It’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.
– Piaffe Girl