What is dressage? The equestrian sport of dressage is often compared to figure skating or ballet. From the French “dresser” (to train) it teaches the horse complex movements in response to imperceptible ques from the rider. At the international levels, the horse develops the strength and flexibility to gracefully execute movements like the piaffe (trotting in place), pirouette at the canter and half-pass (moving sideways and forwards at the same time).
What does competing in dressage competitions entail for horse and rider? The horse and rider perform dressage tests that are composed of certain, compulsory movements that last from six to ten minutes. The quality of the movements is scored according to the pair’s proficiency and the highest score win the class. Dressage tests begin at the USDF Intro and Training levels, with the required patterns getting progressively more difficult as they move up to the Olympic level of Grand Prix. All tests are performed in a marked arena that is 20x40 meters for the lower levels and 20x60 meters for the higher levels.
How did you get involved in it? Like many younger riders, I was attracted to the speed and thrill of jumping horses. As I moved into the sport of eventing (the “triathlon of riding”), I was required to perform a dressage test in addition to jumping in an arena and out in the fields/woods. At that point, I was really only riding the dressage test so that I could get to the part where I galloped and jumped out in the woods! However, in order to be competitive, I needed to regularly take dressage-based lessons to both improve my tests and ability to gracefully navigate between the jumps. The more lessons I took, the more I enjoyed dressage. I think my mother also enjoyed that I was spending more time trotting and less time galloping.
What do you enjoy most about dressage? Much like climbing a mountain, there are points in dressage when you want to give up and you allow yourself to believe you will never make it to your goal. There is nothing better than reaching deep within and sticking with it in order to work through to the end. What is most amazing about this sport is that with all of the struggles you can face on a daily/weekly/yearly basis to get to the top, our horses continue to give 110% through the hardest parts of the climb.
What is the most challenging part of training horses? I find the physical and mental demands of this sport challenging for two reasons. 1. My whole body and mind are challenged each time I ride. It is extremely hard to focus yourself and your horse in order to work through a difficult movement, all while maintaining a balance and harmony. 2. On the other hand, the athletic requirements of dressage are often misunderstood. The fact that our movements appear to be effortless often leads people to believe that our sport is easy, that we simply sit on the horse’s back. Oftentimes, people do not even recognize dressage as a sport and question its presence in the Olympic Games.
Do you work with the same horse every time? All of the horses I ride are on a daily training schedule and I see them on a regular basis. Much like a dancing couple, it is extremely important that a horse and rider work together in order to learn how to interact and perform with each other. However, as a dance instructor might pull aside one of the pair in order to explain a movement, I ride clients’ horses to progress their skills for the benefit of the pair. As a result, my trainer and I make sure clients’ horses are ridden in the same style that the clients themselves learn when they take lessons with us. What do you think some of the benefits of horse riding and dressage are? The word needs to get out that dressage is as beneficial to your core strength as Yoga and Pilates! Additionally, this life-long sport offers a tight-knit community to all that are involved. Regardless of end goals, dressage benefits all equestrians and their horses—both will improve their strength, flexibility and agility.
Who can participate in dressage? Anyone can participate in dressage. Dressage shows, lessons and barns are open to the amateur hobbyist and Olympic athletes alike. All horses and riders are capable of participating in dressage, with a guarantee that both will learn new skills.
Is the Potomac area a good place to learn dressage? The Potomac area is a fantastic place to learn dressage! The Region boasts top facilities, trainers, shows and clinics. International-level riders and judges work with amateurs and potential Olympic riders in the area every month of the year. Local clubs, like the Potomac Valley Dressage Association and the Virginia Dressage Association’s Northern Virginia Chapter are also extremely active in their support of all local dressage enthusiasts.
What did you do at the seminar for young riders? The 2008 Young Rider Graduate Program was a weekend-long seminar that was geared towards the switch from Young Rider/Amateur to professional trainer, competitor and instructor. Topics from managing our sport horses to identifying training grants where presented by the who’s who of the dressage world. Thanks to this program, countless mentors and resources are now at my fingertips as I transition into the professional side of dressage and pursue my dreams of representing the United States at the highest level of the sport.
I was able to attend this weekend thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Potomac Valley Dressage Association, support of my clients and help of my trainer/boss, Barbara Strawson.
How can people become involved in dressage? More information about dressage can be found at the United States Dressage Federation’s website, www.USDF.org. I can also answer questions anyone might have about dressage in the area. For more information about contacting me, please visit www.BarbaraStrawson.com or email me at Hilary@barbarastrawson.com.