Is My Horse Suitable for Dressage?

The 2012 Summer Olympics concluded this week. Dressage got a bit more attention than usual, partly because of Great Britain’s wonderful win on home turf, and partly because of political satirist Stephen Colbert’s take on the sport. Sometimes I think dressage is as misunderstood inside the horse world, as it is by the average football fan.

Still, anyone can appreciate the beauty of a Grand Prix level horse competing in his prime: the best training on an impeccably bred Warmblood, guided by a talented rider, and brought along with all the advantages.

I notice my client’s horses don’t all look exactly like those horses. Not all of my riders are working on piaffe. (Huh?) And no one has asked me to fly along to Europe to coach them there. Is it still Dressage?

Henri L. De Bussigny was a French equitation master, living and working in US from 1872. He said, “I have, …, always been criticized for not buying good and sound animals for myself, as other masters do. But to educate such an animal teaches the rider nothing. It is too easy. The master does not prove his own ability nor the practical usefulness of his art by training horses already made nearly perfect by nature. The test of his science and his utility lies in his ability to correct the natural defects of an ordinary animal and make it useful.”

Yikes, a quote from someone even more cutting and blunt than me!

I doubt that it’s “too easy” to ride an Olympic caliber horse, but I agree with Henri in principle. The word Dressage means training, and if this method of training is all it claims to be, then the real question is how much can dressage training help midlife, off-the-track Thoroughbreds, or hot Arabians, or whatever horse you ride now.

Some Dressage trainers exclude certain breeds, or excuse horses whose talent might be less obvious, but they sell dressage short in the process- as well as the horse.

Disclaimer: If your top priority is show results, you’ll always do better with a horse bred for the event. I know some very quick ponies for example, but Thoroughbreds are the breed to bet on in a horse race.

I’ve been fortunate to be trained by such great client horses- from rescue horses to expensive performance horses, from babies to geriatrics; everyone has something to gain, and something to give.

Let’s begin by agreeing that none of us are going to be Olympic competitors with our current horses. (If that changes, so much the better. It’ll make for one of those tear-jerking human interest stories.)

Once we have relieved ourselves of Olympic performance anxiety and ego, let’s see what good we can do, horse and rider. The promise of dressage is balance, relaxation, and strength for any horse, at any age, and in any discipline. And there is so much to be gained by wanting what you can have: a great riding horse.

Sure, Dressage has endless levels, and good training takes time. Maybe your horse wasn’t born with uphill movement, and maybe you weren’t born looking good in white breeches. Get over it.

Start by setting a goal. Add the support of a trainer, if you like. With a little focus and consistent work, you might be surprised how well your good horse might do at a local dressage show.

But even if you never leave your arena, you can still have the gold medal ride- that’s the one where you say no to an invitation to the top spot on the podium, because it’s just not worth it if you have to get off your horse.

Is your horse suitable for Dressage? If he is sound enough to ride, and you can rein in your Olympic dreams, the answer is yes.

How far can you go in Dressage? I’ll leave that question up to you and your horse.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

8 thoughts on “Is My Horse Suitable for Dressage?

  1. I remember a particular personal best “gold medal” moment. We were just doing a few circuits around the little indoor arena, bareback – mostly sitting trot and a little canter. The sun poured in sideways, and I managed to be as much in the moment as my horse was – just enjoying a bit of practice. It was effortless – relaxed and smooth, because I’d been working on feeling and influencing the movement for a long time. It’s a happy moment I revisit when I really need a boost.

  2. Good article!

    I do think too many have focused on dressage as a performance rather than a process central to horsemanship. The hours of practice are aimed at achieving something that looks effortless, and those moments when everything clicks are magic. The process is also full of small, beautiful eureka moments, but if you you’re fixated on looking like a world class competitor you might not appreciate them. It’s good to be in the moment. After all, the horse is. Also, I think that noticing and celebrating the small moments when something does work is a better recipe for progress than fretting about the state of your white breeches – or anything else that might not be perfect..

  3. Pingback: Is My Horse Suitable for Dressage? | Horses | Equestrian ... | All things equestrian | Scoop.it

  4. Ginna Sanders

    Perfect answer! I’ve been crazy busy. I hope this next week allows me some time to call and come see you!

    Ginna and Salsa

  5. THANK YOU for understanding that Dressage is not an end product, and it is not (just) Grand Prix or Prix St. Georges. “Dressage means Training.” YES. The rest of it’s just icing on the cake. A balanced four beat walk, two beat trot, three beat canter should be the goal for every horse/rider combination and THAT is Dressage.
    Sorry, you kind of set up my soap box!

  6. MonaKarel just took the words right out of my mouth (but better) – thanks MK! Yes, the perfect horses ridden by the most talented riders win the gongs, but they are up there as a true inspiration for the rest of us motley crew of riders and horses trying to do our best for and with each other!

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