Without a way for “normal” people to access horses and training, dressage will remain an elite and relatively unknown sport in the United States.
When it comes to public awareness and appreciation of equestrian sports, it’s evident today, more than 50 years after dressage started to take hold in this country, that in the big picture of sports in America we haven’t even gotten started.
This becomes painfully clear when you travel to Europe during any important jumping, eventing or dressage competition. The whole thing, soup to nuts, is on primetime television. The horses and their riders over there are as well known as our football players and movie stars. Everyone from children to grandparents talks about them as household names.
In our society it is a microworld for the very initiated. If it were not for Rafalca and the presidential campaign, the word “dressage” would never have been mentioned on any program on the air where it would reach the uninitiated.
There’s a long tradition of horse sports and dressage overseas, but that does not explain why in 50-plus years we couldn’t have created more excitement at home about a sport that takes up all our attention and so much passion. Why are equestrian sports, and in particular dressage, so sidelined by other sports in the United States? Why do we have such a hard time introducing kids and their parents to the sport?
Access For Everyone
When I look at the structure I grew up with in Sweden, there are two things that stand out as “missing in action” over here.
The first is the local riding school. Almost every village, and certainly every town with self-respect, has a public riding school available by public transportation. This is where the little girls and boys who love horses go to breathe in the perfume de cheval and worship at the equine altar.
In my hometown there was a sizeable riding school, supported at least in part by city funds. There were at least 40 horses and 20 ponies available and a number of instructors for all levels. The horses had regular personnel who cared for them, but in addition there was a chance for students to sign up to care for a special horse. This privilege, you understand, wasn’t awarded to you without a rigid selection and trial period, and only after you had gone through all the initiation and achieved the approval of the staff, the peers and the horse could this blessing be bestowed upon you.
Once you were “in” and had your horse assigned, there was no such thing as missing a day, or someone in line would move in and take over. When arriving for your lesson, you were told which horse to ride. As your riding improved, the horses assigned to you became more difficult and complicated to ride, which we saw as a feather in our cap and proof that we were getting better.
The day you were assigned a new, green arrival that came snorting off the van and would most likely try to send you into orbit, you knew you had arrived as a rider!
The mostly ex-military riding instructors were gods, and although some of them were real drill sergeants, they were all about making us better riders. We had club shows every month or so when we competed in jumping against each other. The better riders were selected and allowed to compete in regional and eventually even national championships.
The trick here is that, for a long while, there was no pressing need to own your own horse, and you eventually learned to ride every horse they assigned you. Parents became involved at an early stage by paying for lessons (not a horse or maintenance) and coming to watch the club events such as competitions, parties and the Christmas quadrille. It was social, it was affordable, and it taught us to ride and respect the horses.
The youngsters who stayed in the game past high school usually found a way to keep riding by schooling or exercising other people’s horses, and some went on to equestrian schools or apprenticeships to make horses their profession. There are numerous top riders in all disciplines who grew up in Europe not owning a horse for years, but the availability of local or private riding schools gave them their start.
A Way To Dip Your Toes In
For 30 years, my husband and I owned and operated a stable named Knoll Farm on Long Island, N.Y., with as many as 80 horses on the property. About 25 of them were school horses. Some were pretty fancy and successful show horses in both jumping and dressage, but it was the less gifted but incredibly generous ones that safely introduced the kids to riding and got them on their way.
Thousands of children had their first riding lesson at Knoll Farm. We are amazed at how often we hear from our students from the past. Many of them have their own kids now, a number of them are still riding, and quite a few are professional horsemen. One of our kids from days gone by is now a superstar jockey. His name is Richard Migliori, and he grew up next to our farm and got his introduction to riding by helping in the barn in exchange for lessons.
This kind of subculture of horses that is second nature in Europe is hard to find here. If there is a barn nearby, it rarely has school horses available to the public. That means the parents have to buy a horse or pony for the child to ride, and this fact alone is an enormous stumbling block. Fewer kids get a chance to try the sport, and the growth is stunted.
If you cannot afford to play, you cannot learn the game. This is the crucial point.
If kids and young people cannot get in touch with a sport and become involved without a major investment from the family, it becomes an “elite” sport as riding in this country has been classified.
The solution? Well, the idea of a national riding center or centers has been mentioned from time to time. The problem, as always, is our enormous distances, which makes coordination and contact difficult, plus, of course, the lack of financing for such a network. If public or private funding could be found, and horses for training were supported by one such school, it could become a model for similar facilities around the country.
The concept of creating opportunity for youth to connect with horses could possibly become a popular feature. Perhaps it could eventually get us away from the elite label and move riding into the range of “normal” sports.
Where Are All The Ponies?
The most confounding subject in U.S. dressage is the fact that we have no pony culture. I have harped on this subject for years, but the absence of ponies that are ridden and shown in dressage is still a huge hole in our system.
As with the lack of public riding schools, it hurts the very roots of our growth. Kids and ponies belong together; they foster each other, and every child who likes riding ought to be brought up by a pony. They are very good at putting a kid in his or her place without being as large and potentially dangerous as horses, and the whole family can get involved with the pony scene at an early stage.
Parents who have pony kids are already educated and on board with the equine scene when the time comes for the junior and young rider divisions. When it’s time to move to a horse, they aren’t stunned at the idea of having an equine in the family; it’s just a natural progression.
There aren’t enough opportunities available for ponies to shine at our shows, and there aren’t enough ponies out there competing to fill the classes that do exist. Many countries outside Europe have the same dilemma, and I’ve asked for the question to be discussed in regard to global development at the FEI Sports Forum this month. Perhaps we can brainstorm some ideas about possible solutions.
All I know is that when I judged a CDI in France a couple of years ago, and they had more than 40 ponies competing at the show, I was green with envy!
One idea to help solve the pony dilemma is for our dressage shows to offer Prix Caprilli tests, which include a course of fences to entice pony riders from the hunter and equitation divisions to give dressage a try. Another thought was to allow adults to compete on ponies in classes offered exclusively to them. I’m sure any suggestions from the readership on how to grow a pony culture in American dressage would be more than welcome, so let’s hear from you!
Anne Gribbons was the U.S. Equestrian Federation Technical Advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she’s been a member of the FEI Dressage Committee since 2010. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.