Friday, August 3, 2012

Explaining dressage, and a rant

I was just reading an article, an essay, really, about the sport of dressage. The author of the essay does the sport no favors at all by trying to paint the picture of what is required in caring for a high-level (Olympic level) dressage horse, but instead makes it sound even more elitist by discussing high-level horse needs (which are many, and significant), and nothing about how you can access the sport at a low level yourself.

She talks entirely about the horse, but spends no language on what the rider is required to do. A large portion of high-level dressage is having the right horse, yes, and that is an expensive and not-easily-accessed situation. But if you are not skilled and highly trained as the rider, that highly trained pampered six-figure horse will do nothing. These riders are not just coming to the sport, they have been training for years, riding daily, riding hundreds of different horses, working hours and hours a day to perfect their ability to communicate with the animals through seat, and legs, and hands alone. Riders are not some rich kids who arrive at the barn impeccably dressed and are handed their groomed, tacked-up, turned out mount for their daily ride, as is the popular stereotype. Most high-level riders I know have spent years cleaning stalls, training other people's horses, teaching lessons to make ends meet in order to get better training, and better riding skills and work their way up to this level. Horse are a 24/7/365 commitment.

Riding is a mentally and physically tough discipline. You have to be physically fit to handle a thousand-plus pound animal, to sit in the saddle under a moving horse for hours on end. For dressage, you need to be able to support yourself on the back of the moving animal silently, physically quietly, and be able to use your hands, arms, legs, and body all independently of each other without flopping all over the place or inadvertently banging on the horse's back or mouth. This requires incredibly strong abdominal and core body muscles, and leg strength you can't imagine. Not powerlifting leg strength, but the kind of strength like a dancer. This is the strength to position yourself, and then press on the horse's sides to help them bend, or change direction, or lift a leg in a certain way. It's functional strength, and if you've EVER ridden, you know just how much your leg muscles are worked, even if all you do is sit there.

You must be able to be cool and calm in the face of a recalcitrant or nervous horse, who naturally has a strong flight response to perceived danger. You cannot be afraid. Animals are well-known to be able to 'read' human emotions, and sitting in direct contact with a horse while you are angry, or nervous, or frustrated is a recipe for difficulty. You have to understand and accept that sometimes the fact that you are dealing with an additional nervous system besides your own sometimes means things will not go as planned. (See Canada's rider, David Marcus and his horse, Capital, eliminated in dressage after Capital had an unexpected meltdown)

The ignorant comments on the essay I linked to (which I know I should not read anyway, and included much discussion about how you just have to sit there while the horse does all the work) make me angry enough to want to vomit. Most people who have NO experience with horses typically have the "all you do it sit there" belief, because they don't know any better. I can excuse that, because ignorance is a lack of education. This author had a prime opportunity to explain why this sport is so well-loved by the people who participate (myself included) at the lower levels, and how even though there are these seemingly rich elite people out there playing at the high levels, there are many, many, MANY more who are doing the best they can with what they've got. She completely blew it. It makes me angry that the general assumption is that the only people who ride horses are the 'rich' people. If you ride, you must be rich. And the problem is, essays like this one further that ridiculous belief without ever discussing the thousands and thousands of people who ride who are NOT in that socioeconomic category. I will never even sit on a six-figure horse, much less ride one. Heck, I won't even ever sit on a $10,000 horse. That's fine, I will make do with the horse I can afford, and still love my sport. I also won't make the Olympic team, because I have not, and will not, devote my life to the sport.

As much as having a Romney-owned horse has somewhat raised awareness about this sport simply because "someone we know about" is involved, and Stephen Colbert has all made us laugh about it, I'm not sure that association has really done the sport any favors at all. The Romneys are obviously wealthy, and continually playing up their connection with what has already been perceived as an 'elitist' sport, doesn't do a single thing to explain that real people ride, too. I'm sure this rant of mine hasn't been as well-reasoned as it could have been. I guess I'm just trying to stick up for the legions of regular people who ride and love horses and help the rest of the population understand the sport I love so much.