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The Olympic Disciplines: Part I - Dressage
The Olympics: for many sports, the pinnacle of international competition. One of the most popular sporting events in the world, the Olympics are what thousands of sportsmen and –women aspire to.
Of our many disciplines, only three have made it to the Olympics. Unfortunately for Western riders, all these disciplines are English: showjumping, dressage, and eventing.
In this three-part series, I’ll briefly look over the three Olympic disciplines, starting with the one in which a British rider recently shattered world records: dressage.
Dressage is the dance of the horse world. More art than sport, it combines the horse’s muscular strength, incredible memory, and willing spirit to create dazzling displays of masterful horsemanship and advanced training.
Dressage consists of a series of prescribed movements performed in a certain order (known as “tests”). Depending on the country, there are several different levels, starting with only very basic paces and figures and finishing up at Grand Prix with advanced movements such as the piaffe and passage. At its most basic, dressage is the simple flatwork training that forms the basis of any horse’s schooling. In fact, the word “dressage” comes from a French word meaning “to train”.
This sport is performed in a flat 60x20m arena. A panel of judges watch the horse and rider perform individually, then award points for each part of the test. At the end of the test a percentage is worked out and this forms the rider’s score. The rider with the best score wins.
The most popular form of dressage is the musical freestyle. Instead of being a set test, the freestyle is a selection of compulsory movements choreographed by the individual rider and set to music. This graceful display of horsemanship is wonderful to watch. Some horses have such an ear for the music that it looks as if they really are dancing to it.
Considering that the Greek general Xenophon wrote the first manual on dressage, On Horsemanship, in 400 B. C., it may well be the oldest discipline in the world. While Xenophon didn’t use the term “dressage”, his description of the horse’s way of going and the rider’s position agrees with many modern dressage principles.
Dressage originated in Europe. Technically, it’s been around for as long as men have been training horses, but the sport itself was born in the fashionable riding schools of the Renaissance era. Originally, these riding schools prepared men and horses for war, where almost all of the modern dressage movements come from. Later on it was in fashion to learn to ride these advanced movements and so the rich and noble started to refine these movements for competition and not war. Eventually, dressage was given a name and became a sport in its own right.
While any horse can do dressage at the lower levels, some breeds are more suited to it than others. Most dressage riders agree that a trainable mind is the most important asset of a dressage horse.
The first dressage horses were early Iberian horses, the predecessors of today’s Pure Spanish Horse, Lusitano and Lipizzaner. These breeds remain some of the best dressage horses because of their uphill build, strength, and ability to collect and elevate their movement. Lipizzaners especially have a reputation for extreme trainability; the famous stallions performing at the South African Lipizzaners and the Spanish Riding School in Austria are a testament to this fact.
The most popular breed for dressage today, however, is the Warmblood. Warmbloods were originally a cross between cold-blooded carthorses and hotbloods like thoroughbreds and Arabs, but the modern Warmblood is a tall, quality, free-moving horse well suited to the highest levels of sport. KWPN (Dutch) and German Warmbloods are among the best in the world. Mighty dressage horses like Jerich Parzival, Totilas, Salinero and Valegro come from Dutch and German bloodlines.
In fact, the Netherlands and Germany ruled the dressage circuit for many years. It was only at 2011’s FEI World Cup, and later the 2012 Olympics, that the British rose to the top, with Charlotte Dujardin scoring a world-record-breaking 88.022% at Grand Prix level, an Olympic-record-breaking 83.784%, and winning double Olympic gold. Her mount was the Dutch Warmblood Valegro.
Para dressage is the only horse sport at the Paralympics, and athletes with a diversity of disabilities are able to compete. As horse therapy is prescribed for many disabled people, dressage has many physical benefits for the disabled, as well as boosting their emotional well-being. Athletes with disabilities as severe as complete blindness and severe paralysis compete in categories according to their disability. South Africa’s Phillippa Johnson, for example, is completely paralysed on one side of her body and can still compete successfully.
Dressage is for Anyone
Anybody can compete in dressage on any sound horse. It is a widespread discipline supported by most countries. Because it requires degree of control over the horse, and subtlety of the rider’s aids, dressage is a very technical and difficult discipline, but also extremely rewarding. The schooling of a dressage horse takes many years and is a wonderful journey well worth undertaking. The sense of achievement is incredible, and it even benefits multi-discipline riders by improving their position and understanding of the equine mind and body.
Dressage as a Celebration of Creation
At its best, dressage is a wonderful celebration of God’s creation. He alone could design an animal so massive, so graceful, and so intelligent, and then give it a mind and a memory so willing that a human can control its bulk and make it dance. A great dressage horse in passage defies gravity; he seems to float, balancing on air, weightless. His rider is so still and supple on his back that she seems to be a part of him, guiding him with invisible cues that he obeys joyously. Watching them, one cannot help but marvel at the phenomenon of what a mighty horse and an intelligent rider can achieve together. Only God’s intelligent design makes it possible for a human to control half a ton of muscle and spirit and make it dance.
Next week, we’ll explore showjumping, the most thrilling and crowd-pleasing Olympic discipline. Until then, may God bless you.