Dressage is in an odd place right now. At the bottom of the sprawling pyramid, grassroots competitor numbers are swelling, with British Dressage having created the likes of Team Quest and My Quest to accommodate ever-growing lower-level demand.
Take a look at the pyramid’s peak, however, and you’ll find things are not so rosy.
Dressage — and the other two main disciplines — is facing a fight to stay on the Olympic roster. Some fans of the sport might not think that’s critically important. It is.
Participation in — and success at — Olympics Games triggers vital lottery funding, key in allowing Britain’s top riders to give themselves and their horses the comprehensive, tip-top attention they need to compete against the best in the world.
Dressage’s long format of two protracted grand prix days isn’t attractive to new audiences. Let’s face it, unless you’re au fait with the finer points (and therefore already an aficionado), watching dozens of repetitive tests is dull. Consistently weak spectator numbers at major championships bear this out.
And the wait after the final competitor’s last halt to find out who has won isn’t ticking any of those 2020 objectives boxes either.
Television audiences want easily digestible sports that are simple to understand; in themselves and in their judging. How can one judge give a five and another an eight but both still be right?
But dressage is about tradition; it’s sacred and we shouldn’t mess with it, I hear you say. Not so. To survive, we must adapt.
It’s all very well appealing to those who already love the sport. Do we see the largest companies on the planet marketing to those who already like/use/follow? No. Their target is new blood; fresh eyes and new consumers. Dressage must think this way too. The sport itself must become its own PR machine.
What’s the answer? Shorter tests? Removal of some elements? After all, in other sports participants get one crack at a movement, and that’s it. Should the three piaffes in the grand prix become one? We could lose one of the extended trots. And how about the rein-back? Nobody likes that bit anyway.
But how much flesh can you pare back before you irreparably damage the vital organs of our beloved sport?
Lose collectives, gain colour and fun
There’s no magic wand, but abolition of collectives — currently under FEI consideration — would speed things up a bit. Relaxing the dress code is a no-brainer. If riders chose to wear more wacky, colourful, patriotic clothes, they could do so. Madcap outfits don’t detract from judges’ marking ability in vaulting or ice-skating, so the suggestion that bright colours might distract judges is laughable. Give them some credit.
Then there’s the suggestion that horses could wear ear covers with some degree of noise cancellation. I’m torn on this one. We’ve all seen dressage horses frightened by noise at the final halt and in prize-givings. Similarly, I’ve seen horses perform at their athletic peak surrounded by a din of noise in the reining competition at the World Equestrian Games in Caen last year.
That suggests that horses can, eventually, become accustomed to working amid significant noise. But do we want that to be part of the “test” of dressage? If not, ear covers and plugs must surely be the way forward.
But would stuffing horses’ ears full of cotton wool signal some sort of fundamental fault in the training and harmony with the rider?
I think it’s time to accept that, to bring dressage to new audiences who crave more fun and vocal involvement, putting the horse’s welfare front and centre is sensible and advantageous. All elements of dressage must be put under the magnifying glass.
And, who knows, by drawing new admirers, the sport may be able to raise its profile, thereby attracting more attention, more lucrative sponsorship, better prize-money and greater opportunities for all.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 26 November 2015