Supply and demand
Updated: Feb 12, 2018
What passes for a good dressage horse today is far removed from what used to pass for a good dressage horse. In fact, I'm not even sure that the term ”dressage horse” is not a fairly new invention. It infers that the horse is for dressage. The same way a golf cart is for golf or a swimsuit is for swimming. ”What do you do with your horse?” people say to each other. ”I do dressage”. This is now considered an end unto itself and no longer just part of the preparation and maintenance of riding horses. How did that happen?
Dressage used to be about the transformation of a more or less conformationally challenged equine into a safe and robust riding horse. When equestrian purists compare ”the circus” unfavourably to dressage, what they mean is that in the circus, animals are made to perform tricks purely to astound the public, whereas the ”tricks” in dressage are gymnastic movements with a real purpose.
You could argue that we only ride horses for our pleasure nowadays and that, since we have a choice as to whether or not to sit on their backs, any gymnastic training we put them through to get them fit to ride is also just for our own entertainment. You would be correct. All the same, assuming we are going to ride horses, gymnastic exercises can theoretically be helpful to the horse and are more than just distraction for the human. The real point of contention regarding modern competitive dressage is whether it still has any gymnastic or otherwise educational value to the horse. Based on how the horses develop mentally and physically during their preparation for competition, I personally doubt it. Where the finished horse used to be the work of art and the dressage movements were the painter's brush strokes, the "art" is now the movements themselves and the horse is just a means to that end.
Dressage used to result in horses which could easily be ridden by amateurs. That's why beginners were put on finished horses. "Calm, forward and straight" are not just words. These are survival tips from a time when people's lives depended on the soundness and stoicism of their horses. Not all cavalry soldiers were expert riders, so all the cavalry horses had to be expert mounts. To this end, efficient and reliable systems for the military education of horses were developed. The cavalries had the following at their disposal: Expert supervision, conscripted labour and affordable horses. Under these conditions, they had to produce horses that would not go lame or behave dangerously, even under extreme circumstances. Such a strong, supple, confident horse is beautiful to behold, but beauty was not the primary concern. The basic education of the horse served furthermore as the basis for the dressage high school or "equestrian art" if you're into that sort of thing.
The objectives and prerequisites of dressage a hundred years ago were almost diametrically opposed to those of today. Most horse owners can't afford to have a skilled professional school their horse for a couple of years before they get in the saddle. Even if they did, the necessary skill and knowledge are largely extinct. On the upside, the horses today are infinitely more talented and have more bidable temperaments. In short, the last century has seen us go from riding well schooled, ordinary horses to riding badly trained, high quality horses. This applies at local shows as well as internationally. There is even some research to suggest that the tendency is most pronounced at top level.
In 2015, it is considered acceptable for a supposedly finished dressage horse to be such a nervous wreck that even his expert rider of international acclaim is unable to ride him at the prize ceremony. It's also no longer a prerequisite for the dressage horse to be sound. A lame horse just competed in the European Championships and instead of ringing the bell to disqualify the unfit animal, the judges gave his rider and the rest of the team bronze medals. Scandalous as this is, it's not the first time a lame horse has been allowed to compete at that level and it won't be the last time either.
The object of competitive dressage has flipped completely upside down since the beginning of the FEI in 1921. The sport was invented to safeguard the methods and ideals of the art and craft of classical horsemanship. The FEI was supposed to protect these traditions against the influences of ”the circus” - or the show of equine spectacle for the sake of the spectacle alone.
Mark the words of General Decarpentry, who co-authored the original FEI rules for dressage. In his book, Academic Equitation (published in 1949), he starts out by describing the difference between true dressage and ”the circus” as he sees them:
”Equestrian art thus, is akin to choreographic art, and the high school to classical dancing. The high school of the circus is necessarily quite different.
Whilst the aim of the ”academic” rider is solely the perfection of his art, the constant preoccupation of the circus rider, who is committed to fill his employer's cash box, is to draw at all cost the applause of a crowd to which art is only of the slightest concern.
It is of no concern to the circus rider if a few connoisseurs, enlightened by their equestrian education, are saddened by the perversion of their art in his presentations. They are a minute number and only pay for a few seats, whilst the uninitiated are a legion and it is they who swell the takings.
The circus rider must arouse the enthusiasm of the ”philistines” by his stunts, acrobatics and airs of bravura. Extravagance of movements, sometimes even frenzy, are necessary to enchant the audience, rather than purity of style.
However real his talent may be, the circus rider is obliged to twist his artistic conscience and, as General l'Hotte said: ”sacrifices to false gods.””
If this description of ”the circus” gave you chills, you are not alone. To me, it could have been written today about FEI dressage. But it wasn't. Decarpentry believed that the FEI would save classical dressage from extinction and even, in time, make it better. He did not foresee that it would turn into his idea of circus. In Academic Equitation, he describes how, in his opinion, the early dressage competitions brought the different schools of Europe together for their mutual benefit.
”Without forsaking what was good in their own method, they each tried to improve on it by adding something which they had admired in their neighbour's ways” he wrote. ”This is how the Poetry of Equitation flourished after the Olympic Games of 1936, thanks to the fortunate artistic influence of the F.E.I. It is to be hoped that the different national federations will vie with one another in organising these contests, which further the growth of the art of dressage so well, and that in a less troubled future the opposing teams will show ever greater perfection in their own particular style.”
As history has since shown, General Decarpentry's prediction can hardly be said to have held true. So why aren't more dressage fans up in arms about this development. Why are the people who claim to love the sport not fighting to keep it pure?
I know why. It's because the fans don't have to ride the horses. Neither do the judges, the stewards or the sponsors. The end product of dressage is no longer a riding horse. The end product of dressage is a thousand other things. It's tack and rider apparel. It's joint supplements and hoof oil. It's broadcasting rights, training DVDs, four-wheel-drives, Swiss watches and diamanté brow bands. The horse is merely an attention grabber, used to sell all this stuff to people like you. Like a pair of boobs on a billboard. Or the cute puppy in the toilet paper ad on TV. When the horse breaks down, another super-horse will be ready to take his place. If he loses his mind, that's okay because there are techniques and gadgets available to force him to perform, regardless of his feelings. We will never run out of horses, because breeders keep breeding their mares like scratch card addicts, hoping to hit the jackpot.
If dressage judges were told they personally had to complete a cross country course on the winning horse, I think we would actually start seeing scores according to the rules. Either that or a sharp decline in the number of dressage judges. We would also note a return of type and breed diversity to the sport. The finished, sound, dependable horse would once again be the goal of dressage. What international horse would you trust with your life? Your child's life? That's what dressage used to be about but it will never be like that again, so there isn't much use in looking back.
We simply no longer send our sons into war on the backs of horses. Our acute need for properly schooled horses has therefore disappeared, and as the demand has dwindled, so has the supply. What we see at international competitions is nothing but a true reflection of a free-market dynamic of which we are all part. Social media shit storms are exciting, but eventually, they all die down. If you keep buying the tickets to the show and you keep buying the products advertised by exploited, miserable horses, you keep feeding the beast. And no number of petitions or angry posts on the Facebook pages of sponsors will make a drop of difference.
Instead, you need to decide whether you are going to follow the sport of dressage through the looking-glass or whether you are going to cut your losses and look for a different path. Whatever you do, you'll be making that choice. You can't have it both ways. You can squint for a while, sit on the fence and pretend, but at the end of the day or perhaps in many years, you're going to be looking back at the future and you will either have been a part of the solution or a part of the problem. These things were either done in your name or they weren't. If you're a judge, this applies to you. If you're a rider, this applies to you. If you're a breeder, this applies to you. If you're a rich person with no horse sense, pouring millions into enabling those who are hurting and killing horses, this applies to you. But most of all - because you represent the vast majority - if you're a regular horse owner and buyer of horse feed and tack, it applies to you. You can vote with your feet. Your actions matter. You are the ones who "swell the takings" of the circus, in the words of Decarpentry. You are the market for this.