Monday, January 30, 2012

What Is Dressage?

I recently went to a clinic put on by a friend of mine.  It was a clinic for "beginning" dressage riders, people who are just getting started in the sport.  During the lunch break, there was a discussion about the challenges faced by people trying to break into the sport.

I was surprised to hear how many people had difficulty finding a trainer to teach beginners.  I was even more surprised to hear how many thought, or had been told, that they couldn't do dressage at all on the horses they had, or that they would need to buy an expensive Warmblood to be "competitive" in the sport.

First of all,  if anyone tells you that you or your horse can't do dressage, then they don't know what dressage is!  Secondly, if you're riding dressage just to be "competitive" and win ribbons, you're in it for the wrong reasons.  Dressage is not about winning or losing.  Dressage is about the horse.  The horse doesn't care if he wins a ribbon, he doesn't care about the score and he doesn't care who thinks he's not going to be good at dressage.  Dressage is about making a horse better.  Whether you're making him better in the dressage ring, over fences, chasing cows or on the trail doesn't matter, if the horse is getting better then you're doing it right.

Realistically, any horse, barring injuries or illness, can do a Prix St. George test, regardless of breed, sex, religion or creed.  The horse might not ever win a Prix St. George class, but he can do it.  Anyone who tries to tell you any different is ignorant.   I don't care if that person is an Olympic Gold Medalist, if they say "You can't do dressage on that horse", then they don't know anything about dressage.  And, yes, I know there are professionals out there who say that exact thing.  And I know that those professionals are out there showing and winning and they have barns full of students, but that doesn't mean they really know what dressage is.

So, what is dressage?  Dressage is sore muscles and lots of time.  Dressage is tears of frustration when you don't get it and giddy joy when you do.  Dressage is that addictive feeling of connection with a horse.  Dressage is watching your horse grow and blossom into a true partner, and knowing that you created that partnership.  Simply put, dressage is a good horse.

And, for all those out there who are trying to break into this sport, don't get frustrated or give up if you meet resistance.  And don't ever think you can't do it.  If you meet a naysayer, just file that person away in your mind as someone who just doesn't get it.  If you have a trainer who says you can't do it, find a new trainer.  There are trainers out there who understand what dressage really is, you just have to find them.  I know a lot of good trainers, and that isn't just dumb luck.  It was me getting myself out there and talking to people, surrounding myself with people who "get it" and casting aside the ones who didn't.  It took time and effort, but it was worth it.

Spider, going down the center line at his very first dressage show ever.   Most people didn't think he'd make it very far in dressage, and I'm glad I didn't listen.


  1. Good Post!
    I have been lucky and had great dressage trainers, but I have also taken a lesson or two with people who just didn't get it. Because they won shows and were moving up to the upper levels with their own horses did not mean that they really understood. Took me a while to figure that out.

  2. Very true Shannon. After my experience with Jackson, I would add the disclaimer - any "sound" horse can do dressage. ...which cuts across all breeds. The most expensive WB with perfect breeding, can't do it if he's not sound.
    I'm with you 100% on the trainer front too. I've had trainers of both types. The ones who teach all breeds are in it for the horse, not personal glory. When I was looking for a new horse, my trainer didn't say "buy a warmblood" - she said "find a horse that you love riding."
    My husband who is a mounted patrol and trail rider, loves his dressage lessons because it builds connection and it builds beautiful muscles.
    Great post.

  3. Very good point, Annette! I only mentioned injury as a reason for a horse not being able to do the work, but any kind of unsoundness will prevent a horse from training up the levels, be it injury or illness. I have fixed my post. Thanks!

  4. Hmmm Can I be a bit antagonistic please?
    You are right and you are wrong.
    Yes the ESSENCE of Dressage is what you describe. Dressage is just gymnastic of the horse. It is why I am going into that direction with my mare, to make her sounder, and to keep her sound despise the damages already done to her legs.

    Dressage as a sport is different. You need the WB with the Dressage breedingline, not just WB. And the competitive trainer. If you want to compete and to have a chance to win, Competition dressage is different, than pure dressage. I refrain myself to use the word "classical" because it has been used and abused.

    It is the same than doing cutting and sorting cows on a ranch. Same idea but really different techniques and horses.

    It is down to tolerance. In fact it is Carl Hester who has opened my eyes. He does COMPETITIVE Dressage and he will choose the best horse suited for the job and he trains him to win.

    Then there is dressage like Jane Savoie sees it as gymnastic and physiotherapy of the horse, open to all riders (even the short fat one) and all breeds (from arabian/TB to percheron, via quarter horses and Friesians).

    It is two different worlds. They exist, and we have to be tolerant of each others.

    For example in reining, you cannot do reining for fun. If your horse does not stop, you cannot do reining. It is a "trick" very difficult to teach horses to do, if they do NOT have the conformation and the instinct in them. So there is only one type of reining for purposely-bred reining horses. They are born with the sliding stop.

    I think people are lucky to have the choice. If you want to do competitive dressage, go for it, buy your German/dutch wb purposely bred for Dressage (NOT jumping), find a successful trainer and go for it. It won'be easy. You also have to be thin and tall. Get that diet started.

    If you want to do Dressage as a discipline, you got to find the right trainer. They aren't many on the market. But they exist.

    At the lower levels of comeptitions, both Dressage worlds co-exist. That is good.

    But We are yet to see a short-fat rider winning the World Dressage Master freestyle on a Quarter horse ...

  5. Oh dear, you post is right on point, but so is much of what Muriel says.

    However, the word "dressage" is French for "training," so even in its competitive form, dressage should be about the training.

    Trouble is, too many trainers and teachers are caught up in the concept that dressage is all about competition. I actually believe nearly any sound horse can actually reach Grand Prix if he/she is trained right, but that doesn't mean the horse could ever go out and successfully compete at the Grand Prix level.

    The riding masters of years ago used to say that all the movements of dressage--including the airs above the ground were just movements horses did naturally. The trainer's goal was to get the horse to perform those natural movements under the seat and command of a rider.

    Competition dressage has lost the true goal and focus of dressage. In theory the "fat pony" and the gorgeous warmblood should be able to both win the dressage competition if they are each trained to their full athletic ability. It's supposed to be about the training, but has now become which horse can do which movement more beautifully.

    Properly trained dressage horses--barring injury or physical issues--should have long careers, staying sound and active for many, many years. The proper training develops their muscles and stamina to live long useful lives.

    To my mind, that should be the goal of dressage--not scores in the show arena.

    Next time I see a short, fat rider on a Quarterhorse in the Grand Prix arena, I'm rooting for them!! *G*

  6. Of course you may be antagonistic, Muriel! In fact, I encourage it.

    I am absolutely talking about the essence of dressage here. When I say "do dressage", I do not mean "compete internationally and win medals". I mean simply to accomplish the steps of the training pyramid. As I said, any horse can do Prix St. George, but they may not win the class. In fact, 99% of us are not going to win any class, but that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't learn dressage.

    Now, if I were to ring up Carl Hester and say "Come teach me dressage. I have a 17 year old Thoroughbred and I want to compete in the Olympics next year.", Mr. Hester would not be wrong in saying "You can't do that". But, when someone on a Quarter Horse wants to put their horse in basic dressage training and every trainer they call says "You can't do that with that horse", then that is wrong!

    And, believe me, I am not down on trainers or the professional world. I was once a professional myself (albeit a very low-level one) and many of my good friends are professionals, ranging from the international level to just teaching up-downs. I understand the need for results in the show ring for a high level professional, I understand their need for a "type".

    I am speaking to the lower level rider here, because these are the riders who are meeting resistance and shouldn't be. We all need to start somewhere, Carl Hester himself started out riding a donkey!

    I think much of the disconnect in the sport today comes from the idea that you can only do this with an expensive, imported warmblood. Some trainers, and not just high level trainers but even little piddling ones, are out there telling people that they won't train them on "lesser" breeds. That is wrong, and those trainers don't understand what dressage is!

    The vast majority of people who want to learn dressage are not going to compete internationally, or even nationally. They don't need an imported Warmblood with the right bloodlines, because they just want to ride their own horse better. They should not be turned away by those who think that the competitive level is all their is. Because dressage is more than competitions and scores. Dressage is training a good horse, and training a good horse is an all-consuming passion that should be encouraged regardless of level or discipline!

  7. Awww crap! I mixed up a "their" and a "there". Now I just look like an idiot, LOL!

  8. Great post Shannon!! Most things I want to say have been mentioned, except this...

    Expensive Wb's with slim tall riders trained by exclusive trainers may be mostly what you see at the highest levels of dressage, but that does not mean that the dressage they are doing is always correct.

    There is a culture of judging that rewards flashy but not technically correct riding and/or movement, and doesn't even follows the rules for that matter.

    I'll take the slow, hard won progress, classical training when I can get it, on my tb. We've got the rest of our lives...

  9. I could write a book on this post (which is great). The lessons learned in dressage can be applied to jumping, reining, trail riding and more. What disturbs me, is the dressage rider who is not willing to invest the time and energy it takes to create a clear way of communicating with the horse...a way that is not mechanical or cruel because it is faster. I have known upper level dressage competitors who have ridden their horses into the ground and dumped tho they were vehicles instead of living creatures. The trainer I had the pleasure of working with used to go to Portugal every summer to work in the school of Nuno Olivera. Classical dressage. I was and still am a backyard rider with no desire to compete. However, I have been very interested in being able to communicate with my horses and was taken on by this person because she respected my passion for learning. I had to be the greenest person she ever worked with (but I also had a spectacular horse that was far more capable than myself). Another one of her students was a breeder of Appys who did reining...her dressage lessons helped him enormously. I agree with the comment above regarding the current culture of judging and with many of the other things all of you have stated. My wish...consider your horses...what is their perspective?

  10. great post, I actually wrote something very similiar a few days back. I do strongly agree with what CFS says. I love dressage, what it is suppose to be, not what we see in the rings today.
    I've been looking through all of my magazines to try and find the article where they did a study on the scoring of non warmbloods vs. warmbloods and surprisingly there was not a huge difference at all.
    In my small corner of the world I see riders that aren't very accomplished, struggle with their riding, and their small time trainer tells them they need a better horse and guess who can find them one?? The rider is convinced a better, bigger, flashier a horse is what they need, not more training themselves. In fact, just today I say a local rider just got her SECOND way too tall for her warmblood because she is not moving up very well with her other warmblood that is a lovely horse.
    It takes a really accomplished to take an "average" horse through the proper dressage journey and a great trainer knows this. A below average trainer will tell you differently.

  11. Yes, yes you are all right. Especially Horsemom. Many trainer won't know how to train a Dressage horse. I have seen it my yard. My brilliant cross country/endurance trainer decided to teach Dressaaaagggeeee, because her clients changed to mature ladies and it was what they wanted to do. My instructor had dressage basics. But that was it. It all became "cranck and spank" to get the horse on the bit.

    Now that I have studied Jane Savoie, I know why my mare was making some circles smaller and on the others larger. NOW I know what to do about it!!!

    But my instructor did not know, did not have a clue. She was honest and she did not make her clients changed their horses. But an unscrupulous trainer would have.

    My point was to be tolerant of the two types of Dressage: the competition one and the discipline of Dressage.

    Regarding trainers ... You know that I have been a semi-pro working in the horse-world for the last 8 years. A good trainer and good instructors are very very RARE! Sometimes impossible to find in your area.
    I think that is what your post is REALLY about. The level of equitation teaching is very low.

    Most of them lack of general equestrian culture, or just culture.

    The person who is ready to change her horse because her trainer says so, it is because they want to. They go in riding for ribbons, for having a social life.

    Not many of us are with horses because they love horses and want to enjoy their compagny. Perhaps it seems a lot because we blog about it. But really in horse riding school, how many are they?

    My last yard there were 65 horses. Only 3 owners (including myself) were interested IN the horse.
    My new yard, 70 horses. Hmmm ... It is a competition yard, so most of people are pasionate about WHAT their horses can do.

    It is the horse world. I struggle with accepting the ignorance, the cruelty, the brutality and the violence That I witness almost everyday.

    The horse-world needs EDUCATION of the trainers. And less bigotry and small-mindness ... (you have already written a post on that one ^-^ I know you agree with me ^-^)

  12. I like this post. Because when it comes down to it, dressage is horsemanship. I competed for years on my QH on the AQHA circuit. When I finally got sick of going around and around the arena (always the worst part of the all-around for me), I decided to look at some dressage patterns. And I thought to myself, "I can do that." So I took my ex-all-around show QH and we went in a dressage schooling show in training level. Did we win? No. Were we laughed out of the ring? No. Were we the only non-WB team? No. Are we gearing up for London 2012? No. Did we learn something? Of course!

    Any horse can do the basics of dressage! But not every horse can be competitive at all levels. But like reining. Any horse can learn to stop properly, turn on the haunches, run varying speeds of circles and change leads. But not every horse can do a sliding stop or spin a million miles an hour.

    Sorry, this comment feels like it might be a little rambling...

  13. Great post and discussion. Our dressage club is doing all we can to encourage all breeds to feel welcome at our shows and clinics. We sent a letter to all horse clubs (all breeds) in our Province inviting them to participate and suggesting how they could get started. We've got a great variety of breeds participating.
    It's disturbing to see what upper level competition has become. I hope the huge world of amateurs who don't like it can influence it over time to return to classical methods.

  14. Great post! You said it all and the commenters did too.

  15. One of the best posts on Dressage I have ever read. I enjoyed that, as well as insight from the comments. Thank you! It is very comforting to those who are still trying to figure things out.

    As a newcomer to dressage (and horses in general), I was told by my previous trainer that unless I invest in a good horse (which to her came with a tag of over $100,000, which I would have to pay an extra finder's fee) I was not going to get anywhere near the upper levels. Yes, I can see that being the case if one aims to ride internationally but I am not quite there yet. ;-) It was very disheartening because I am not made of $$ yet I am finally in grasp of my childhood dream and passion only to see it shatter because it is a 'rich man's sport'.

    Then she tried to convince me to buy one of her horses for dirt cheap and when I asked if she and I could move up the levels to at least PSG, it was a flat out "No. You need a horse bred for that level of showing, and that means being willing to pay an upwards of $80,000. BUT you can train this horse up to say, Level 3, sell her and put that $$ towards a proper dressage horse"

    I adored that mare. She was as gorgeous black Andalusian cross. I thought in my naive mind she had the potential because she had so much heart and she worked so hard for me. I believed in her. But I didn't acquire the mare only because I wasn't ready for the responsibilities of ownership. And I am glad because an old injury came back and she became lame again. Well, that whole thing was sketchy. I wanted to have her vet checked but the trainer told me not to bother, then I asked about insurance and she said the mare was not worth the insurance. It was just so strange ... in retrospect, it should have been warning signs but I am SO new to the horse world and because she is respected with major credentials, I trusted her. I mean, what do *I* know? You know?



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