“You know,” my mother said, “I’m just starting to appreciate what hard work dressage is.”
I looked at her like she had three heads. We’ve been doing this a while; you’re only just now starting to appreciate this?
“No, I know it’s technically difficult; I know it requires great skill,” she clarified. “I mean the physical work of it all. I watch you professional riders, and it looks like you’re just sitting there. You make it look effortless. In reality, you’re working really physically hard.”
I’ve been riding for as long as I can remember, and riding dressage since I was 10, and I, too, didn’t really think about what physically demanding work it all is until my mother said that. Allison, fulfilling her role as Dressage Yoda, summed it up brilliantly: Bad riding looks like bad riding. But good riding looks like no riding.
Yes, at training level there’s a lot of room to simply coast along. Posting trot isn’t so physically demanding, and the horse is to be ridden forward and fluffy, in self carriage, of course, but looseness and elasticity are the names of the game. Riding young horses, the most physically demanding part of my job at that level is to make sure they turn, and to ride any displays of THEIR athleticism with as much tact as possible (and stay in the damn saddle).
But as early as first level, dressage becomes work. The horse must be straight, and RIDDEN straight. The horse must be balanced, and RIDDEN balanced. These aren’t phenomenon that magically happen for most horses. Even the most wonderful, organized, uphill, packaged creature still probably isn’t a volunteer.
At second level we now must ride everything in sitting trot, and as easy and effortless as a good rider’s sitting trot looks to the layman on the ground, it’s a physical task. A good sitting trot engages lots of core muscles, both back and tummy-side. The arms must stay at the sides, but not flop. The rider’s neck must be still, but not rigid.
And the legs. Oh man, the driving leg. A horse MUST step into the bridle, always, all the time. A horse MUST stay quick and crisp off the ground. And all that comes from a really impressive amount of leg pressure. But at the same time, it can’t be too much leg constantly, or the horse will tune the rider out, nor can it be a ton of upper thigh pressure, lest the rider become a clothespin pinching a bowling ball – the rider will pop himself right out of the tack that way.
Not to mention that, of course, it must look effortless. There’s no points to be had in grunting and straining and wailing about. The rider must be strong enough to sit and drive and PUSH, all while following a sometimes-not-so-comfortable swinging, powerhouse back and hind end.
Every upper-level event rider I’ve ever spoken to on the subject agrees—dressage is the most physical work of any of the three English riding disciplines. And I’d imagine that, pound for pound, all other things equal, dressage riders are the strongest riders of any sport (except for jockeys – they’re the strongest, pound for pound, of any professional athletes in any sport. Neat, huh?)
And a real sitting trot, the ability to SIT INTO THE HORSE and PUSH ITS HIND LEGS UP INTO THE BRIDLE, that power in the rider’s calves and ankles and hamstrings to DRIVE LIKE THE DEVIL, all without any outward signs of hard work, all with looseness and swing? That’s the dressage version of a 4-minute mile, a triple lutz, an endzone-to-endzone touchdown. And it’s just as much work.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all dressage riders are out there muscling their horses around. The well-schooled horse must respond to the lightest touch. He must bounce merrily forward from a brushing leg, and respect a soft hand. And if I can’t get a horse to walk and trot and canter in a basic way without begging for it, the piaffe and pirouettes and half passes are going to be a challenge.
But it’s work. It is WORK. It is an active process. It is constantly driving, then rebalancing, then checking our work. It requires muscles and sinew, it requires sheer strength and tremendous flexibility. The requirements on our bodies, frankly, are a lot like those on our horses’ – an engaged but supple core, deft movements without dramatics, swift adjustments.
I watched Michael teach my students at a clinic at my house this weekend, and he volunteered one of my favorite Michaelisms: All the great riders of the world lean back, put their hands down, and drive like hell. And it’s true. Success even at the mid-levels, forget the upper levels, is defined by (among other things, but in no small amount by) the physical fitness and commitment to work of the rider. And it’s certainly one of the major factors in why there’s a much larger pool of riders at first level and below than above.
Every so often I hear a jealous lower-level rider spew venom about how, if only SHE had a schoolmaster to sit on like Jane Doe does, SHE could be such a great rider; that schoolmaster makes Jane Doe look so fabulous. Of course the trained horse is an incredible tool to learn from, and we all have green-eyed monsters. But if you think that doing the Grand Prix test is as simple as waltzing onto a Grand Prix horse and pointing it down centerline, lady, think again.
So hit the gym, the pilates studio, the yoga class. Grit your teeth and dig in. Have some Tylenol on hand, and a little Gatorade when it’s hot. This dressage stuff ain’t for sissies.