Olympic Derangement Syndrome, Equestrian Variant

Aaahh, the Olympics. When a significant proportion of the planet’s population becomes interested in sports that, outside of the Olympics, it has never even heard of and certainly wouldn’t follow. When everything plays out in terms of epic and heroism/anti-heroism and high fantasy. And if there are any problems or controversies or weirdness, the whole world gets to hear about them.

This year in the US, of course, we’re having one of our highly fraught and effectively endless Presidential election cycles. Amid all the posturing and the propaganda and the partisan outfighting and infighting, it just so happens that one of the candidates has a family interest in an Olympic event. And that event, unfortunately for one of our big honking hairy issues this  year, is dressage.

Dressage is being played against one of Americans’ fondest myths, that we are all Free and Equal and LibertynJusticeforAll, and nobody’s any better than anybody else, and everybody is a ruggedindividualist and a manofthePEEEPLE and nobody is, you know, rich. Except all the people who are. Or want to be.

And here’s a very rich man and his very rich wife bankrolling their very well-paid trainer who is competing on their very expensive horse. And the economy is horrible and most of the country earns less in a year than this guy makes in an hour, so, like Marie Antoinette’s cake and the Emperor Caligula’s horse, we have a Meme.

The only problem with it is, despite the fairly large kernel of truth, all this hammering on the horse and the discipline are making it difficult for the rest of us to fight the persistent belief that horses in general and dressage in particular are for rich people only, and therefore anyone who has a horse or rides dressage must therefore be rich.

This insults and disappears all the horse owners who eat ramen so their horses can eat the best hay, and all the trainers who scrape through with day jobs, and all the competitors who  give up their mornings and their evenings and their weekends to train and compete, and who spend every spare penny, and a lot that can’t be spared, to pursue their passion. It also reduces that passion to a buzzword, while other expensive passions, such as car racing, continue to be regarded as Of The People.

I suppose there is an up side in that amid all the mockery and the comedy sketches, a few more people learn a few actual facts about this thing that we horse people do. But even while dressage gets the bad rap, it gets next to no airtime except on the channel that costs too much for many of us who have to pay the hay bill rather than the big cable tv bill, and in the meantime the eventers and the show jumpers get all kinds of attention–but none of it accuses these disciplines of being too rich or too snotty.

Of course they’re a whole lot easier to understand. See big fence. See horse jump big fence. Wait for horse to knock down big fence. Or fall over big fence. And the scoring is relatively non-abstruse. Pole goes down, points go off.

Dressage is more like gymnastics. But nobody is falling off the beam. One hopes nobody is falling off his horse.

So we’re into something that the general audience regards as boring, and the political discourse regards as snooty and un-American. Then when Stephen Colbert uses satire to teach us about it, some aficionados can’t even find it funny, they’re so sensitized to the general distortion.

It doesn’t help that top-level international dressage has its own internal problems related to a training method called Rollkur, which has been a major controversy for well over a decade, and is not getting better. It’s now so stylized and so endemic that competitors are leaving competition rather than play the game as it has to be played in order to win. Audiences in London have actually booed certain trainers in the warmup, and there is much Sturm und Drang among the enthusiasts and their publications.

It’s a mess. It’s hard to watch if you love the discipline that’s been so terribly distorted in so many ways.

Dressage, away from the politicians and the horse abusers and the money, simply means “training.” It’s the way in which a human and a horse meet, and the human teaches and is taught by the horse. The goal is to present the horse under a rider with as close to the same joy and freedom and brio that he shows when dancing on his own–and to present the rider as nearly invisible, with signals so subtle that it looks as if they’re not there at all.

It takes years to learn how to do this–as one great master said, one lifetime is not nearly enough–and it takes a decade or so to teach the horse to do it under optimal conditions and with the best hope for longterm soundness (and yes, if he starts at 3 or 4, and he’s in the Olympics at 8 or 10, he has been on the accelerated track, and he probably will be retired, in not the best condition, by the time he’s 17). It’s not something you can just decide to do in a couple of months. It’s a longterm passion.

You don’t need a fancy horse or a fancy barn or a lot of money. You and your horse both need good teaching, a high tolerance for repetitive practice, a long attention span, and a lot of patience. The payoff isn’t instant–though I laughed my head off for sympathetic glee at the end of that Colbert video, because yes, that’s what it feels like. I PIAFFED IT!

It’s like flying. With warp engines. On a sentient starship. With a gazillion controls, all of which you have to install and then master.

The sentient part is what does it for me. I’ve flown a glider and it’s kind of like that, because the wind and the thermals feel like live things, but the horse really is his own separate, sentient organism, with his own thoughts and reactions and feelings, and if I’m riding him right, I’m tuned in to those responses. I can feel each leg as it rises and lands, and feel the tiny shifts and flexions of the back and neck, and tell where his balance is shifting and when it needs a little help from me (and when I need to get out of the way and let him move the way he was born to move).

It’s a conversation. It’s a dance–and mock it though the pundits will, it’s not just the horse who’s doing the dancing.

I’m not a talented rider or trainer. I’ll never be any kind of star. I’m not rich, either, by any stretch of the imagination. But I love this thing that I do, that’s called dressage. And right now, it’s kind of a tough time to be in the sport, art, discipline, whatever you want to call it.

All any of us grassroots dancing-horse types can do is hang on. Carry on. Do what we’ve been doing. And maybe educate a person here and there, if we can. If they’ll listen.

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About Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is a writer, a freelance editor and writing mentor, and a lifelong horse person. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses. Her new book, Forgotten Suns, is out now from Book View Cafe. Yes, there are horses in it.

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16 Responses to Olympic Derangement Syndrome, Equestrian Variant

  1. Show jumping is getting coverage? The only way I can find out about the local US showjumping team member’s outstanding performance (that would be Rich Fellers) is by poking around on the local NBC affiliate’s page to dig it out. He’s gone all clear rounds so far (haven’t found today’s results yet) and kept the US in the team competition…but not a word from the local about this guy (while plenty of hollering about Galen Rupp. OTOH, Nike is a big local company and I’m sure they’ve got a piece of Rupp, which is why he’s getting coverage). From what I’ve seen of Fellers’s performance, he should be getting more attention.

    But yeah, the attacks on dressage are appalling and ignorant. Too many folks are letting the picture be shaped by non-horse folks who only see the rich horse people and not the rest of us.

  2. What boggles me about all the political brouhaha, is that Mitt didn’t want to see his wife’s horse compete. Hello? It’s the -Olympics-! If it had been my spouse/child/friend, I would have been there with bells on.

    • This. Exactly. Especially since horses are a big part of her managing her MS. Makes me even less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt because he doesn’t have the guts to tell the media that it’s his wife’s horse and it’s important to her, so he’s going to watch.

      OTOH, maybe he couldn’t get a ticket…nah.

      • Judith Tarr says:

        He says whatever he thinks the person in front of him wants to hear. In that specific situation, he must have thought that was the most advantageous thing for him to say.

        There’s no principle there but the getting of power.

  3. I’ve only watched a bit of the Olympics – I don’t own a TV, so see it when I visit my parents – but the part I’ve enjoyed most was watching the horses leap over the rails. I admit I was surprised to see it on Sunday afternoon.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      They always show a lot of jumping. It’s dramatic. And it is fun to watch (though I get tired because I start riding the course, virtually, with the competitors).

  4. Foxessa says:

    I tried to correct some false statements about the training and the horses that perform, on salondotcom, particularly the statement by the writer that you can’t have a horse that performs these manuevers for under a million dollars, and another writer who said that all this training is only put into the horse by cruel and abusive treatment, because it is so unnatural.

    You’ve written so often how even lippizan foals will spontaneously on their own break into some of the gaits, one could not allow that one to stand without comment.

    Love, C.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      Thank you! Right now, in Vienna, while the stallions are off on their summer break, a few mares and foals are visiting the Winter Riding Hall. They’re turned out so that spectators can watch them at play. So they can see that the dance is inborn.

      Every single one of those movements is natural. I see all the Airs here regularly in my broodmares, and my stallion does the most gorgeous natural passage when showing off for his ladies. When you add a human’s weight to the equation, that’s where training has to come in–so the horse can keep his balance.

  5. deserthorse says:

    Yes, yes and yes! The vast majority of people who ride do it because they love it and they spend all their spare time and money for the good of their horses. Those are the people who are, very quietly and mostly in private, doing the sane, humane, respectful training that creates a long and happy partnership. Competitive riding in most disciplines has gotten far too artificial and extreme for many of us.
    I loved the Colbert pieces on dressage. And I have a theory about the intellectual level of people who are offended by his satire, but we won’t go into that here. I did keep thinking to myself that he looked like he had sat a horse before …

    • Judith Tarr says:

      Dressage instructor on my fb friendslist insists he hasn’t–that that’s how a male of his build naturally sits. But I don’t know. You’ve seen probably as many neo riders as she has. She wasn’t amused by the clip, either. She’s a serious competitor, and this is very close to home for her.

      • deserthorse says:

        Well, yes, the male pelvis is certainly more suited to plugging in to a horse’s back. sigh. As for the “serious” competitors, that seems to be where the trouble starts. Perspective gets lost. Balance in all things is best.

  6. Thoraiya says:

    Well, I’ve been educated. I hadn’t heard of rollkur before. So, thank you! I was cheering for Australia but then I see the athlete is married to one of the perpetrators. Damn. Time to switch to the sailing, I guess. Sailboats have no feelings!

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