There are many different forms of art. Personally, for something to be considered art to me it only has to be beautiful; something that brings a sense of peace, tranquility and awe. One of these things I consider beautiful is the art of dressage, or as some refer to it, horse dancing.
Dressage is defined by the International Equestrian Federation as “the highest expression of horse training where horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.” It is also sometimes referred to as “horse ballet,” and rightfully so. All the movements in dressage seem to flow in sequence and, if performed properly, it seems as horse and rider are one.
For centuries horses have symbolized a unique kind of freedom and untamed beauty that some cultures have called God-like.
Although truly an art, dressage has also been perceived as the sport of the elite. Everything takes money to pursue, but dressage can rack up the costs pretty fast. Just the average annual cost to own a dressage horse is roughly $4,000 and this does not include travel, competition, and training costs.
Dressage can usually be divided into two groups: competition and classical. Both require extensive training for both horse and rider, although the training for each kind is totally different. The word “dressage” is a French term meaning “training.” Either way, it is a highly skilled form of riding performed in exhibition and competition and sometimes as an art, performed solely for its mastery of techniques.
Competition dressage is held from amateur to Olympic to World Equestrian Game levels. For these, the fundamental purpose is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform. The ultimate goal is to have the horse perform smoothly to minimal aids from the rider, have the rider relaxed, and have the horse perform the requested movements almost naturally. This is accomplished through successful training at different levels and judges rate horses and rider on a series of tests for these different levels.
Dressage training for competition is based on a progression of six steps developed by the German National Equestrian Foundation, all arranged in sequential fashion. The first one they are judged on is rhythm and regularity. Rhythm refers to the sequence of foot falls included in pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter. In each of these areas, the rhythm, gait, tempo, and regularity should be the same on straight and bending lines. Regularity ensures the evenness and levelness of the stride.
Relaxation or looseness refers to the looseness or sign of it. This is characterized by even strides, tails swinging like pendulums, soft chewing of the bit, and relaxed blowing through the nose.
The third criteria for judging is contact, which is the result of a horse’s pushing power, which is never determined by pulling on the reins. The rider encourages the horse to gently stretch the neck, resulting in coming up in the bridle, following the natural motion of the horse’s head.
Impulsion is the actual pushing power of the horse. It entails good forward movement, which encourages good muscle and joint movement, which is used to engage the mind of the horse, which is focusing on the rider.
Straightness is what gives the smooth, fluid motion. It is merely where the hind legs follow the front legs in two straight lines, channeling all movement into one.
Last, but not least, is collection, which is the ability of the horse to move its center of gravity to its rear. This allows for advanced and more complicated movement.
As is the case in any form of competition where the prize is either money or prestige, dressage competition sometimes takes on an ugly face. In the past, some trainers have beaten their horses into submission. This was the case in the London Summer Olympics when a Swedish jockey used the “roll bar technique,” a controversial practice where horses are made to hyperflex their necks down to their chests. This resulted in the 2012 Protection Act to guard against such procedures.
This fact is part of the reason that I like classic dressage; it is truly an art itself and the pressures of competition are gone. Classic dressage dates back some 2,000 years and is best described by the Greek general Xenophon who said, “Riding is a fusion of two living beings, horse and rider, into a living work of art with a unique beauty.” So it is.
Training for this art form is two-fold, with the emphasis on both educating the horses' minds and developing their physical qualities. The rider must develop a fine-tuned and sensitive feeling for balance and harmony. These traits require time to hone. A rider must have patience, self-discipline, a sincere love of the horse, and possess a glowing passion and strong will to reach the highest performance level. And the best part is that all of this is done without compulsion or violence.
Classical dressage is essentially gymnastic training of a horse’s body with loving education. It cultivates and improves the horse’s natural gait and emphasizes beautiful and natural movement. The end goal and result is the horse’s enhanced natural ability, which makes them a flexible, obedient, and calm horse that is attentive and one that achieves a perfect understanding with the rider.
To achieve this perfection, classical training involves five main principles. The first is a straight horse, which is a desire to move forward. Secondly, the absolute regularity of the gait. Following this is the constant and confident acceptance of the bridle, which helps promote the relaxed attitude. Next, the horse must learn well balanced, smooth and flowing transitions from one movement to another. Last, but so important, is the obedience and total submission under the rider’s command.
All of these points translate into the graceful, flowing movements that make classic dressage such an art. When I watch a horse performing this classic dressage, it is total escape for me into a world of wonder and tranquility. Dressage is one of the beautiful things in life and part of that beauty is the relationship between horse and rider where they perform as one. Now that’s a beautiful thing!