Now that we've ushered in 2010 and are now officially in the year of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, let's resume taking a look at the eight equestrian disciplines that will be featured at these world championships.
I've covered eventing and jumping in previous blog posts, so it's time to complete the triumvirate of Olympic equestrian disciplines with a look at dressage.
This sport, which tests the horse's gymnastic and athletic development in much the same way that gymnastics tests the athlete and ballet tests the dancer, is one of equestrian sport's lightning rods. People tend to either love dressage or despise it. They "get it" or they equate it to the excitement of watching paint dry. And with its high level of subjectivity -- at the WEG, dressage competitors will be scored by a panel of five judges -- it just can't seem to escape accusations of bias and of woefully off-track judging standards.
That pessimistic preamble aside, dressage is a wonderful pursuit. Zen-like, it manages to be both simpler and more difficult than it first appears. The root of all horsemanship, dressage at its most basic is the training of the horse to use its body in balance with its rider and to go, turn, and stop happily and comfortably as its rider wishes. As the dressage horse develops, his strength, balance, and suppleness increase. The beauty of his natural walk, trot, and canter are enhanced; and he learns to move with a greater range of expression, from long, free extended strides to shorter, higher, more energetic steps. At best, the horse moves with lofty pride reminiscent of the great war-horse statues and performs with ease the kinds of playful, prancing movements that excited horses display at liberty. This is why devotees frequently say that dressage is an art as well as a sport.
WEG dressage competitors will have the opportunity to compete in three rounds or "tests": the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Special, and the Grand Prix Freestyle. The first two are prescribed patterns, about seven minutes in length, that include everything from walk, trot, and canter to flying changes of lead at every stride in the canter, canter pirouettes, piaffe (a highly collected "trot on the spot"), and passage (an elevated trot with measured cadence). The last is a freestyle routine set to music and incorporating all of the movements required at this level. Not surprisingly, and like its counterpart in figure skating, the Grand Prix Freestyle is the big draw and always an audience favorite.
Although the casual spectator may not be able to discern the finest points of dressage (just as I can't tell which edge the figure skaters are on when they take off for jumps), most anyone who enjoys horses can enjoy dressage, especially the Freestyle. It does not take an educated eye to spot harmony betweeen horse and rider, or a horse that looks relaxed and happy to work with its rider. The finest performances make it appear that the rider is doing nothing and that the horse is performing of his own accord. If you have ever watched the Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, who do dressage on a classical level even more difficult than that required in competition, you know what I mean.
In Kentucky this fall, WEG dressage competitors will be vying not only for medals but to qualify their national teams for the 2012 London Olympic Games. There are only a few opportunities between now and London to qualify, so the WEG competition is especially important. It is sure to be among the most keenly watched (and scrutinized) of WEG disciplines.
PHOTO CREDIT: CleanPix/Courtesy of Lexington Convention & Visitors Bureau