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.