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 your 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.

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Comment by B. G. Hearns on August 22, 2012 at 11:41am

I'll allow I have podium fantasies, but that's all they are: fantasies. They are not beyond the realm of the possible just highly improbable, and that's fine by me. I think everyone ought to have at least one unattainable goal, so you'll always have something to strive towards and a measure for your successes.

Dressage is about working with the horse to become the best you can be, and to always strive to improve, just a little.The fact that dressage takes time means there is always something more to do and there will always be the joy of improvement.

I am an above-average rider and typically I get the 'difficult' horses in schools. Jackie is right! That has always helped me to improve, because it's on the difficult ones that your weaknesses become apparent. The easy ones are fun, from time to time, and great for beginners, but it's against the hard ones that your really test your mettle.

The thrill of being asked to ride a difficult horse, because I have become a good enough rider to handle one is, for me, as much reward as a ribbon in a show, any day.

Comment by MagsNMe on August 18, 2012 at 12:36pm

Love it Anna. It is good for all of us.  I had to laugh when I read the not 'born looking good in white breeches' bit, for that is me.  I'm in my 5th year of doing training level with Miss Maggie, and was feeling a bit down about it, so thanks for posting this at the right time for me!

Comment by Anna Blake on August 17, 2012 at 2:01pm

Jackie, I apologize for laughing out loud reading your comment. She was right, good lesson horse!

Comment by Jackie Cochran on August 17, 2012 at 12:26pm

Good post Anna!

When I was a residential student at a riding school the owner said there was no way to become a good rider by just riding perfectly trained horses, and this was why most of her advanced level horses had a PROBLEM or two.  I learned to get my heels out of my horse's ribs by her putting me up on a chronic runaway.  It did not take me long to correct that fault!

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