Dressage wars

It’s getting ugly out there, folks!  The battle for who gets to claim and define Dressage is reaching a fever pitch of rancor, leaving the horses as the only casualties.

It began just over a week ago.  A Dressage editor at a high profile riding magazine wrote a piece based upon her experience at the recent Global Dressage Forum:

We really must modernise dressage to make it more appealing to a wider audience, and that’s likely to involve some compromise.

The FEI’s Hans-Christian Matthiesen conceded that … the sport will “perhaps have to sacrifice a few things. We must add appeal and broaden the number of nations taking part”.

… Dressage is a sport and sports have to evolve. You want to see things exactly as they used to be? Go to a museum.

The comments on Facebook were overwhelmingly in support of this piece.  Many focused, admirably, upon earlier parts of the piece that discussed the use of helmets.  It is hard to argue against the use of helmets, though some try … but none did in this case.  However, a fair number of other comments were as dismissive as the last sentence of the original piece – basically, if you don’t like the direction the sport is taking, just get out!

The original piece was met by another inflammatory piece:

 Dressage is dead. There, I said it. Somebody had to.

Okay, not dead in the literal sense. Dressage is still alive and kicking. But, the idea of Dressage as some kind of harmonious, artistic venture is dead in the competitive scene.

We’ve spent years trying to keep a diseased version of Dressage alive but it’s now comatose on life support. A vegetable. Time to pull the plug and move on.

Interestingly, although few fully agreed with the author of this piece, the discussion was less rancorous (although many were rather outraged at the use of an image of a dead horse in the header).  But the piece itself (although not without merit) is symptomatic of a growing dismissive and angry trend on both sides of the discussions of Dressage.

I’ll admit, when I first entered cyberspace in a quest to reengage with the equestrian world, I was extremely puzzled by the overwhelmingly positive discussions of modern International competitors.  What I saw was so foreign – tension, lack of collection, gaits that bore little resemblance to nature, and movements that violated all the guidelines yet yielded extraordinarily high scores.  I was at a loss for an explanation, and was disturbed by the overall acceptance … even celebration of what appeared so dysfunctional.  Then, as I began to find the few voices speaking out, I felt reassured that there were still those out there who could see what I was seeing.

As the voices grew, and I began to see more and more people speaking out and giving cogent arguments, I had hope that there was still a chance to turn things around.  Instead, those in favor of the modern state of competitive Dressage have become more defensive and angry; and many of those concerned about it are becoming more snarky and accusatory.

The sad fact is that what a person believes will frequently outweigh any evidence to the contrary – no matter how obvious or scientifically shown.  This has been proven in study after study … unless you don’t believe in science, in which case I just wasted my breath. (For just one of many interesting pieces on how this works, go here.)

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
Leon Festinger, 1919-1989

So, if it does not matter how much evidence we put in front of those who don’t see the issues with our sport, then it certainly isn’t going to help to get nasty about it.  What we need are more arguments like these gentlemen (this is a long video, at nearly an hour – well worth watching, but get your cup of coffee/tea/cocoa first).

Here they present an analysis that includes the standards (specifically for piaffe, though they range into other areas), discuss video clips based upon the standards, then show the inflated scores received for each movement.  Whatever else you feel about modern Dressage, it is hard to argue against a visual as compared to the FEI stated standards … and it is hard to justify scores of 8, 9 and 10 for movements that not only do not meet the standards, but are often not even completed.

If you want to argue that the standards should be changed to meet this “brave new world” of modern competitive Dressage, then at least you are taking the honest position that you like what you see and it should become the standard.  But to argue that anything shown fits the standards as currently stated cannot be supported in any way.

The next very popular argument is that judges are only human, and they cannot see everything.  I have sat in that booth, as both judge and scribe, and I can tell you that most of what is being missed is intentional.  No, judges are not perfect, and it is far easier to replay video and break apart a ride – but two-tempi changes are not hard to count, and if you are at the level of judging Olympic caliber rides, you had better be able to count 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, etc.  But I digress …

My point in all this is that we need to keep the discussions civil and fact based.  For my part, I will continue to educate myself, and share what I learn with others.  But I am going to try to focus on what should be, and retreat slightly from what is.  It is clear that there is no stopping, or even turning, the juggernaut that is modern competitive Dressage.  I have watched too much damage done to horses in other equestrian endeavors that turn popular and become about money – and Dressage is well down that path already.

However, I live in hope that all is not lost – and I leave you with this.  I have watched Western Pleasure over many decades, having had several friends who competed in it.  Over the years I have watched it go from being about horses that would be comfortable to ride down country roads, to being about highly artificial tucked head positions, to being about such contrived gaits that one friend likened their lope to watching a bunch of oil derricks go up and down.  (Being in the process of retraining a horse started for that discipline, I can tell you it’s all very weird!) In recent years, the Quarter Horse world finally became alarmed – I don’t know the roots of it, but I know the results.  There is now a push (actually a directive) for judges to look for more movement in the horses.  Classes are actually asking for “extended” gaits.  There is a slow revolution that is being pushed from both participants and officials.

I remain hopeful that one day our sport will experience a similar revolution – but it will come about through finding common ground, not through rancor and personal attacks.

Be good to your horses!


2 thoughts on “Dressage wars

  1. Well written. I’m sure the debate will continue… One aspect of dressage is that it DOES need to evolve, in terms of making it more appealing to the masses and more of a spectator sport. This will make it grow, making sure the art never “dies out.” Hoping this can happen without continuing down the path it’s on right now 😦 Horses looking sort of “mechanic” versus “flowing”… I read a summary of a seminar by Kyra Kyrklund, discussing shortened programs, changed dress codes, music, sponsorship signage, applause by the public, and scores being posted for each move in “real time” for audience to see. Those are all positive changes that can make the sport continue on. I vote for that!


    1. I hope the debate does continue, Elinor – I am a huge fan of debate. And I see enough reasonable discussion to be hopeful. I also still see enough really good, classically focused riders like Uta Graf to give me hope. But we need judges and trainers to start to recognize the correct and penalize the incorrect in order to help the understanding of those we want to draw to the sport. With that, we can bring back the beauty … without it, we will end up indistinguishable from Saddleseat.

      Liked by 1 person

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