Dressage: Pretty Ponies or a Hardcore Sport?
Laura Macdougall | 27 March 2017

Following last issue’s article dispelling the myths that surround Pole, in this article I ask whether Dressage is a sport that deserves its Olympic status.


Firstly, what is dressage? The french name gives little hint as to what it is and neither does the governing body for all equestrian sports, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), which states it is “the highest expression of horse training” and the “most artistic of the equestrian sports”. It is for this reason that it is frequently compared to ballet, most notably during the 2014 BBC SPOTY awards where Darcey Bussell appeared to explain the comparison between them.


Dressage is a competitive form of equestrian sport where a horse and rider combination must perform, from memory, a set sequence of movements which are individually marked out of ten by a trained judge, as well as marks being awarded for the overall quality of riding shown by the rider and the horse’s movement (paces), obedience (submission) and enthusiasm (impulsion) for the work it is doing. The marks are given as a percentage of the maximum total score and the combination with the highest percentage wins. A variation to this, known as dressage to music, sees a rider perform these movements ‘freestyle’ to a track of music of their own selection and frequently of their own compilation. Here marks are awarded for artistry as well as difficulty and technicality, the concept is very similar to figure skating and is the more entertaining to watch of the two types of dressage. There are twelve levels of increasing difficulty from Introductory to Grand Prix Special, so, contrary to popular belief, not everyone requires a multimillion pound ‘dancing horse’ such as those seen at Olympic level to compete at dressage.


However, is it really a sport? This 'horse ballet’ does not have the same athletic connotations as swimming, running or cycling and the sight of men and women sitting on prancing ponies in top hats, tails and white gloves while barely moving does little to alter the assumption that all you have to do is “just sit there" while the horse does the work. Yet to be successful, a harmonious relationship must be displayed between horse and rider, for which not only is correct training required but also a silent understanding between human and horse (use of the voice is penalised) with the aim of the rider being to make movements that require huge amounts of power and strength appear fluid and easy, in the same way a gymnast does. This requires a great deal of muscular strength and fitness, not only from the horse, but also the rider, in order to succeed in creating the illusion of not moving. It requires engagement of core muscles to balance on the horse and maintain a good posture, as well as muscular strength in the legs to hold them still as the horse moves, and give the correct instructions. It is for this reason that it is such a popular Paralympic sport and why the Riding for the Disabled association thrives, because it strengthens muscles and increases self-confidence, benefits which are visible even to the weekly volunteers such as myself.


Olympic sports should be accessible to all people, regardless of social background, to prevent wealthier nations buying their way onto the medal tables. Dressage is frequently criticised for being elitist, which when bling on equipment is abundant across all levels and international competitors must wear a tailcoat, hardly comes as a surprise. Horses that compete at the highest levels are eye-wateringly expensive. The record breaking stallion ‘wonder horse’ Totilas broke another record when he was rumoured to be bought for somewhere in the region upwards of ten million pounds in 2010, making him the most expensive dressage horse in history. Can a sport where medal chances can be bought and sold as the most talented horses change hands really have a place at the Olympics?


There is evidence to show that the horse does not simply do it all as Totilas can again demonstrate. Before he was sold and therefore changed rider, Totilas and his dutch partner Edward Gal dominated international dressage, holding all championship titles and world records. However when German rider Matthias Rath took over the ride, the same horse did not perform to the standard he did under Gal. They have since competed very little on the international stage which is now dominated by the British rider Charlotte Dujardin and her horse Valegro, in much the same way Gal and Totilas once did. This demonstrates that even the best horses cannot be guaranteed to perform without their riders, something that can demonstrated across all levels of the sport. Just as purchasing the latest carbon fibre bike won’t make you Sir Chris Hoy, neither will buying the equine equivalent transform you into a world champion overnight.


Further criticism aimed at the sport is the high proportion of top level competitors who come from wealthy families, supporting the ‘princesses on ponies’ image of the sport which the press milked during the 2012 Olympics. Laura Tomlinson, daughter of multimillionare Dr Wilfried Bechtolsheimer, who won individual bronze in 2012, felt the sting of the media’s war on wealth within the sport. Tomlinson had the advantage of access to exceptional training and talented horses since learning to ride as a child, leading to headlines further perpetuating the myth that to succeed at this sport it is necessary to be from a privileged backhround. This assumption ignores the system professional riders from all equestrian disciplines depend on. The riders very rarely own the horses themselves, and are ‘given the ride’ on the horse by an owner. Tomlinson is the exception rather than the rule. Both her Olympic team mates – Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin- demonstrate this point. Both began working with horses rather than as a rider, Hester at a riding therapy centre and more recently Dujardin as a groom for Hester himself. Their talent ensured they were noticed and it was this system of being given the ride on a horse which has allowed them to advance to the highest levels of the sport – not owning the most talented horses.


Unfortunately misinformation and a lack of awareness about the sport has tarnished its reputation somewhat. However beneath the sensationalist headlines of the press and the fancy french technical terms such as passage and piaffe, dressage is a sport where not only men and women can compete as equals, but frequently para-equestrians compete against the able-bodied, and they can out perform them. It is a sport of hard work and perfectionism and one of the most challenging in terms of teamwork and communication, but also one that requires fitness and physical strength. So yes, dressage does deserve to be an Olympic sport, just as much as figure skating at the winter olympics or gymnastics.

James Routledge 2016