner.

I will be the first to admit that even I find Dressage competitions less than exciting.  In my earlier days, I enjoyed watching only from the stand point of continually improving my eye.  Today the top level is so blatantly dysfunctional that there are few rides I can stand to watch all of the way through.  I also understand that there is a desire to bring more people and more money to the sport – a dubious goal, in my opinion.  But Dressage struggles in the competitive world as it is – do we really need “sudden death” style competitions?

 Within the long history of dressage, it is hard to overstate how revolutionary was the idea of turning it into a sport was [sic]. One might draw an analogy with a group of people getting together and deciding to make ballet a sport…. Among a group of artists such an idea would, of course, have been rejected. Exhibitions – yes, recital – yes, performances – yes. But a score card counting the numbers of pirouettes, or piaffe steps – impossible.

Paul Belasik, Dressage for the 21st Century

The debate on Facebook and Horse & Hound over this new competition was an interesting study in the divide among Dressage enthusiasts.  The heart of the argument between the two sides is the concept of Dressage as a sport.  I’ve watched, over many decades, the push to get Dressage accepted as a genuine sport.  Articles abound about developing yourself as an “athlete” – but the reality is that a truly well trained Dressage horse requires no significant athletic ability on the part of the rider.  Watch videos of the best classical riders and you will find that they are doing very little.  The point is to train your horse to the level where merely thinking of a movement makes it happen – I’ve been there!  It’s magical, believe me!  But it requires little beyond the level of fitness that allows you to maintain correct posture.

We must face the fact that although some of the performances in the sport are aesthetically disappointing, it is from the ranks of the sportsmen that artists will emerge. If it were not for the sake of sport, few riders would practice dressage and the art would perish. Sport is the launching platform for art, although for many dressage will remain just a sport …

Udo Burger, The Way to Perfect Horsemanship

As much as I am disturbed by the current state of the sport, it is true that without the sport aspect there would no longer be support for the art.  Look at human history and you will find that if we do not have a use for something, it will inevitably become extinct.  So, we need the sport for the survival of the art. But, can we find a way to make the sport more interesting, more humane and somehow return to the artistic aspect that is concerned with preservation of the horse?

It is difficult to understand why dressage has become a sport. I believed for a long time that dressage had something to do with the art of the High-school and that success was measured by the same criteria. At all levels, dressage tests were supposed to show that the rider had educated his horse to be perfectly obedient to the most discreet aids and to be always light and attentive to the intentions of his rider…. in the sport of dressage, it is common to find that horses who do not measure up to this standard are preferred by the judges to horses who have correct gaits but have committed a trifling fault in the prescribed movements of the test…. In the sport, accuracy matters more than grace and elegance ….

Udo Burger, The Way to Perfect Horsemanship

Musical rides were introduced into top level Dressage competitions as a way to improve audience engagement.  Unfortunately, in my opinion then and now, the “showmanship” aspect has only degraded performances.  In addition, I’ve been saddened to see very little improvement in the musicality or choreography – begging the question as to whether you even get a good show out of it.  So, what other options do we have?

The best idea that I’ve heard is to eliminate the prescribed tests.  (Not being positive about where I heard this idea, and not wanting to inappropriately place credit or blame, I will just suffice in saying that this was not my original idea.)  The idea would be to have tests handled just as you do a jumping course, trail course or (I believe) a working equitation course – the rider would not know what the test consisted of until they arrived at the competition.  This would eliminate the over-drilling that too many riders are prone to.  The problem is so bad that at a recent symposium, horses could not do what was asked if the pattern too closely resembled something from a test – one horse even going into auto-pilot tempi-changes at one point.

The beauty of this idea is that riders would have to be more flexible and horses more responsive.  Memorization would be challenging, but readers are allowed in most competitions now.  I can hear a lot of riders screaming that it would make their jobs more difficult – but the point of Dressage is to have a horse so responsive that it can do any maneuver at any time!  This could also allow shortening of rides at the higher levels, because you would no longer need to show every movement in both directions – the direction at any competition would be random, so by definition the horses would have to be balanced.  I would add to the rules that a course designer could add any movement from any level below the one in competition.  This would allow for even more variety to the tests, making them even more audience friendly.

This brings up another point – a whole new job would be created for Dressage “course” designers.  Imagine the talent it would take to develop tests that truly tested the skills of horse and rider at all levels in a competition?

Athletic activity aims for quantity, the winning score becomes the bottom line. Aesthetic activity aims for quality: a beguiling, fine grained experience motivates the going-on…. In sports the form the athlete shows is sometimes taken into consideration but it is never THE consideration. The athlete will say to hell with form in order to achieve a quantitative result. The [artist] will not.

Robert Greskovic, Ballet a Complete Guide

Of course this would not solve the problems currently plaguing competitive Dressage – but it might level some of the playing field.  Dressage “pilots” would have more difficulty competing against real riders – those who have trained their horses, and are in partnership with them.  In the end, the only way to preserve our sport with a level of artistry is to get back to the thinking rider, and away from the “athlete” who is riding a sport machine.

In competition we find out if a judge likes our work, or if we are better than other riders.  In the spirit of classical horsemanship, however, we seek to determine whether the horses approve of our interaction with them, and hold ourselves up to the light of their innocent and unassailable truths.

Erik Herbermann, A Horseman’s Notes

Be good to your horses!



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