Sunday, Apr. 14, 2024

What Makes Dressage Grow?


From diminishing open space to older riders to the entertainment factor, our columnist explores the reasons more people are enjoying the sport.


Not long ago, I was interviewed by a journalist who wanted to know why dressage is increasing in popularity. I gave her some quick answers off the top of my head, but later I thought about it in more depth.

One sad, but true, fact that has “helped dressage along” is the disappearance of virgin land.
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From diminishing open space to older riders to the entertainment factor, our columnist explores the reasons more people are enjoying the sport.

Not long ago, I was interviewed by a journalist who wanted to know why dressage is increasing in popularity. I gave her some quick answers off the top of my head, but later I thought about it in more depth.

One sad, but true, fact that has “helped dressage along” is the disappearance of virgin land.

In most horse pursuits, an open landscape is part of the requirements, but we’re closing in on ourselves and slowly but surely eliminating the wilderness in favor of roads, “McMansions” and strip malls. Paradise is becoming a parking lot.

Fortunately, the pursuit of dressage can fit into a quarter of an acre without any tightening of the belt whatsoever.

An expanding population of people who live and stay active longer is certainly a contributing factor to the increased interest in dressage.

The riders who used to event or ride hunters and jumpers may decide (or have other family members decide for them) that it’s time to stop jarring those bones and taking unnecessary chances.

Riding becomes part of your blood, however, and gravitating to dressage becomes a natural transition for those who want to ride with a goal in mind and perhaps continue to show after switching disciplines. Fossils over fences can look forward to a bright future as aging dressage queens.

It’s good to be queen!

At first, the riders who leave jumping behind may miss the excitement and element of danger that stirs the adrenaline, but they may well find a different kind of challenge as they pry deeper into the secrets of dressage.

The difference is in the more proactive use of the aids, which tends to surprise the convert from the jumping game.

New dressage enthusiasts often look at me and say: “I never realized how much physical fitness and coordination it requires to keep the horse on the aids and in front of the leg.”

They find that, although they’re well balanced and comfortable in the saddle, they have to use a number of new muscles and techniques to influence the dressage horse.

The intellectual challenge of trying to fulfill the requirements of the training scale adds to the mystery, and before you know it we have discussions about Decar-pentry and Baucher, and we have to go home and read up on the ideas of the old boys.

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I think a lot of people grow into dressage as they continue to ride, like you may progress from playing Black Jack to Bridge and ending up moving on to Chess.

I freely admit, however, that those of us who used to ride jumpers, or evented or foxhunted, will always miss it. Nothing compares to sitting on a horse that loves to run and jump.

Elevating the freestyle to the Olympic level is our best move to promote dressage so far. Ever since the freestyle became part of equestrian championship events, dressage is sold out before any other discipline, and we’re not complaining.

What baffles me, however, is the fact that we cannot get it to run on the regular television channels, to develop into a household word like figure skating or ballroom dancing.

I realize it takes advertising money to get this ball rolling, but why we cannot get off the sports channels at 2 a.m. and move to prime time remains a mystery.

Some riders find that dressage relieves the stress of the fast-moving pace of today’s work place, changing technology and never-ending intrusion of cascading information.

The horse is an archaic animal.

He’s not changed much for thousands of years, and although breeders of today fall all over themselves to produce the perfect jumper or dressage machine, those horses still need the same training.

Good things take time, and a horse requires that you take the time to prepare him, warm him up, go through the daily drill and cool him out. Shortcuts catch up with you, and there’s no machine to fill in for the human touch or speed up the process. We just have to go with “horse time,” and to many people that’s both comforting and therapeutic.

Dressage can absorb your thoughts and energy to the point that the world disappears when you mount your horse. He walks forward, and for a while the world steps aside, while you and your horse are focused on the same kind of journey that has fascinated riders for thousands of years.

One thing that appeals to some people, not just those involved with dressage, is that as riders and trainers we all have a level playing field. Perhaps one of us could afford a fancier horse than the next person, but a horse doesn’t care what he cost, or what status the person who rides him has in the world of human beings.

Rich or poor, educated or not, doctor or janitor, if you can ride, the horse will accept your guidance. If you cannot, all of your credentials will get you nowhere.

This in itself is a draw and challenge to people who normally can buy or bully their way to what they want. When you’re out there alone on the horse, you’re playing with a whole different set of rules. You’re basically at the mercy of an animal who can get rid of you in a flash if he really wants to.

You can’t sue him, and he is not likely to offer an apology.

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Although dressage seems to be on a roll, we could do even more to promote it. Let’s take a look at how we market our sport locally, starting with our dressage shows.

Obviously, it will be difficult to inspire the uninitiated by starting them off with a dose of training level, so let’s take the prospective dressage enthusiast to the FEI ring.

Several judges and scribes are sitting in their boxes, staring into space. Discreet music is playing, and nothing is happening in the empty arena.

“There’s been a scratch,” you explain.

Eventually a horse and rider appear, and you walk the neophyte through the test, explaining what the horse is supposed to do. Just as you pick up momentum and spot a glimpse of interest in the eyes of your guest, there’s another 20-minute break.

Well, perhaps we can go and watch the schooling. Not really, since there’s nowhere to sit and no shelter from rain and sun.

Well, there’s always the trade show, or is there? A decent place to eat or have a beer… not likely.

Even the freestyle, by far our best promotional tool, often suffers from the “scratch syndrome.” Thus, the sport loses spectators along the way that we may never regain. The seats may be full when the class starts, but after a couple of unscheduled breaks the ranks thin out.

Perhaps the time has come for organizers and riders to unite and try to close the gaps, at least at the FEI levels. Any show that can accommodate and expects a crowd should have the option to give the riders provisionary times with an established order of go to be confirmed an hour before the class. Thus, the class can be condensed to keep the flow of the performances and the spectators in their seats.

Keeping the momentum is incredibly important to all spectator sports, and shows like Dressage At Devon (Pa.) and the Palm Beach Derby (Fla.) acknowledge this by inviting exhibitions and different kinds of entertainment to fill the dead spots.

Anything from Brian O’Connor’s entertaining and informative dressage demo with his rubber pony to dog tricks and acrobatics is welcome and will keep the family and friends who are not “into” dressage (yet) on the premises. Trade shows to tractor pulls, whatever it takes, plus a variety of foods and drinks, and we’ll be on the way.

People need to be introduced to dressage and then encouraged to stay until they’re hooked. Who knows, this may bring better media coverage, and perhaps some of the people in the audience become so inspired that they select a rider they would like to sponsor.

It’s a good deal for the entire sport.

Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained 11 horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and was a member of the 1995 silver-medal Pan Am Games team. An O-rated dressage judge based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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