Dressage Controversy

Susan Hopf



Little girls and boys do not develop their love of horses with any intent of causing harm. The beautiful equine toys with long flowing manes and tails (often purple these days) and bright expressive eyes that charmed us were adored and pampered in their pint-sized stables with no forethought of how to make such a huge beast into an obedient, quiet and happy riding partner. But as nave passions develop into reality, as they must, those that continue their equestrian endeavors into an ethical adult pursuit need to consider the horse first and foremost. Sadly however the road to riches in the horse world is often paved with pain for the horse, whether intentionally or not.

Competitive dressage has, without disparity, worn the mantle of Classical Riding, setting the standards with which most riders are familiar. But as the sport has soared to new heights that mantle has begun to slip as those more interested in the science of riding (rather than the sport) realize that we, without intention, ride our horses in a way that irreparably damages them.

Dressage today performed as a competitive exercise bears little resemblance to its predecessor. In fact Dressage shows have gone from being organized gatherings, whereby those that have achieved success with their horses offer advice to those seeking such, to a madly competitive dash for the gold. In response to the compelling drive to win and subsequent misconstrued but popular methods and goals that high level dressage horses must endure articles exposing the fallacies as well as the dangers of some abhorrent training methods that do more damage than good to our beloved horses are showing up in record numbers both here and in Europe. My hope is to bring awareness that the accepted forms of competition, that which is the backbone of the USDF (United States Dressage Federation) may, indeed, be literally breaking the backs of our mounts.

Dressage is merely a French term for training. How can it be then that when one states that they “do” dressage the picture is of difficult movements achieved only by horses big enough to carry a family of riders? “Dressing” the horse is simply what must be done to create a horse that must meet the demands of carrying one rider in balance so that both horse and rider are comfortable and in one piece at the end of each ride. Take that a little further and we enhance that balance to achieve lightness, elevation and power. Take it further and you have what is currently accepted as competitive what I like to call “extreme dressage” a sport ripe with injuries both acute and chronic.

Human athletes have always pushed the envelope. The drive to exceed past performance levels seems to be second nature to those that rise to the top. Riders as athletes also strive to challenge what has come before. All athletes risk injury as they reach toward higher levels of achievement. However riders must also consider their equine partners while endeavoring to reach new goals and this is where a line must be drawn. Competitive dressage today, especially at the higher levels, has strayed too far from any definition of dressage that I can find. Riders jumping up and down on their horses’ backs and stabbing with long spurs at every stride while clamping their mouths shut with crank nosebands is not harmonious. One only needs to watch the twitching tails and failing piaffes of most Olympic level horses to see that they are not calm, not supple and certainly not in harmony with their riders. This simply does not need to be the case.

And this is where science should and currently can prevail. Ideas are theories. In science theories remain theories until proven through sound scientific methods at which time they are then accepted as fact. With regard to riding these methods now exist by way of thermo-imaging techniques and skilled critical evaluations of equines both alive and deceased. To ignore any instruction that comes as a result of sound scientific conclusions, in lieu of aged traditions, is to send our horses back to the dark ages where they cut the tongues from any that put them above the bit. Shocking yes but no more so than continuing to over bend the neck of your horse despite knowing that the bones from which their beautiful faces hang are being stressed in a painful and debilitating manner.

For those of us simply wishing to train our horses in a manner that is best for the horse, producing balanced, sound riding partners, there is another path. A path steeped in tradition as well as currently supported by science. At its most base level dressage taught well makes clear to both horse and rider what the particular exercises and movements are designed to accomplish. Recognizing weaknesses in individual horses and pursuing the correct set of exercises to strengthen such weaknesses should be the primary goal of every caring rider and without question the goal of anyone interested in harmony and being one with their horse. High scores, ribbons and fame if required to assuage the human ego should be the icing of the cake not the main ingredient for success only comes from a sound foundation upon which laurels can then be rested. It is for these reasons that I have chosen to follow Jean Luc Cornille and Science of Motion as my primary source of equine education.