The Equestrian word ‘Dressage’
In his book ‘Understanding Equitation’, Mr St Fort Paillard explains in detail the meaning of the technical terms used in equitation. Surprisingly he does not dissect the word ‘dressage‘. Since this thread was posted in the ‘dressage’ sub forum I had assumed that there was little confusion about the word ‘dressage’ but perhaps I was wrong to make that assumption
‘Dressage’ is a French word with several meanings in English but it is also one of those words which has come to have a specific meaning in English.
According to Collins French dictionary, dressage can be used to mean ‘ the breaking in‘, or ‘the taming‘, or ‘ the licking into shape‘. An ‘epreuve de dressage’ is a ‘dressage event’ - maybe a competition or demonstration..
According to Collins English dictionary ’dressage’ means : the training of a horse to perform manoeuvres in response to the rider’s body signals
‘the manoeuvres’ (thereby performed)
The noun ‘Dressage’ is derived from the French verb ‘Dresser. = to prepare’
In effect what we experience in the world of horses as ‘dressage’ varies. It can be several activities:
Informal dressage - ie schooling of horse and rider, perhaps in the home arena under tuition
Competition dressage at various levels under the rules developed by the FEI or similar organisations
& Demonstrations given by illustrious schools such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna
I am also of the opinion that we should include circus performances under the term because the horses which are seen to give a spectacular performance in the circus arena or the horse arena have been subjected to a rigorous and lengthy course of schooling. The circus horse moves in response to subtle cues/aids such as voice, hand, routine and crop.
The FEI is an international body which directs and controls the sport of dressage through officials and judges appointed by the FEI. The sport of dressage is highly competitive. Everything is done in every performance to give the spectator a spectacle to watch. Horses are now being specifically bred for conformation and an inherited ability to perform certain movements with style. Accuracy in the display is imperative and innovation is rewarded. The successful horse can attract upon sale an astronomical price and as with racing horses, the proven breeding of an animal can in itself inflate the ’value’ of a horse.
The Europeans are now selectively breeding a horse which will perform in the hands of an expert rider in a perceived style in the dressage arena. The judges, rightly or wrongly, are accepting the inevitable change which will arise out of competition. To the professional it is winning which counts and not necessarily the gentle treatment of the horse. For example Rollkur is a highly controversial practice in training the horse as is the use of some restrictive training aids.
Organisations such as the Spanish Riding School of Equestrian Art of Jerez have a different objective. Their stated aim is to preserve the skills and traditional training techniques of both horse and rider as developed over the centuries in a particular region. The aim is to preserve the status quo - it being felt that the horse is a known quantity and what has worked for horses over the centuries will work indefinitely.
In Jerez you will see only Andalucian horses. In Vienna you watch Lipizzaners.
In Portugal you watch Lusitanos performing in the bull ring. In these centres the horses have been carefully selected for their conformity to type.
This form of dressage has always been known as the Classical style of Dressage.
The word ‘Classical’ can mean either: ‘characteristic of the ancient Greeks (read Xenephon?)’ or ‘accepted as the standard’.
Msr St Fort Paillard does not mention the word ‘classical’ in fact he is suspicious of ‘tradition’ for reason that ’tradition’ must inhibit change and development. Selective breeding has already changed the nature of some breeds of horse. This modern world calls for a sports horse, rather than a mount for a cavalryman or a source of traction for a farmer. Nowadays we play sport on horses but ride in vehicles. The traditionalist will choose a good specimen of a desired breed; the modern professional rider often attempts to selectively breed what he perceives to be an ideal mount for the modern sport of dressage. If an outline is to be judged, then seeking to breed a horse with a desirable conformation is understandable.
So perhaps one might say that under the FEI rules, whilst wearing top hat and tails, the rider is fostering advancement and change whereas the SRSEA in Jerez, where they wear a traditional military costume, is aim to preserve a system of riding and training in the honest belief that the way which has been devised is still the best way to develop both the young horse and the accomplished rider.
Personally I may hire a competent dressage rider to teach me how to better sit my horse in a quiet, flat, enclosed arena. I want to learn how better to communicate with the animal so that it will produce instantly the movement which I have asked of it. However when I am planning to ride either in open undulating countryside or maybe in a noisy, semi-urban environment, I shall swop the dressage saddle for a General Purpose saddle, I shall fit a martingale and I shall shorten the stirrup leathers a notch or two. I’ll be seeking full control of my horse and a safe seat, despite whatever may unexpectedly happen to interrupt the horse’s attention. I shall always adjust my style of riding to suit the environment.
All I know as a mere amateur is that the phrase ’Classical Dressage’ is an expression fraught with misunderstanding.
When Lord Loch, a lord of the realm and ex cavalry officer returned home to England. after a prolonged sojourn in Portugal where he had been studying the Portuguese art of fighting bulls from horseback, he brought a small herd of Lusitano stallions. As he tried to re enter the world of competitive dressage he was seen to be a heretic and was initially shunned by the British horse establishment, which had its own traditional concept of how the word ‘dressage’ should be interpreted. Loch was attempting to bring ’Traditional Iberian’ ideas into the sport of Equitation. One of his problems was that he was utilising in England a very special breed of horse - the Lusitano - which has inherited an individualistic gait. It did not help his image that Loch was invariably seen riding a horse whilst wearing a bull fighter’s hat. However he was a superb horseman and a great teacher.
So readers make up your own ideas as to how the word ‘dressage’ is to be applied in your riding. For I believe that whenever you attempt to ’school’ your horse or submit yourself to rider training you are engaging in ‘dressage‘. Whether or not you are doing the schooling correctly, is for you to ascertain.
To know how to ride correctly you must also understand what is incorrect. So perhaps we should listen to and watch everybody with an open but critical mind.
However in the end it is for the rider to do what is best for him or her and the horse on which he/she is mounted.