Dressage riders often hear the accusation that “dressage is not a sport.”
Indeed, at this year’s Olympics, one UK politician caused great offense by claiming that dressage was just for rich people and should not be included in the Olympic Games at all.
In this article, we address those naysayers to prove that dressage is a sport that deserves its place in the Olympics.
Dressage was originally used to teach cavalry horses to become more maneuverable on the battlefield. The word, “dressage” literally translates from the French, meaning “training.” In essence, modern dressage is all about training the horse to perform certain movements in harmony with the rider, in a predetermined sequence.
These days, dressage is extremely popular, largely because anyone with a sound horse can get involved.
Success depends on your ability as a rider and the quality and correctness of your horse’s training, not how much you paid for your equine companion.
In fact, many ex-racers are adopted directly from training yards and go on to be excellent dressage horses, enjoying much success in competitions.
Dressage and sport defined
Dressage was not always included in the Olympics, only appearing in the program in the Stockholm Games of 1912.
The FEI describes dressage as:
“… the highest expression of horse training” where “… horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.“
The dictionary definition of sport is:
“… an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”
In dressage competitions, individuals and teams compete against each other, testing their skills and providing entertainment for themselves and for spectators.
So, does that mean dressage can be defined as a sport? Let’s discuss both the rider and the horse individually.
The dressage rider
Let’s forget the horse for a moment and focus on the rider, or “athlete,” as the various governing bodies of dressage now refer to the jockey.
1 – Physical exertion
The whole point of dressage is that it looks effortless and harmonious to the onlooker. The horse appears to carry out various movements, seemingly without the rider doing anything apart from sitting completely still.
However, as any dressage rider will tell you, that’s not the case at all!
Riding well demands that the “athlete” is physically fit and has good core strength. Without that, you cannot remain in perfect balance with the horse’s movement.
If the rider is not in perfect balance, it’s impossible to give the horse subtle, invisible aids.
You also need to be very supple so that you can absorb the movement of the horse underneath you.
In fact, most riders will agree that a 45-minute schooling session, much of it in sitting trot, is just as strenuous as a long bike ride or a gym session.
If you have never ridden a horse before, pop down to your local riding school for a lesson. We guarantee that you’ll be feeling it the next day!
2 – Skill
So, how much skill is involved in dressage?
To the uninitiated, it can appear that the horse is doing all the work, and the rider is merely a passenger. However, consider the following:
- An average-size horse weighs upward of 1,200lbs and it has a mind of its own.
- The horse can’t perform the exercises demanded of it without fitness and training.
- The horse will not perform those exercises unless it wants to or enjoys doing so.
- The horse can’t perform any of the work asked of it without the guidance and communication of the rider.
In short, the rider needs to have the skill, balance, suppleness, and coordination to persuade his or her equine partner to perform the required movements.
And all that while appearing not to be trying!
Is the rider really an althete?
As mentioned above, it takes a great deal of skill and physical strength to ride a horse correctly. The rider’s legs are there to create forward and sideways movement, as well as collect and balance the horse in coordination with the rider’s weight and the aids given by the reins.
Dressage riding takes stamina, too. If you suddenly stop doing anything at all and simply sit as a passenger, the horse will pretty soon stop going forward.
Compare dressage with riding a bike or with artistic swimming. All those activities require a degree of skill, fitness, training, and stamina.
“Dressage is only for the rich”
It is true to say that owning a horse of any sort is a pretty expensive hobby. Even the upkeep of a happy hacker or family pet incurs a cost. However, many dressage riders keep their horses happily and successfully on a shoestring budget.
The cost of keeping a horse varies widely, depending on where you keep your horse and the facilities you require.
Obviously, a top-flight livery yard with a large indoor arena, outdoor arenas, a horse walker, grooms to care for the horses, individually fenced paddocks, and on-site training will be very expensive. However, many dressage riders keep their horses on DIY yards and do a lot of the work themselves at the same time as holding down a full-time job.
As with any sport or leisure pastime, you can spend as little or as much as you want to on equipment. For example, a road bike for top-level competitions can cost many thousands of dollars. Similarly, the cost of a Grand Prix dressage horse or potential Olympic star is beyond the reach of most riders.
However, a modestly priced pony or an ex-racehorse that’s picked up for a song can still go on to be successful in dressage. So, essentially, it’s not true to say that dressage is only for the rich. Many riders, including Great Britain’s Olympic medallist Charlotte Dujardin, work there their way up from humble beginnings.
The dressage horse
Now let’s discuss some of the opinions that are bandied about regarding the horse’s part in the sport of dressage.
“The horse does all the work”
It’s true to say that dressage is hard work for the horse. Most riders think of dressage as being the equivalent of ballet for their horse.
The horse must be physically strong enough to balance himself while carrying the rider’s weight. He must also be supple through his back and laterally to perform the exercises that are demanded at the higher levels.
The more challenging the exercises and the training, the harder the horse has to work, that much is true. However, dressage is very much a partnership between the horse and his rider. Without the rider’s input, as described above, the horse would be unable to perform the work.
Think of a Formula 1 Racecar. Yes, it’s the car that’s able to reach speeds of over 200mph, but that doesn’t mean anything without a skillful driver.
“It’s unnatural for horses to dance”
Watch any horse enjoying time turned out in a field, and you will see him dancing sooner or later!
None of the movements that are demanded in dressage are in any way unnatural for a horse.
Horses frequently show medium and extended paces, perform flying changes, execute pirouettes, and move sideways without the assistance or interference of a rider. As for piaffe and passage, every horse can do that when he’s excited or startled by an unfamiliar sight or sound near his field, or during courtship rituals.
The art of dressage is to teach the horse to perform all those movements on request and in a balanced way.
“The horse should get the medal!”
Well, actually, they do, albeit in the form of rosettes. If you think about it, hanging a heavy metal object around a horse’s neck is somewhat dangerous once the horse begins to trot or canter around the victory lap! Hence, horses are awarded rosettes instead.
Anyway, as far as the horse is concerned, his rider’s praise and adulation are worth a lot more than any ribbon or piece of gold, silver, or bronze.
“Dressage is cruel and abusive”
As mentioned above, you can’t physically force a 1,200lb animal to do something it doesn’t want to do and make the performance appear harmonious. That’s simply not going to happen.
For the end result of the training to be beautiful, the methods must be sympathetic and unhurried.
Unfortunately, there have been a number of high-profile incidents when world-class dressage riders were witnessed abusing their horses by using banned training techniques, such as rollkur. The overuse of spurs and whips is another issue that the sport struggles to eradicate.
However, the vast majority of dressage riders love their horses and do not abuse them in any way.
Related Read: What Does the Term ‘Happy Athlete’ Mean in Dressage?
“Horses are disposed of if they’re not good enough”
Once a top-level dressage horse’s career is over, there are a few possible scenarios that apply:
- The horse is downgraded and has a new career as a schoolmaster teaching other riders the ropes.
- If the horse is retired due to age or unsoundness, he might live as a companion for a young horse.
- If the horse is a stallion or a mare, stud duties are often an option.
- Some former dressage horses are retired to become happy hackers.
Unlike the racing industry, where thousands of horses that don’t make the grade face uncertain futures, most dressage horses that don’t make the top international level go on to be successful at lower levels.
The vast majority of dressage horses are owned by one person and are treated as pets first, athletes second.
Dressage is most definitely a sport! The problem is that it’s largely misunderstood and the best riders in the world appear to be doing nothing, simply because the goal of dressage is to make it look easy.
However, this discipline is deceptively demanding in terms of skill, athleticism, and the fitness of both parties.
Both horse and rider work together in harmony to perform a series of movements that the horse can already do naturally.
You don’t need to be rich to do dressage. What you need is dedication, understanding, and a love of horses, which is something that all successful dressage riders have.