Arts Perspective Magazine, Summer 2012
It’s a lot like the eternal battle between the ballet dancer and the football player: whose sport is harder? Such is the difference between the dressage and the buckin’ bronc rider. Where the bronc rider flails with his hat wildly in the air, hanging on for dear life, the dressage rider is elegantly poised, leading the horse through a choreographed series of dance-like moves.
“A really good dancer makes it look effortless and it is anything but effortless. Dressage is the same way. A really good dressage team … makes it looks so easy,” professional dressage trainer and rider Emily Keene says.
Keene runs her own dressage training business at the Santa Fe Equestrian Center in New Mexico.
In the United States, dressage is still a relatively unknown sport, but in Europe the disciplined competition draws crowds numbering in the thousands. Modern dressage pulls its roots from a shift in horse training that occurred during the Renaissance. With the introduction of firearms, horses became valued more for their lightness and agility than their ability to carry several hundred pounds of armor. But “the highest expression of horse training,” according to the International Equestrian Federation, actually began in ancient Greece where warhorses were trained to respond quickly and accurately to a rider’s precise demands.
Perhaps it is because dressage originates from a militaristic background that the rules and guidelines for the sport are so strict. And yet, through these exacting regulations comes a feat of athleticism that is much an art form as it is a sport. Dressage is commonly known as “horse ballet.”
“(Dressage) is a subtle art,” says Keene. “I think that more and more people are getting into dressage because (they’re) looking for something that connects them to nature and to their horses.”
The level of communication between a dressage horse and rider is close to mindreading. For every jerk of the reins or kick of the heel, points are deducted from the team. Keene describes the response level between horse and rider to be that of a millimeter. Dressage training is almost like mimesis.
“When I change my shape, the horse knows that it’s supposed to change,” Keene says.
Too often horseback riding is viewed more as an act of domination over the horse – as though sheer willpower can defeat a horse’s natural instincts. The growing popularity of natural horsemanship is almost a perfect fit for the art of dressage. Natural horsemanship recognizes horses as prey animals and humans as predators, and seeks to develop a positive line of communication in which a horse is willing to work.
In a competition that expects so much precision as dressage, the necessity of forming a good relationship with your horse seems obvious.
“I like to use natural horsemanship because I love the ground work,” Keene says. “I find that it really helps the horses just learn about learning.”
Top hats, waistcoats, and thickly polished riding boots, dressage competitions are very much an ostentatious parade, but boil it down, and the sport is really about testing a horse’s trainability and a rider’s skill as a teacher. When you reach the highest echelons of dressage, you will find two animals working together as one – the epitome of teamwork.
“The first time I saw real dressage was (in) a video of the Olympics,” Keene recalls. “It overwhelmed me. It was so beautiful.”
Olympic Dressage is nothing short of unbelievable. Tall, sleek and infinitely graceful Andalusians, Arabians and Hanoverians sidestep, pirouette, and trot in place. For spectators, freestyle dressage is perhaps the most exciting event in the sport. Set to music, the freestyle competition is much like the free dance in figure skating, designed to test a horse’s ability through a choreographed routine.
“For the general populous, freestyle is what brings you into watching dressage,” Keene says. “I think it’s very good to develop freestyle because we need to (bring) more people into watching dressage.”
Whether or not dressage will ever become as ubiquitous in America as the rodeo remains to be seen. But perhaps one consideration when answering the question of “what’s harder, bronc riding or dressage?” is where the bronc rider exerts 8 seconds of energy, the dressage rider and her horse spend 8 hours training. Even so, comparing the two is a little like comparing football to ballet – it just depends on your taste.