In dressage, horse and rider become one in a ballet
Anyone can put a saddle on a horse and ride. The horse does all of the work — all the rider is required to do is not fall off the animal.
The real skill lies in how you ride the horse.
Dressage, a word that conjures images of intricate riding and snooty country clubs, traces its roots to the ancient Greeks. Xenophon, a Greek philosopher, historian and soldier, penned the first known book, “The Art of Horsemanship,” more than 2,000 years ago. The guide is still referenced today. He advocated training through praise and kindness.
This sport of royalty began as a military exercise. Those fancy trots and moves were perfected on battlefields long before they were judged in arenas. Calvary officers trained their horses for warfare, but when there were no wars to be fought, what were they to do?
Artistry on horseback came to the fore.
“The horse ballet, that’s what it’s called,” said Maureen Woods, an award-winning dressage instructor who gives lessons in Santa Fe.
It’s called that because it developed from a military exercise into an exercise in which the horse and rider seem to move as one.
Today, riders compete to exhibit their mastery of skill. The International Federation for Equestrian Sports calls dressage the highest expression of horse training. It has been a part of the Olympic Games since 1912, and there are competitions worldwide, from amateur to Grand Prix, the highest level. Riders are judged in a battery of tests that get progressively more difficult.
Separate from competition, there is classical dressage, in which training is pursued as an art form. The Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, are probably the most famous examples of horses trained in classical dressage. The Spanish Riding School is the oldest of its kind, first commissioned in 1565.
Dressage is the basis for all forms of riding, Woods said. She has even heard about Western-style dressage, although she’s not exactly sure what that is, she said.
“Dressage is the fundamental riding style,” Woods said. “All other riding styles are rooted in it.”
There are differences in dressage and Western riding. For instance, in dressage, the reins are rarely used. Anyone who has seen a Western movie knows that a cowboy yanks his reins and yells “Whoa!” to get his horse to stop. In dressage, horses are commanded with virtually unseen cues from the rider: sinking into the seat slows or stops the horse; leg squeezes are used to steer.
Woods trains horses and teaches dressage at her arena and boarding stables, Cingles Equestrian Center, in Santa Fe. She follows the natural horsemanship method, a discipline that uses a step-by-step process that builds a relationship between horse and rider. In this practice, the relationship begins free from a rope until the horse comes to the rider. Next, after the horse willingly comes to the rider, a rope is added as a tool. From there, each bit of tack is added piece by piece until, finally, horse and rider are moving in complete harmony.
Woods believes dressage and natural horsemanship complement each other, she said.
Her love for horses has been a lifelong affair. When she was 11 years old, she began saving money she earned from baby-sitting and from a newspaper route to buy her first horse. When she saved $450, her father found Lady. Lady was $500, but her mother came to the rescue with the extra $50. She got into 4-H and took Western and English riding lessons.
A few years later, she bought a former racehorse named King Jangles. Jangles was fast — too fast for Woods, and he scared her. He wanted to jump. Woods didn’t give up; instead, she joined Pony Club, a youth organization founded in England that focuses on safety and teaches horsemanship, cross country, dressage and jumping. Like Jangles, Woods thought she wanted to be a jumper, but eventually decided she was more interested in dressage.
She bought Cinnabar, an Arabian colt. She and Cinnabar went on to compete in Southwest Dressage Championship Region 9, where they won two bronze medals. She’s collected other awards, too, including ribbons just last year on Eve, her Percheron.
Woods detoured from horses for a while. She taught school. But, like many who stray from animals, she’s been called back. She’s getting back to her horses now, rescuing, riding, training and teaching.