by Stevie J. West
It’s easy to mock things we don’t understand. The Left excels at this since their understanding of, well, most things is so limited. So it is to be expected then that rather than attempting to learn about the highly specialized sport of dressage, the Left descends into scathing mockery of Ann Romney’s “dancing horse”. As a thinking person, I find this obnoxious. As a horse trainer, I find it infuriating.
There is so much more to dressage than plopping on top of a “dancing horse” and riding it around the arena for a few minutes in time to music. Actually, I have only rarely agreed to take on the training of a competitive dressage horse because it is a lengthy and difficult commitment. A good dressage horse and rider team have years of professional training. It is not a hobby; it is a lifestyle. It requires serious dedication, great patience, and superior physical conditioning – both of the animal and the human.
While the graceful movements of a well groomed horse carrying a seemingly motionless rider look effortless, in fact it is something that requires strength and agility, both of the horse and rider. In order for the rider to get her horse to respond aids that should be imperceptible to spectators, the pair must be in harmony both physically and mentally. This process takes years of progressive training, starting with simple command of gaits and eventually culminating in the ability to perform complex choreography.
The rider must be able to use her weight, legs, and seat to cue her horse. This requires incredible strength and balance since she must aid her horse while when viewed from the side her ear, shoulder, hip, and heel are perfectly aligned and from the back she is sitting evenly on both seat bones. She asks her horse to move with very subtle body signals, which can be nothing more than shifts of her weight. The horse must be responsive, obedient, and energetic. None of this happens by accident.
Once a horse and rider have learned to move between gaits fluidly, work on the more difficult movements begins. The horse and rider are judged on how well they perform the following movements:
- Extensions: The rider gives the command for the horse to lengthen his stride, usually at a trot. A horse performing this movement appears to be floating across the arena.
- Pirouettes: The rider cues her horse to turn in place at a canter.
- Piaffe: The horse trots in place in even rhythm. This is the movement with the highest degree of difficulty.
- Lateral Movements: The horse first moves forward and then sideways, or part of his body sideways, depending on the cue from his rider.
- Flying Changes: In this movement the horse appears to skip in a canter, switching the leading front and hind hooves.
- Passage: Here the horse springs from one diagonal to the other while maintaining perfectly straight body line.
- Counter Canter: The rider cues the horse to turn a bend on the incorrect lead.
When these movements are perfected, the result is as artful as it is athletic. Olympic level competition in dressage is much more than prancing about on a “dancing horse”. It is a very impressive accomplishment and is just as deserving of the respect given any other Olympic athlete.