Even the most diehard dressage enthusiasts enjoy a break from the sandbox routine. Here’s how some show organizers, dressage clubs, and others liven things up.
By Amber Heintzberger
As steeped in tradition as the sport of dressage may be, there is life beyond the conservative dress of the show ring and the somewhat regimented training required to succeed there. Horses and riders both enjoy the opportunity to let loose and have some fun, and show and clinic organizers across the US have come up with a variety of ways to sprinkle a little casual fun into the often serious dressage scene.
As we enter the fall season and everything pumpkin spice crowds the menu at your local coffee shop, dressage-show organizers often take the opportunity to add a Halloween costume class to their show. Both schooling and recognized shows can offer these fun classes, which give competitors the chance to show off their creativity.
Riders can accessorize their own outfits or dress up their horses for the occasion. Ear bonnets, saddle pads, and even full-body outfits can transform a horse into Princess Elsa’s friendly Frozen moose pal, a flying spaceship, Little Bo Peep’s sheep, or any number of creative ideas. Breeds might go with a theme (think traditional Arabian garb), or a knight in shining armor might dress their horse for a jousting match. The possibilities are endless. To name just a couple of examples, the California Dressage Society had several Halloween-themed shows on its upcoming calendar, and Windenoak Equestrian Center in Wisconsin was offering a Halloween Spooktacular Indoor Dressage Schooling Show featuring costume classes, Young Horse classes, Western dressage, and freestyles.
The Themed Show
While most of their schooling and recognized dressage shows follow the more traditional route, once a year the organizers of the shows at Blue Goose Stable in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, seize the opportunity to get silly with their Pink Flamingo Day schooling show.
It started when Alice Denver, the mother of Blue Goose show organizer and farm owner Darcy Miller, visited a friend in Michigan who had established something of a local tradition by decorating his yard one day each August with a plethora of pink flamingos in various tableaux. Denver thought the idea was so funny that she “brought home a flock of flamingos and set them up at our August show,” Miller says. The display was such a hit with competitors that Miller decided to make it the show’s theme, saying, “I’ve always had a schooling show at the middle of August, so it was a natural fit.”
Miller started the themed show about 10 years ago. Today Blue Goose offers the Pink Flamingo Challenge Trophy, awarded to the highest-scoring dressage ride (they also have a combined test). The trophy is engraved with the name of the winner, who gets a medallion to take home. Prizes are flamingo-themed or at least -colored, with items like pink grooming tools or flamingo-emblazoned tea towels.
Competitors are, naturally, encouraged to deck themselves and their mounts in pink. One year, a rider used Kool-Aid to dye her gray horse pink, “but the horse was attacked by flies,” Miller says. “The next year she used sugar-free Kool-Aid, but the horse was pink for about a month!”
Over the years she’s seen many creative approaches, ranging from a rider in a flamingo costume to “a stuffed flamingo attached to the rider’s hip, or pink tutus.” At the 2023 event, “a whole barn…had flamingo ear bonnets and saddle pads. Some just braid in pink or put pink Vetrap on their stirrups, and some go all-out.”
Wine and Cheese…and Dressage
For more adult fun paired with dressage education, the Eastern Iowa Dressage and Eventing Association organized a ride-a-test clinic that featured wine tasting paired with a variety of cheeses. Riders, their families, and auditors could partake in the tasting, making it a fun day out for everyone involved. The event flyer boasted that “the most fun event of the season is back!”, and the 2023 edition featured the addition of a silent auction.
The cheese was provided by local cheesemonger Merrill Klemm, and the wine was BYOB. Clinic participants were invited to bring a bottle of wine (spending limit $15) plus cups or glasses. Tasters cast their votes for the “Best of Tasting” award. The tasting was held during the midday break, and a USEF-licensed dressage judge led the clinic sessions, making for a day of quality dressage education for all levels of horses and riders, food, and camaraderie.
Beyond the Standard Dressage Tests
For the younger generation, Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids organization has become the gold standard in making dressage fun and accessible for youth. What started as an annual Youth Dressage Festival has grown into an organization that produces clinics throughout the year, as an intensive winter training program in Florida for more serious athletes, and a growing horse-donation program to give kids more opportunities to ride and compete. But at its core, D4K is about making dressage fun for kids.
The Youth Dressage Festival show is not just traditional dressage tests; it also includes a written test, Prix Caprilli (a dressage test plus jumps), a dressage trail class, and a tack-room-decorating contest. The latter, says Gray, brings everyone together and encourages them to work as a team.
“At our show, every kid is on a team,” she explains. “Very often you have a kid come by themselves, but we always put them on a team, and it really helps to make them feel like a part of things. We also have a few general-education things, and we’re starting a costume class. Kids love that.”
Gray recognizes that, in order to attract kids to our sport, it can’t be all drill, drill, drill. Many of D4K’s programs are “intensive training” and “serious stuff,” she says, “but you’ve got to get them in first.”