The power of perception: how dressage appears to the non-horsey world *H&H Plus*

  • Does dressage have a perception issue? Alice Collins investigates whether, and why, the sport is so often misunderstood

    TYPE “dressage” into Google and the top two questions that pop up are “What is the point of dressage?” and “Is dressage cruel to the horse?”. Google suggestions reveal what users are searching for, so does the sport have a perception issue?

    One of dressage’s enduring problems is that the better it is done, the easier it looks. Not only is it less digestible than its sister Olympic disciplines of showjumping and eventing, but watching the best dressage horses in the world, it would be easy to assume – mistakenly – that dressage is plain easy.

    Anyone who’s ever ridden knows that isn’t true. Maybe bridging the gap between reality and perception is all that’s required to drive engagement and popularity.

    Dressage rider Richard Davison has long been a loud advocate for the sport, and a recent incident while filming at home perfectly encapsulated its dichotomy.

    “The non-horsey cameraman was frustrated as he couldn’t see the aids we were talking about,” explains Richard. “But, effective aids are not meant to be seen. That’s a bit of an impenetrable concept to sell to the wider world.”

    Carl Hester agrees that dressage is a victim of its own success.

    “The difficulty is that top sport ends up looking effortless,” he says. “But the reality is that of course it takes years of blood, sweat, tears and accumulated knowledge to get there. If people could understand that, they’d see dressage in a whole new light.

    “Dressage is often compared to ice skating, which is another subjective sport, but there is obviously an element of danger in skating which makes it exciting to watch. The rider’s never-ending quest to look fabulous can give off the wrong idea.”

    Journalist Steve Wilson, who has decades of experience of covering international sports and the Olympics, mostly as a former correspondent for The Associated Press, offers an outsider’s perspective, saying: “Horse sport still carries the stigma of being a bit niche and the stereotype that it is for the privileged, the elite and maybe the well-off – and that the rules may be hard to understand.”

    A number of changes to bring dressage to a wider audience have been mooted, with a few taking shape. Spectator judging has had broad take-up, and helps the audience connect with the action in the ring. Some say that only preaches to the converted.

    Teams of three at the Olympics were trialled in London, then it was up to four in Rio. This year, Tokyo is back to teams of three, plus it will be the grand prix special that decides the team medals, rather than the grand prix, or a combination of both. The delayed team result and the lack of a drop score should heighten the excitement.

    A total overhaul of the current scoring system has also been widely discussed, but there have only so far been major changes to freestyle scoring.

    It’s a question of balancing traditional dressage with the requisites of successful modern sport. Not an easy task – especially when some detractors come from the inside.

    EDWARD GAL debuted the nine-year-old Totilas son Glock’s Total US at grand prix in February 2021, and the video of the test cleft the internet in two. Many congratulated Edward on the plus-80% ride, but others denounced the tension and head carriage.

    Who is right? Realistically, Edward is one of the world’s best riders on a very green grand prix horse, and Covid restrictions mean they’re ring rusty. By its very nature, competition riders put themselves up for scrutiny in every test, and all are self-critical.

    Would Edward have preferred less tension in the walk? Yes. Would he have liked the horse’s nose to be behind the vertical less? Of course. But the management of the horse you find underneath you in a test is not a replica of a ride at home; young or inexperienced horses are more likely to be affected by tension, requiring more visible aids or some compromises in way of going.

    Carl says: “The expression required to achieve the highest marks now in top sport means you have to have the movement, self-carriage and expression all together.”

    Today’s top horses are refined sport animals who move with huge natural expression. They brim with a power that would terrify most riders, and dealing with that exuberance in a competition setting is always a balancing act.

    “For a lot of riders when they try to put the expression in, they lose the self-carriage and then it’s not an attractive picture any more,” adds Carl. “The riders who win medals are the ones skilled at maintaining both. It used to be 70% was needed for gold, and now it’s 85%.”

    YET, good training – which is really all correct dressage is – simply maximises correct responses and minimises the incorrect. What’s not to like?

    “Just above those Google suggested questions, it also states that dressage means training,” Richard points out. “Providing any training system is progressive and takes into account the horse’s anatomical capabilities at each stage – especially their musculoskeletal system – then it’s both ethical and provides long-term health benefits.”

    While that’s certainly true, it’s impossible to ignore the ugly images on social media and the ensuing clamour of criticism they provoke. Whether it’s Anky van Grunsven being slated for riding in rollkur, or Patrik Kittel being criticised for Scandic’s lolling tongue, anyone looking for negativity can find it.

    “Riding in a light and easy way is of course appealing, but it’s just not that easy to do,” says Carl. “If everyone could ride a grand prix in self-carriage from start to finish, that would be wonderful, but it’s hard.

    “I ignore the trolling online. All you can ever do is ride to the best of your ability and choose your own path. You have to be accountable for what you do and able to explain it, as well as making sure you’re always fair to the horse.”

    And when people ask Richard, “How do you make them do that?”, he has an answer ready.

    “I say it’s the horse’s response to physical cues – delivered via the rider’s legs, reins or body through pressure – and refined until they’re almost imperceptible. It results in the horse selecting a reaction he has previously discovered will result in the removal of pressure. It’s all about positively activating the animal’s sensory and motor nervous systems to influence an action.”

    The London effect

    Britain's Charlotte Dujardin rides Valegro during the Equestrian Individual Dressage competition at Greenwich Park during the London 2012 Olympic Games in London on August 9, 2012. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/GettyImages)

    HOLDING the 2012 Olympics in the UK marked a turning point. Suddenly, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro were on the front cover of multiple broadsheet newspapers with their gold medals and there was talk of “the dancing horses”.

    “The perception changed,” says Carl. “We had a good story behind every rider – that’s what people want to read. And our success – team gold, Charlotte’s gold and Laura Tomlinson’s bronze – got people interested.

    “That’s when people started to understand that dressage riders are sportsmen, too, not just passengers.”

    Carl points out that Charlotte is now “one of the most followed riders on social media”. And British Dressage has been working to keep that momentum going ever since. Tokyo will be the litmus test.

    This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (1 April, 2021)

    You may also be interested in…