What is the Point of Dressage?
The original aim of dressage in its purest classical form was to train cavalry horses for war.
The horse used in combat had to be manoeuvrable, agile, and able to ‘fight’ alongside his rider by using extravagant ‘airs above the ground’.
These days, the only place to see these old skills and movements are as part of displays given by the Spanish Riding School.
So what’s the point of modern dressage?
Read on to find out more.
What’s the aim of modern dressage?
The answer to this question depends somewhat on who is answering: the pure classicist or the competitor.
The short answer in the first case would be, to produce a living work of art; in the second, a happy athlete.
Underlying both answers is the fundamental requirement to train our horses with compassion and an understanding of their needs and abilities. An animal can only truly learn to be relaxed and beautiful if his education is without fear.
Whichever answer you prefer, the end goal is to produce a harmonious partnership between horse and rider, built on trust.
If this all sounds a little esoteric, it isn’t. The FEI (the body that controls and oversees International competition) developed the concept of the ‘happy athlete’ with the classical principles in mind.
And in these days of intense competition, what is more beautiful and artful than the glorious picture of harmony displayed by the ‘dancing horses’ that brought the sport to the attention (in all the right ways) of the public at London 2012?
So how do we develop a living work of art?
The most important step, which is never truly completed, merely refined and refined, is to rebalance the horse under the foreign weight of a rider and equipment.
All the fabulous moves that we hope to perform in our dressage tests, from lengthening and going sideways, to piaffe and passage are on display in fields across the world every day. Horses do all of these things at liberty, in play and in alarm, and, with stallions, in courtship rituals.
Our challenge as riders is to teach, strengthen and rebalance our mounts until they can do such moves on command with us on board, and yet still appear as if they are doing it without obvious controls.
From the first moment we sit in the saddle, we destroy that natural balance that makes our horses so agile. It then becomes our responsibility to help them to adjust their perceptions and muscular controls until they can perform, even with the added burden on their backs and without compromising themselves.
In other words, we need to gradually bring them up off the forehand, where adding our weight has put them, engage their hindquarters with a lifted and rounded back, to enable them to be able to carry our weight without risk of damage to muscles and joints.
This is of the utmost priority and is the reason why we ask our horses to work ‘on the bit’; only in such a functional posture can they carry their rider without physical damage.
Other factors that develop out of this are:
- the ability to recover and enhance the natural paces
- suppleness, both longitudinal and lateral
- lack of resistance, physical and mental, resulting in willing obedience (also called ‘throughness’)
- gradual increase in weight carriage of the hindquarters, freeing the shoulders for maximum mobility
- straightness (or ambidexterity) which ensures even and equal wear on both sides of the body.
Along with collection, these form the Scales of Training upon which both dressage training and judging are based.
Modern dressage competition developed out of the need for cavalry horses to be obedient, strong enough to have a long working life, and agile enough to perform in battle.
Nowadays, even in competition, we are more focused on the original goals from the baroque carousels of beauty and harmony in performance, but neither of these ends would be possible without the painstaking and lengthy process of training and gymnastic development that underpins all the dressage movements.
Not every horse will be a world-class athlete, but if we strive to develop them physically and mentally with the principles outlined above, we have the best hope of having a willing and happy partnership with a horse that will stay healthy and sound over a long ridden career.
- What is the Difference Between Bend and Flexion?
- What is the ‘Happy Athlete’?
- Why do Horse’s Mouths Foam?
- How Quickly to Progress with Your Horse’s Training