Doing Dressage

From time to time it occurs that people ask whether I ride, and if so, in what discipline. My automatic reply is always: Dressage.

The last occasion I actually participated in a dressage competition is now shrouded somewhere in the mists of time… (since then, I have been sadly gripped by a severe breeding addiction, which gets in the way, rather…)

On what grounds, then, do I call myself a dressage rider? It’s actually simple: doing dressage is not a state of being, it is a state of becoming.

The uninformed may be under the misapprehension that to dressage means to get on your horse and ride. Such a notion is, of course, preposterous to us serious dressage aficionados, for in a sport where something as basic as riding a 20m circle can be imbued with a degree of analysis and complexity otherwise only found in quantum physics, it can never be as simple as that…

… as we all know, dressage requires serious focus, commitment, study, and, above all, Preparation (with a capital ‘P’)!

Many dressage riders I know, therefore, spend the majority of their time and endeavours in a permanent state of Preparation before they even go near a horse:


Gone are the days when we could joyfully hoist our beer-bellies or love handles on top of our long-suffering and sturdy mounts, in the safe knowledge that a well cut showing jacket hides a multitude of sins… for Dressage Riders, we now know, are athletes with carefully honed physiques.

Physiques that do not only require specialised diets, but, indeed, specialised training, nay sculpting.

It’s no use pointing out to us that surely mucking out a stable full of horses, lobbing about water buckets, bags of horse feed and bales of hay, and pushing wheelbarrow up muck-heaps provide plenty of opportunity for athleticism and exercise. For, we now know, these activities are entirely unsuitable as preparation of the dressage athlete’s body, because they are, we are told, (dramatic pause, sharp intake of breath) ‘NOT SYMMETRICAL’ and therefore positively detrimental to developing the perfect dressage physique. Accordingly, they must never be carried out by serious dressage riders. (the possibilities of extending this to other unloved activities, from laundry and ironing to cleaning the house, carrying groceries, or doing one’s tax return are, of course, endless…).

The serious and proper dressage athlete therefore hires a groom to do the yard, and goes to the gym, instead, or – even better – employs the services of a personal and specialised trainer (it is a bit of a boon that that profession features a couple of rather splendid looking individuals… only saying…). The personal trainer’s job is to arrange the dressage rider’s physique into a shape optimised by the very latest in biomechanics research. To achieve this state, we dressage riders engage in an activity called ‘equestrian pilates’, ‘equi-pilates’, or a derivative thereof. This is a process that cannot be rushed, as anybody who has ever participated in a pilates session knows only too well. Hence, the equestrian world is littered with dressage riders currently not riding who ‘will ride very soon, just as soon as I have lost a stone/my equi-pilates instructor says I can/the moon and the stars are in alignment’ (delete as appropriate).


When I first came to this country two decades ago, I was absolutely amazed that British riders seemed to think nothing of riding advanced Grand Prix movements practically everywhere (and, although this surely is a topic for another column, on pretty much any type of horse). Any flat(ish) bit of drained(ish) paddock would do (mowing optional), shoulder-in and travers could be practiced perfectly along the side of the road, and a bit of grassy kerb was just the ticket to train that extended canter…

To someone who grew up in Germany and felt things were getting a bit exotic when riding in an outdoor school, (and perhaps even in one to did not measure exactly 20x60m), this was pretty awe-inspiring…

Brenda Williams and Little Model

In Britain, we are now on a mission to make up for lost ground by developing an arena-neurosis to rival any other dressage-obsessed European nation. Until the arena is perfect, it would, of course, be impossible to do dressage in it. Alas, perfection remains evasive, and requires a degree of planning and civil engineering that would have confounded Robert Stephenson himself…

The perfect arena is never too hot, nor too cold. It is well ventilated, but must not ever be exposed to sudden gusts of wind lest they startle the horse (or the rider, for that matter). Its measurements are so precise that – particularly handy after Brexit – it could replace the Paris mètre des archives as point of reference. It is never too dark, nor does it threaten to expose our horses to direct sun rays coming from a possibly irritating direction. It is perfectly sheltered from any noise, and does not permit for any creatures, great or small, to pass by in its proximity (unless the horse is going particularly well, at that moment in time the perfect arena suddenly features an array of admiring onlookers, arranged in a way that allows them a perfect view of our rare moment of dressage excellence). It is never dusty, nor damp, nor smelly. And, above all, it has the perfect surface. Or it will have, just as soon as we have worked out what that actually is…

The upshot of all of this is: we will start riding very soon, ‘just as soon as we have sorted out the school’…

Dressage, then, is first of all a dream and an aspiration. There once was a little girl humming to herself, practising running sideways and skipping on the spot in her backyard… Essentially, I am still that girl… and I think deep down we all are…

Over the coming weeks and months, then, I am determined to put all those excuses aside, and in fact do some dressage. With the imperfect body, in the imperfect arena (ours is littered with inquisitive goats, which, I admit, is unusual), on the imperfect (yet charming) pony. Wish us luck…


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