The Newbie’s Guide to Watching Dressage

John Rich/iStockphoto

John Rich/iStockphoto

When you finally know what to look for, watching dressage really is more exciting than watching paint dry.

After all, the casual viewer easily figures out jumping and cross country. In those faster-paced sports, the horse and rider must run an obstacle course faster than anyone else and not touch, let alone knock down, any of the jumps.

But the much quieter sport of dressage looks harder to figure out. At first glance, all we see is a horse and rider team moving across or down an arena. The two don’t seem to be doing anything exciting. And the rider seems to be sitting still, not doing much of anything.

So, how does the horse know what to do? And how do we tell who’s winning?

Making the performance look effortless is the point of dressage. Bottom line? The goal is perfect form between horse and rider.

Dressage is judged subjectively, like gymnastics or figure skating. The horse must show flexibility while moving through its gaits with grace and rhythm. The horse must also demonstrate confidence and trust in the rider through its response to cues that should be imperceptible to observers.

Probably the most accessible dressage event for newbies is the musical freestyle, in which the horse and rider can appear to be dancing to the music.

Most of the work happens before the show in the years of training and conditioning. All of the movements are natural to the horse and done willingly upon request from and under the control of the rider. The horse must feel confident and protected by the rider, whereas the rider needs to anticipate the horse’s reactions to what’s liable to be a new environment for the horse.

The result is a horse that prances, skips, glides and travels sideways, all prompted by the silent cues from the rider.

In some ways, the dance you see in the arena isn’t the only dance that’s there. A lot of dressage involves the dance between minds.

P.S. – Thanks, Marti.

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