The Problematic Dressage Culture

As well as haunting Instagram and Pinterest, I spend a lot of time on Tumblr. Maybe it’s because I’m only 20 and lived in the Tumblr prime, or because it caters to my half milenial and half Gen Z humor. What ever the reason, after hundreds of horrendus updates and changes, I’m still on the hell site. For whatever reason I choose to stay, I spend a lot of time with the “horseblr” or the equestrain side of the site, and big long argument post recently reached my dashboard.

There were so many different arguments throughtout the very long, very confusing, and very infuriating post. They ranged from “you shouldn’t expect Grand Prix results from a horse not bred for dressage or that isn’t a warmblood” to “buying a horse not bred for dressage and trying to be an underdog is wrong!” The original post that started the whole debacle, was a post complaining that she sees people getting bullied and ridiculed for their hard work with horses that aren’t warmbloods. Because of that and other reasons, those people are afraid to post pictures for fear of ridicule, and the OP was encouraging people to post them because progress is progress. Unfortunetely it very quickly got out of hand, and by the time I saw it, it had escalated to the point where I was mad.

One of the biggest points in the whole post was that doing Grand Prix on a downhill 15hh quarter horse was unrealistic and people trying to do so would set themselves up for failure in a highly competive perfectionist sport. A good example of a pair that proved this point wrong, is Patrick Marley and Honey Bright Dream. In 2002, Marley ended up buying a scraggly 7 year old quarter horse mare and fell in love. After 6 years of hard work, in 2008, Honey and him acheived their USDF Gold Medal. The Chronicle of the Horse did an article on their hard work that goes into more detail, but this is proof a quarter horse can get to Grand Prix. Marley even admits that it was incredibly hard work with doubts from some that his horse wasn’t Grand Prix material.

One of his comments about being judged ridng a quarter horse in a warmblood dominated sport in the article stood out to me, ” “I would say that 95 percent of the judges have judged fairly,” he said. “But I have to work three times harder on this horse than any other competitor. My piaffe can’t be just a piaffe. My horse has to put in 120 percent extra to get a 7.”“. He’s saying that he and Honey had to work harder to work around her confirmation to make the movements work to get good scores. You can make high level dressage work on a non traditional dressage horse, you just need to put in extra work.

Patrick Marley and Honey Bright Dream

Another example of a non-warmblood succeeding at a higher level is a little closer to home for me. My trainer and go to horse mom, Trainer S has a 19 year old Cheval Canadien named Logan. He is my favorite cuddle buddy, is terrified of anything that moves which earned him the nickname Captain Courageous, and Trainer S has owned him for 11 years. When she first bought him, she was told he would never get past First Level. I am pleased to write she has schooled and tested at Third Level this past season. Logan is a horse that, like Marley said, needs 120% to get a 7 on a movement. Logan never understood lateral movements, so half passes and turns on the haunches are incredibly difficult for him. There are some days he lives on the forehand, and becomes a “plow horse”.

Getting him to Third Level has surpassed all of Trainer S’s original goals, and her final goal for him is to get her Bronze Medal on him. We spent all last summer trying to make it, and our first attempt was highly unsuccessful, which I blame on the kid they had running test scores that stood in the shadows and wouldn’t stop crackling his water bottle. Our second excursion took us to a two day show in Concord for two chances at a the highly coveted 60%. The first day was a lot better then the first attempt, but no 60. The second day was the worst.

Trainer S and Logan were judged by Mr. Axel Steiner. Trainer S’s trainer already warned her he was going to be tough, and he even gave her a low score for a fantastic freestyle. Logan did ten times better in the ring on Sunday then he did Saturday. We were all so proud of them, and it was probably their best test at the time. And then the results came back. Mr. Steiner gave her an incredibly low score and his final comments were “This horse should not be competing at this level”. I think I was ready to punch him out for that one. The rest of his comments followed the same line and others were just incredibly sexist. These are the comments, whether by a judge or someone online or even someone on the sidelines are what drive people away from this sport.

Dressage in general is dying out. Not because of these non-warmblood people, but because of people who believe those who don’t have the right horses don’t belong and Mr. Steiner. By alienating the newcomers and telling them that they are already set up to fail just because of the horse they ride, will make people not want to continue dressage and move to something they see as more realistic like showjumping or hunters. Of course there will always be the classic trainers and people who will ridicule those who don’t have six figure horses or a four figure tack set. Telling someone they can’t because of their gear, their horse or their budget is so harmful.

None of this is new to dressage world. It is a huge stigma and sterotype that I fight every day. It is sad to me that such a lovely sport is looked down upon because of these people that believe that any of the above arguments are true. It’s sad I’m the only one of my horsey friends that does dressage, and the most cited reason I get for why none of them do it, is because they feel they can’t because they don’t have the right horse, or the right tack or even are made to feel they aren’t good enough for dressage. Which is complete horse shit.

These elitest and classicalists that boast that dressage is only for the elite, the wealthy and the 6 figure horses, it ruins the chances of the sport expanding. Dressage isn’t a secret either, and not something that takes years of learning to master. Trainer C uses dressage techniques on her former saddle seat horse Hank all the time, and uses dressage fundamentals on all her training horses. She doesn’t compete in it, but she uses it all the time. Dressage helps horses move correctly, use themselves and be better athletes, and by teaching a horse dressage you can extend their riding ability to a further age. Dressage is for every horse, but not every horse is for dressage.

I think one of the biggest things people need to remember in dressage is to set realistic goals. Will you and your downhill QH make it to Grand Prix? It’s possible, but you’re going to have to work for it like Marley and Honey did. Trainer S’s realistic goal is to get her Bronze on Logan. Could she keep going? Sure, does she want to? Maybe. But she knows her own limits and she knows her horse’s limits. You are what you make of it. Be realistic. You can’t blame your low scores all on the horse, and you can’t expect buying a six figure horse to automatically get a 70%. You get what you put into it. Another saying that I tend to reference alot, “Those who matter, don’t mind, and those who mind, don’t matter”. If someone has a problem with you taking your 24 year old paint horse to a dressage show and showing second level because it isn’t a warmblood, then they shouldn’t matter. It’s what you decide to do with your horse, your gear, and where you end up is what should matter.

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