What is Dressage?

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By Bethany Larsen

If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked this question, I could afford another horse. When I tell people that I ride and train horses, the first clarifying question I typically hear is, “Oh, so you race?” Negative. “So you jump?” When I explain that I do dressage, the puzzled look on the hearer’s face is then followed up with the inevitable: “What is dressage?” I have given several short and varied answers over the years, trying to find the words to sum up my sport. My short answers fail to do it justice. Although it is an Olympic sport, it seems very few even know it exists. In this article, I will endeavor to describe to you the beauty that is dressage, and why it deserves to be known.

Firstly, dressage is a sport that develops a horse into a well-toned athlete, achieving better straightness, symmetry, strength, and suppleness. It is the job of the rider to be the athletic trainer for the horse, which comes along with the bonus benefit of becoming a more ambidextrous being herself. Yet, how does one tell a horse to workout and to workout properly? The rider cannot just verbally command the horse that he needs to lift his back and get his hind legs under him, but has to use his/her physical body to communicate every little detail. This skill, to learn to understand the horse’s body language and speak to him using one’s own, is cultivated by dressage training to produce a seemingly invisible language between them. And when done properly, the level of balance and strength in the horse is undeniably unmatched. Dressage constantly improves both horse and rider, and there is no limit as to how much can be learned. The basics of the sport can even be applied to improve every other discipline of equestrianism: any and all horses and riders can benefit from learning dressage.

Why does it have such an impact on other equine activities? Dressage dates back to the military training that classical Greeks put on their horses to perform in battle. In fact, the earliest recorded works of horse training and horsemanship are from around 430 BC. This style of riding and training is the oldest, most tried-and-true method of equestrianism. Having been performed and perfected for thousands of years, it has proved its success and can thus benefit anyone who wishes to communicate properly with one’s horse, no matter what job he is asked to do. Dressage teaches the rider to ask quietly, clearly, and correctly so the horse can respond in a willing and happy manner. A horse happy in his work creates a happy partnership with his rider. This is where greatness is born. And from here, one can go anywhere.

Through dressage training, the horse becomes the best version of himself by learning how to achieve a level of strength and lightness, akin to that of which we’ve all been envious in the world’s best gymnasts and dancers. The horse has the appearance of floating along the ground with seemingly no effort, creating these pictures that remind us all of the power and grace these half-ton creatures possess. Dressage is a dance. Complete with choreography, seamless transitions, and even musical freestyles, the beauty reaches a climax as two spines align, one becoming the extension of the other, to create art in motion. No one knows the horse better than the rider, and the horse can read all imperceptible aids from his rider, who attains a feeling of power and freedom only dreamed about by those little girls who would like to know what it would be like to be a horse. The horse becomes part of her as she now has the ability to control every aspect of her mount, as simply as she has the ability to stretch out her own hand. The horse moves to the will of the rider, like a ship moving across the waters with the lightest breath.

Dressage allows a rider to become as effective as can be, just as it brings out the full potential in every horse. It garners proper communication with man and beast, without the use of force or shows of strength. It is a recreational sport that is also an art and a dance, bringing joy and awe to spectators. It builds strength, it builds focus, it builds balance, it builds relationships, it builds trust. This, my friends, is dressage – and it is my passion.

Bethany Larsen is co-owner and head trainer at Topline Dressage in Powhatan, VA, accepting horses for boarding and training and students for lessons. She is a USDF Bronze and Silver Medalist and holds national breed titles at varying levels in the sport.

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