In defence of dressage?

During the 2012 Olympics I wrote an article for the Guardian online defending dressage as a sport and Britain’s dressage team in particular. Four years later the British team came a respectable second to Germany and Dujardin retained her individual title. Dujardin’s freestyle test was an incredible performance from both horse and rider and for many people, myself included, a beautiful display of teamwork. However, questions remain over the future of dressage. Those questions are being asked both inside and outside the equestrian world.

From the outside we have the perspective of bloggers such as Patrick Redford who argued that the Olympics are for humans and are about human endeavour, not equine endeavour. It’s not difficult to counteract this. Horses have been there since the beginning, with the original Greek games including chariot races. The equestrian competitions have always been a part of the modern Olympics. It’s not as if someone woke up in 1988 and randomly decided to add horses into the mix. They may not fit with what Redford wants to see, but he’s not a one-man decision making body, as much as he might like to be.

The Olympics are diverse and we can all pick the bits we prefer. Redford could just avoid watching horses. The BBC had about a dozen channels covering the event. It’s easy just not to watch dressage, show jumping and eventing. I don’t watch any number of ball sports, not because I’m denying their sporting nature or saying they don’t belong or trying to turn others against them but just because I personally don’t find them interesting.

In terms of whether or not they’re athletic, riders do not need the prowess of say Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis-Hill. However, riding is intensely physical. To ask my horse for shoulder-in I have to be aware of how his feet are falling, feel what his hind legs are doing, ask his shoulders to take a different track from his hind legs and co-ordinate my efforts and his. Look at the riders on the medal podium – many are older, but how many strike you as un-athletic? If I ban riding from the Olympics on fitness grounds I’m also going to have to ditch golf and shooting which require many skills, but not the kind of cardiovascular recovery rates needed for a marathon.

Horses do much of the work, yes. You need a good horse at Olympic level but you cannot just stick any rider on them and expect them to succeed – there is a considerable human element. Much of the criticism I have seen doesn’t really register the skill level involved and then just resorts to petty insults along the lines of “It looks silly” and “what have I watched, I don’t understand?” Concepts of silliness are highly subjective. I think badminton looks silly. And throwing yourself backwards over a bar doesn’t really strike me as the action of someone rational but I’m happy for it to be in the Olympics. The specialist attire required for riding is generally practical although I think the dressage riders could ditch the top hats and tails for helmets and show jumping-style jackets. As for not understanding it, it would take me quite a while to work out what the hell is going on with the keirin and I like cycling. I don’t think my lack of understanding is a reason to ban something.

From inside the equestrian community there are more serious points about the welfare of competition horses which are much more difficult to counteract. Dressage has long been dogged by controversies over rollkur, a training method in which the horse’s nose is forced behind the vertical and the head and neck carriage are brought so short that the horse has difficulty breathing. If you look at the photo below of my horse Charlie grazing, you can see that his head and neck are stretched out. The horse has evolved to put its head down and eat forage at ground level (most of the time, some of their ancestors were browsers and modern horses will still eat trees and shrubs). The horse’s windpipe and gullet are almost in a straight line in this position, allowing easy breathing and swallowing.

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Contrast that with the picture here of Parzival competing. His nose is behind the vertical (a no-no in dressage that you cannot get away with unless you’re famous and compete internationally). Parzival’s windpipe is jammed into the space you can see just above the white padding on his noseband. Take a hosepipe and flex it to around 30 degrees to get an idea of just how narrow this is. It’s why quite often when you watch dressage you can hear a horse’s breathing. Done correctly, the horse’s nose should be further from its chest, the angle is less extreme and the restriction in breathing is far less marked. However, movements such as the extended walk are included partly as a way for the horse to get its breath back.

When we ride a horse we ask it to carry an increasing amount of weight on its hind legs. In the photo of Charlie grazing he’s carrying around 60% of his weight on his front legs. Even when he raises his head and neck, he’s still likely to be “on the forehand” i.e. carrying more weight on his front legs than his hind legs. It makes him difficult to control, hard to manoeuvre and a bit uncomfortable to ride. If I ask him to carry more weight on his hind legs and to lift his shoulders, head and neck, he becomes easier to control, more comfortable and, if it’s done correctly, it’s easier for him to carry my weight. This is the original point of dressage and schooling – it isn’t really an end in itself. It’s a preparation for any of the other things you might want to do with your horse. It’s easier for them to jump if they can power over using their hind legs as springs than if they’re trying to lift an already heavy forehand. It’s more fun cantering across the moor if your horse is less likely to trip and more able to right himself if he does. It’s easier to open a gate without dismounting if your horse can turn on its forehand. You can control an animal more easily on the road if it knows shoulder-in because you can ask it to bend its head to the right and see traffic out of its right eye so it shies to the left away from the traffic. That’s if it shies at all – the extra control schooling gives you may well mean you can anticipate the horse’s movement and prevent it from jumping sideways.

Somewhere along the way, humans got competitive about this. We couldn’t just enjoy riding, or even be content to be good at it as a means to an end. And the competition wasn’t “my horse is the healthiest and happiest” it was “I can jump higher/ go faster/ perform a better pirouette”. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if I thought the horses’ welfare was being maintained during the process but when I watch top-level competitions, it’s fairly obvious it isn’t. If it’s not Rollkur, it’s spur marks. Or nosebands cranked so tight that the horses’ jaws are damaged. Or Penelope Leprevost booting her horse for tripping. Or Andreas Helgstrand turning his horse’s tongue blue. Or Totilas being pushed to such an extent that he’s lame.

Of course there is the argument that at around 500kg, it’s nigh on impossible to make a horse do something it doesn’t want to do but that is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power. George Orwell wrote Animal Farm after watching a small boy leading a large farm horse and wondering how someone who could so easily be overcome stayed in charge. Power is a kind of trick that you play by convincing someone that doing your will is the easiest option. You can force a horse to do something it doesn’t want to do – look at the ironmongery in a dressage horse’s mouth. And don’t get me started on what show jumpers are allowed to use. A horse might find piaffe uncomfortable, so the rider ensures that not doing piaffe is even worse.

If horses really resist, if they really attempt to hospitalise us, they’re either beaten into submission, sold on repeatedly until if they’re lucky they find someone who understands them, or euthanized. And on the whole very few of them get to this stage because actually, they like us. The only reason we’ve been able to domesticate horses is because they do seem drawn to us and we’ve only bred from those who are more tractable. We don’t ride zebras (on the whole) because they’re a lot less willing, and I can’t say I really blame them. So yes, we can coerce or force horses into doing something they don’t want to do.

So where does this leave dressage? Some people take the view that we shouldn’t ride horses at all; that any time we do ride them we bully them into a state of learned helplessness. Others think we can but it should be with very minimal tack, excluding even bits. I don’t go that far but I have found over the years that it’s wise to pick your trainer carefully. I will no longer use any trainer who thinks that draw reins and tight flash nosebands are the answer to a horse resisting when the answer for me is to assess why the horse is exhibiting that level of discomfort, not to say pain. If Charlie wants to open his mouth he can do – it’s my job to find out why, not just to mask his symptoms of pain.

But at the higher levels of dressage, and all other equestrian disciplines, there is a greater perceived need to push horses into doing something they don’t necessarily want to do. Once someone is trying to make a living riding horses, they don’t really have the option to say “oh OK today is a bad day for this, spend it in the field, I’ll do something else”. Owners push riders to get results and if the riders don’t achieve these quickly enough, owners move the horse onto another rider who will push the horse. I don’t think high-level competitions necessarily have to include cruelty but we do need a major rethink and a huge effort to ensure that horses are not abused. They’ve evolved to be cooperative herd animals and these immensely powerful, graceful and generous animals should be celebrated, not tortured into submission.

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