I write often about the parallels I see between art and classical Dressage. It was a sensibility that began to take root while I was studying art, but was truly entrenched during my years of training Dani. As we grew together in skill, and I watched her change her whole form through the work, I realized that this was as much as act of creation as any art. She was at once partner and artist’s material to be molded. So, when I ran across the passage below, I knew that I had to share – along with the interesting contrast that follows it.
One of my favorite authors, in the realm of horsemanship literature, is Udo Burger. The following is from his work The Way to Perfect Horsemanship, a book I highly recommend.
“If horsemanship can be called an art, it is rather a unique one, in the sense that it combines the pictorial element (it is the modelling of a living animal) with the musical elements of dancing: rhythm and beat.
Every form of art has its own special tools and particular laws but sculpture and music conform to the same aesthetics: proportion, rhythm, harmony, beauty. Horsemanship is an art only when it conforms to these criteria. When it is routine, that is a more or less automatic repetition of certain movements without the aesthetic quality, it is a sport. There must be no confusion. As a work of art, the horse is an idealised image, a stylised representation, though never a distortion of nature, and is therefore a human creation. On the other hand, the sport of horsemanship consists in the skill of according the movements of the human body with the natural movements of the horse, in order to utilise the movement for a special purpose. As an artist, the rider wants to shape, even transform, his living raw material, while the sportsman does not seek to transform ….
Furthermore, riding is an art which has to fascinate and entirely satisfy those who sincerely dedicate themselves to it, for, while other works of art can survive to be admired by future generations, the horse so lovingly fashioned by the rider must age and die, so that nothing is left of this creation except memories and tales.” (pp. 19-20)
There is no doubt that it is the minority of riders who are interested in riding as art, although the author has a rather long list of those he classifies as practicing the art.
“Amongst the followers of the art of riding, we recognise: true amateurs who practice it for pleasure; serious students who recognise its difficulty and are determined to work; professionals, for whom it is bread and butter and sometimes an irksome necessity; really creative artists who get the raw material and transform it into a perfectly finished work of art.” (pg. 21)
The majority of riders are far more interested in the sport aspect – something the author refers to as the “craftsmanship”. He covers the short comings of the sport of Dressage, and his own realization that it cannot live up to the standards of the artist.
“The rider is obliged to compromise, which amounts to sacrificing some of the principles to the necessity of accomplishing a set task without provoking resistances. The artist must bow to the rules of the sport. It is the necessity of compromise that explains why dressage championships are so disappointing from an artistic point of view.” (pg. 27)
It is true that competitive Dressage falls short of the artistic form. I confess that to be true, even when I was first involved in the sport. There is no doubt, in my mind, that today’s competitive riding is more problematic than in the past – the shorter competitive lifespan of so many top horses is just one sign of that. However, I would not be honest if I said that competitive riding in my youth fit with the classical ideal. It was closer, and certainly fit the FEI directives better (e.g., poll the highest point, face in front of vertical), but for me it still fell short of what I knew to be possible. Such is the nature of competition – and perhaps that was why I never found it fully satisfying, even when we won.
However, the Burger is clear on the role of the sport in keeping the art alive.
“We must face the fact that although some of the performances in the sport are aesthetically disappointing, it is from the ranks of sportsmen that artists will emerge. If it were not for the sake of the sport, few riders would practise dressage and the art would perish. Sport is the launching platform of art, although for many dressage will remain just a sport, like rowing or athletics, which they will give up once their body has ceased to calmour for exertion and their spirit for competition; art, after all, is of no practical use. Fortunately, other riders may discover within themselves an artistic vocation which they will be able to satisfy after they have lost interest in competing.” (pp 27-28)
For me, that artistic vocation filled a gap that competition never could. It brought me satisfaction a ribbon never did. It allowed me to focus on the process and enjoy the journey in a way that preparing for a competition never could. For others the thrill of competing is fulfilling; for me, just getting to feel “the dance” was the thrill.
The paths do not have to be mutually exclusive – but you cannot reach the pinnacle in both at once. One must be subordinate to the other. Neither path is an easy one – both require hard work and each has its own frustrations – so it is important that you choose the path offering the rewards that resonate with you. Whichever path is taken, the horse must be the first consideration, at all times – something I would like to see more of in many equestrian competition arenas.
Be good to your horses!