A reader writes:
So, just when I thought the MSM coverage of dressage could sink no lower than Amy Davidson's in the New Yorker, I found this post offered by Vanity Fair. Yes, Colbert did nail the awkwardness, and we know dressage looks silly to the outside world. Personally, I think figure skating looks ridiculous. But I don't doubt for a moment that the people who compete in figure skating bring determination, dedication, and discipline to their sport. Dressage is no different. In fact, one of the many things I love about dressage is just how extremely difficult it is to master. A racehorse can be trained to peak performance within months. A dressage horse requires no less than six years, and usually closer to ten, of daily effort and long hours of training.
Here's the other thing I love about dressage: Literally any horse and rider can do it.
Although I cringe at the "horse dancing" label, it is appropriate for one reason – just as anybody can dance, anybody can do dressage. Moreover, dressage instills correct basics, teaching beginning riders a humane way to work in conjunction with their horse. Although there are controversial riders and techniques, dressage, more than any other horse sport, rewards harmony between horse and rider. This is something to applaud.
For myself, I grew up poor and worked at dressage barns in exchange for lessons. With horses that cost less than $1,000, I took on the fancy warmbloods and did well, sometimes even winning against the "big" horses at a fairly high level of competition (not international, mind you, but also nothing to be ashamed of). Yes, there are rich owners in the sport. But the vast majority of the people who are in the business – the grooms, the owners, the trainers, the breeders – are what we call "horse poor." Their available income goes into their horses and nothing else.
And I tell you what – it is a grind. It is a hard life. It is 5:30am feedings and stall cleaning and tractor work and it's all day, every day, 365 days a year. I'll never forget my friends saying, "You have to work on Christmas?" every single freaking year. I quit the life at 33, mostly because my body was just so worn out and the continuous poverty was exhausting.
Ultimately, you need to get lucky and find the right horse – that one out of a million – with the ability, the physical and mental fortitude, and the desire "to do sport," as Mittens would say. From my perspective, when someone finds their horse of a lifetime it's something to be celebrated. It is a rare and beautiful thing, and it is not something money can buy. For example, just take a look at the Germans who bought arguably the greatest dressage horse ever, Moorlands Totalis, from the Netherlands. It turns out, Totalis is not at all stoked on the Germans, and no longer wants to be "in sport." You cannot force harmony between horse and rider. It is a magic that is either there or it isn't.
Anyway, I know this is probably your 500th email about dressage. This thing probably went unread, but it's just so frustrating to read these slapdash assessments of a sport that I love, a sport that is admittedly inaccessible to the casual viewer. I want those of you at the Dish to know what dressage is, and what it isn't. Thanks for listening…
Our reader follows up:
You asked: "Why do I hear so many stories of horrible abuse of horses?"
I'd say: In dressage? Two reasons. Firstly, you will always have a certain number of aberrant individuals. Secondly, because of a practice called rollkur. Rollkur came into vogue in the '90s and was popularized by the success of a woman named Anky Van Grunsven. Rollkur is the hyperextension of the horse's neck. This is what it looks like:
The idea is that forcing the horse to flex at the poll (the joint right behind the ears) creates suppleness. IMHO, that's just patently untrue. My own take is this: Anky found success with superior horses who succeeded despite her tough tactics. Jealous competitors decided they must be winning because of them and they aped her techniques.
Now, before Anky came along and popularized this hard-handed riding style, exercises somewhat similar to rollkur were well utilized. The abusive use of rollkur became conflated with useful stretching exercises, and it seems some lack the ability to distinguish between the two. Rollkur is marked by the use of force to bring the nose into the chest and then keep it there. The horse almost always expresses some level of distress. In the above photo, you can see the whites of the horse's eyes. Often, a horse will wring its tail, pin its ears, or act out.
Unfortunately, rollkur remains controversial, with some still arguing for its usefulness. More unfortunately still, a lot of those arguing for it are Olympic riders. Interestingly, rollkur is extraordinarily unpopular with the rank and file of the dressage world. You say "rollkur" at a dressage show and you'll get a dozen tirades about the cruelty of the practice.
Bottom line, for me: Out of all the horse sports I'm familiar with – and I'm familiar with a lot of them – dressage has the highest percentage of trainers, owners, breeders and riders practicing ethical horsemanship. It's not perfect, and Olympic level dressage today is nowhere near as ethically pure as it was in the '60s, '70s, '80s, back when superlative horsemen like Reiner Klimke reigned supreme. (We are rather in a sort of Dark Ages when it comes to our Olympic level dressage these days.)
Here is footage of Klimke with his horse of a lifetime, Ahlerich. This is their victory lap at the 1984 games. The horse is happy – so, so happy – he is relaxed, and doing some profoundly difficult dressage for fun while Klimke holds the reins with one hand. This is what a well-trained horse looks like.
[At the top of this post] is footage of Anky schooling her horse. This is not a happy horse. This is a horse in distress. (Please note the YouTube comments by the rank and file)
So, long story short, you hear stories of horrible abuses because such stories are there for the telling. But that doesn't mean there aren't countless tales to be told of Average Joe dressage riders who do right by their horse. It just means those stories aren't nearly as interesting.