The State of the Sport: A Call to Action

LeDouxIt’s been quite a while since my last post (apologies to my readers), but attempting to balance a cross-country move, writing a dissertation, and my horse business got to be a bit much. Things have evened out a bit, and so I’m going to shows and generally being more engaged in the sport. That brings me to today’s topic — an S.O.S. (Save our Sport) about the serious, and seriously depressing state of dressage in America.

Pursuit of my PhD kept me out of showing for a few years, and so my recent foray back into the mix came as quite a shock. I actively competed from 1986 to about 2006, beginning on the hunter / jumper circuit, and transitioning to dressage in the early ’90s. At that time, even the smallest schooling shows were packed to the gills in every level from training through FEI. And the big shows at venues like the Kentucky Horse Park, Lamplight, etc were truly mammoth.

Flash-forward: Last year I attended some ostensibly big shows out west, including a regional championship, but what stood out to me most was the pitiful turnout. Many classes were lucky to have three entries, and the FEI ranks, if represented at all, usually had one. Heck, a friend from Holland trailered her young horses out to Del Mar, but returned without showing because the classes were empty!

This dearth of dressage influenced my move back east, and so it was with an eager heart that I awaited the start of the winter season this year. However, a friend and I attended the Gold Coast Opener in Wellington, and once again I noticed empty stalls and short class lists. Feeling bemused, I struck up a conversation with a saddler on the topic, and she mentioned that this was becoming a trend in the dressage world. Ever the optimist, I decided to blame the weather (it was a cold, rainy weekend) and determined to hit the Global Dressage Festival next. Sadly, the GDF proved to be more of the same. The saddler I’d previously met was at the GDF too, so we talked some more about the direction of American dressage, but weren’t able to come up with any positive solutions. A fellow horseperson suggested that perhaps it was a reflection of the general economic slump, but a lovely day watching the jumpers disproved that notion. Seriously — the hunter / jumper side (although slightly smaller than in the past) was fun, vibrant, and active. Going from the jumping to the dressage was like walking from a carnival in to a mausoleum. That’s a problem. Our sport isn’t just stagnating . . . it’s dying. No amount of sponsorship, “Western Dressage”, or Parelli theatrics is going to resuscitate it. You see: building interest in dressage cannot be a top down approach, no matter how much our governing body would like it to be. The problem isn’t spectators — it’s us, the riders, breeders, and trainers. We have lost interest in our own sport, as is painfully evident in the sheer number of people who choose to never move up the levels. Yes, I know that statement will raise some hackles, but when buyers purchase exceptional horses and continuously show them well below their proven level . . . that’s problematic. I won’t even get into the sportsmanship issue related to “competing” an upper-level horse at training level for several years in a row.

While I recognize that many riders compete for fun, I also believe that if American dressage is to thrive — let alone survive — we need to take drastic action. It is easy and “fun” to ride a horse below its capabilities and win lots of ribbons. As professionals, we know our clients want to win, and when they win, they keep paying us. Unfortunately, this can create a negative economic pressure. We need our clients and our sponsors, but we also need to balance the desire to placate with an honest and direct dialogue about the dedication, perseverance, and occasional sheer luck that influences success in any equine venture. Dressage is difficult, and not everyone can be a winner . . . but everyone wants to be. We’ve commodified winning, and made the measure of success a thirty cent strip of blue satin. We must — must — shift the focus of success away from the ribbon and back onto the process. Until we can become actively invested in our own, individual, and incremental improvement, our sport will continue to die.

Join the SOS! Please help save our sport.

CU@X (hopefully)

Piaffe Girl 

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I am all about the process and steady improvement. All I think about is improving, improving, improving. You read and commented on my last blog post. Even with a score of 69% I wasn’t happy. I don’t care a whit about ribbons or placing. Okay, I care a little about where I place, but only as it relates to scores. I would rather be dead last with a 65% than first with a 55%.

    I hope you’ll write more soon; I need the inspiration! :0)

  2. Elly Davis says:

    I totally agree with most of these points! However, the bit about western dressage kind of bothered me. Could you clarify? I don’t know much about the governing bodies of the sport, and all the politics of dressage and western dressage, but it would seem to me that including people who are interested in dressage, regardless of what saddle they ride in, would help, not hurt the sport.

    1. piaffegirl says:

      Thank you for your astute question. You are correct. Interest in the sport is paramount for its survival, but Dressage isn’t just about what some might think of as Sport (capitalization for emphasis). Technically, it’s a form of training that has its roots in military needs. So dressage as a Sport follows a specific tradition with rules, regulations, and the like. Those are discussed at overwhelming (and confusing) length in the FEI and USDF handbooks. On the other hand, dressage as a discipline transcends those regulations, needs, habits, and traditions. That concept of dressage, which I think of as good horsepersonship, is and should be practiced by riders of all levels and persuasions, regardless of saddlery. It’s tricky frankly, and I still don’t have a answer. I’m working it out like all the rest of us😉 Ultimately, I believe in what helps the horse and rider become their ideal selves. But I also believe that dialogue is the only way to keep what’s best for our horses at the forefront. We have to come together as a community of horsepeople. Period.

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