Confessions of a Former Dressage Competitor

Photograph by John MacDougal/AFP/Getty Images

The same three things happen to me during every Summer Olympics: I develop a brief but fervent passion for sports I don’t usually follow, everyone on TV makes me feel out of shape, and I keep having to explain to people what it’s like to wear a tuxedo and ride around on a pretty, prancing pony.

I rode dressage for 13 years but quit the sport during college for several reasons: It was expensive and time-consuming, I had no plans to pursue it professionally, and it detracted from my main undergraduate hobbies of sleeping through class and convincing upperclassmen to buy me Smirnoff Ice. I haven’t ridden regularly in years—probably five or six times in the past decade—and I’ve talked about it even less. That’s because every time I explain dressage to people, they all have the same reaction. They laugh, say something about princesses and horse dancing, and then curl their arms at the elbows and pretend their hands are hooves.

Yes, dressage looks silly, but it was a significant part of my childhood and adolescence; it molded my personality, taught me the value of practice and hard work, and provided me with a unique set of skills that I’ve never, ever used again. Other sports come in handy from time to time: Sprinting will help you catch a city bus or a connecting flight, swimming is useful during a beach vacation, and even badminton will give you an edge during a backyard barbeque. But no one has ever said to me, “Quick, we need someone to make this horse twirl in a circle!” Dressage is completely useless, unless you count “understanding what Mitt Romney is talking about” as an attribute.

The author and Jill McCrae's horse, Andante
Courtesy Claire Suddath

Yet, it is totally awesome. It’s probably the coolest equestrian sport there is, aside from maybe that horse-diving stunt in Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken—the one in which the girl goes blind. Dressage is often called “horse ballet” because it appears dainty and sophisticated, and the top hat that riders wear is only slightly less ridiculous than the tutu. That’s a pretty apt comparison. Ballet is beautiful but strenuous, and its dancers must execute precise movements with a level of grace that masks the athleticism required to perform them. Dressage is exactly like that, although not so bad that it turns your toes black and blue.

So what is dressage? For that answer, I called up my former riding trainer, Jill McCrae, who runs a classical dressage school in Grayslake, Ill., just outside Chicago. “Remember when you used to carry around all your Barbie dolls?” Jill immediately asked. This is why I try not to interview people who knew me when I was seven.

“Dressage is is a French word meaning ‘to train,’” Jill explains, “but if you look further, you’ll find that it comes from an English word meaning ‘to put or set into place.’  It’s a very specific way to approach the training and riding of the horse.”

The basic principles of dressage date back to Greek historian Xenophon’s On Horsemanship manual, which was written around 350 B.C. (How’s that for elitism?) In dressage, the horse performs a series of acrobatic stunts prompted by seemingly imperceptible commands from the rider. Usually these commands come in the form of a quick leg squeeze, a tap of the rider’s foot, or the tightening and releasing of the reins. Dressage started out as a way to help cavalry horses keep their cool on the battlefield but over the centuries it evolved into something much more artful, as evidenced by Austria’s Spanish Riding School—or, as I like to call it, that place where people in funny outfits get white Lipizzaner stallions to fly through the air.

This is the most captivating and beautiful type of dressage, and it takes years to master. The Spanish Riding School, for example, makes riders train for five years before they’re allowed to perform in exhibitions, and that’s after they’re already accomplished enough to be admitted to the program. Jill was never quite that strict, but she did once put a dollar bill under my seat and tie my arms to my sides to keep me in the correct position. “You don’t want to flop around all over the place” she says, “This is not in a John Wayne movie.” If you work hard enough, eventually you’ll be able to get a horse to jump into the air or stand on its hind legs, although the beauty of these moves will be dampened by the fact that you’ll refer to them as “capriole” and “levade” and everyone will think you’re a pretentious jerk.

Competitive dressage—the stuff you see at the Olympics, where Ann Romney’s horse Rafalca yesterday placed 13th—is a little bit different. There’s no horse jumping, at least not on purpose. “The emphasis is precision. You’re doing things at a certain point, with a certain amount of steps, and it tends to be a little mechanical because there’s not any leeway for bending the rules,” says Jill. In other words, it’s kind of boring. As much as I love dressage, I can only watch Olympic competitions for a few minutes before the “Look, a horsey!” thrill wears off and I switch channels to something much more interesting. Like archery.

I asked Jill what she thought about all the attention that dressage has been getting because of the Romneys, and whether she agrees that the sport is elitist. “Unfortunately, yes,” she says. Most of her clients are between ages 30 and 50, with well-paying jobs that allow them to drop a sizable amount of money on lessons, equipment, and horses. “The horses you see in the Olympics probably cost about $150,000,” Jill says. They’re also the best of the best, she points out, and most dressage riders don’t need or own horses that costly. “If you can afford an SUV, you can buy a fairly nice horse,” she says. For someone like the Romneys, an extra SUV or two (or 12) isn’t a financial strain. For most of us, it’s a serious financial burden that requires serious commitment. “The people at my barn will probably never get to the Olympics,” says Jill. “But they’re having a ton of fun and they’re doing what they love. That’s what it’s all about: sharing a love of horses.”

Well, that and the top hat.

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