Dressage is not just a sport for the uber wealthy
Grand County, CO Colorado
Whether it is the Winter Olympics or Summer Olympics, it is my favorite time. I like them both.
Living near a ski resort, having been a klutzy skier, I can only admire what a dedicated, talented human can do. The reality of winter games is personal. My path has crossed with many of the Olympic and Paralympic medalists who train in Winter Park. I am awestruck in their presence.
I have my own favorite Summer Olympic event – dressage. Yes, that is the same event executed in formal wear that has become politically controversial. Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, is a dressage rider and her horse is ridden by a professional in the Olympics . Whoa, there. The sport itself needs defending.
I confess I was a dressage rider, hanging up my spurs a couple of years ago, but I learned enough to appreciate the technical ability of the top riders. It is so technical that it is not much of a spectator sport in the U.S. Unless you are a practitioner, watching a dressage competition is a little like watching grass growing. The exception is freestyle, where horse and rider partner to dance to music.
I was once an untutored cowboy rider, beginning at age 4 on my cousin’s pony. Finally, after a string of trailhorses, my first big timer was a sorrel quarter horse gelding bred at a ranch near Granby. It was a great headin’ horse used by a friend for team roping in the Granby Flying Heels arena. When I turned 40, I took dressage lessons to improve my riding.
For the next 30 years, improving balance and control, I gained sufficient skills to make whatever horse I owned at the time, a quarter horse, an Arabian, or a Thoroughbred, do some fancy maneuvers. I once thought riding English was for sissies, but perched on a nearly flat saddle without the security of grabbing the horn of a western saddle is not for wimps.
Dressage was primarily born in Spain, based on military cavalry techniques, and popularized by the white stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. It is the basic training for police horses and there is a direct connection with western riding, which also came from Spain. In the past, usually cavalry officers rode in competition in uniform and some with military or police credentials still do. Formal, white vested wear indeed looks very upper classy, but that is the required costume for civilians in competition.
Yes, it is an expensive sport, but it is possible to do the basics on a budget and have a good trainer work with you and your horse, a necessity since both need to understand the same cues. It is not a millionaire’s sport unless you launch into major competition and can afford the strong, tall warmbloods, a breed developed from a cross between German north European farm horses and Thoroughbreds or Arabians.
I live in cowboy land again, but dressage techniques are also relevant here. They are used by barrel racers to bend a horse better. The western form of dressage, reining, is now an Olympic demonstration event, expected to be formally recognized by 2020. It is performed at warp speed, and unlike dressage, with a loose rein. Both disciplines require performance of tests or patterns. Flying lead changes (switching which leg goes first), roll backs (quick reverses), and spins (turning 360 degrees multiple times with one back foot not moving) in reining also are similar to some slower motion, tightly controlled dressage movements.
Sliding skids to stop are left for reining, but a dressage horse has to halt from a canter or a trot immediately with all four feet planted perfectly squared. No head tossing, please. Try it sometime, my fellow riders.
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