Dressage: Teaching horses to dance

Lady Marmelade, the 1974 Patti Labelle hit, is a song known universally for its catchy and raunchy chorus: Voulezvous…. It’s been successfully covered twenty-seven years later by pop singers from Christina Aguilera to Mya, Pink, and Lil’ Kim. But before you carry on, know this: we humans no longer have exclusive rights to groove to this infamous come-on.

At the 2006 World Equestrian Games (WEG), a sleek grey mare delighted and stole the hearts of over 40,000 spectators with nimble movements choreographed to songs that included snippets from Labelle’s hit. Blue Hors Matiné trotted and cantered in such unmistakably perfect tempo to the melody, she left little doubt in  2006 World Equestrian Games that day that horses could boogie to a good tune when they heard one.Coaching a thousand-plus pounds of animal to execute a series of steps meant to invoke dancing and also set to music—pop or otherwise—is no minor feat or a passing modern diversion.

Dressage (pronounced dress-aaazh), which means “training” in French, is one of three components that make up the demanding equestrian sport known as eventing. Also commonly referred to as “horse ballet,” dressage seeks to align a horse’s natural athletic abilities, its gracefulness, and its instincts in harmony with the demands of its rider. Within an enclosed arena, the horse is expected to smoothly and willingly carry out prescribed classical footwork with minimal coaxing or instruction.

horse and riderThe early roots of dressage date back almost two thousand years to the ancient Greeks, who groomed military horses for specific movements on the battlefields. Recognition of the practice as an art and as a competitive equestrian pursuit began to take shape during the Renaissance, when European aristocrats engaged in pageants to show off their riding skills as well as their horses’ talents. Much of the lexicon and movement exercises associated with the sport today, such as the piaffe (trotting in place to a clear tempo), the passage (a controlled but powerful trot), and the half-pass (moving forward and sideways simultaneously), emerged from that classical period. Competitive modern dressage along with cross-country and show-jumping became Olympic events in the 1912 games held in Stockholm, Sweden.

Both the second and third segments of eventing test a horse’s speed, endurance, and jumping abilities. Crosscountry, the second and the most tasking phase of the triathlon, simulates the undulating terrains and sudden obstacles – logs, ditches, shrubs – that the animal would expect to encounter in nature. In the show-jumping phase, the horse’s stamina is further tried by a challenging course of fixed fences that must be cleared under time constraints.

Similar to the intensive training involved in reaching the upper echelon of any dance form, perfecting the elegant appearance and the highly controlled movements required in dressage takes years of consistent and rigorous practice by both the rider and the horse. It is also an expensive pursuit. Owning and maintaining a horse do not come cheap. The training needed to rise in the sport’s ranks can become costlyover time. Travel expenses for the rider and the horse to competitions add up quickly. Prize money tends to be limited. But for the athletes and recreational devotees who can afford to practice dressage and its companion events, or who find ways to do so through sponsorships or rentals, the personal rewards often compensate for the costs.

“Dressage is a passion and a lifestyle,” explains Karolina Chelbergova, a Czech national dressage and show-jumping champion who sees physical and mental benefits in working with and understanding one of the animal kingdom’s finest athletes.

“Physical ability is important in order to ride the horse, of course, but it is mental as well.  You always have to think. When you get on your horse you have to feel the horse and know if the horse is able to work with you that day. And if not, you don’t fight the animal. You try again the next day.”

According to Chelbergova, training horses for dressage involves a daily routine that fosters patience, discipline, athleticism, and responsibility, traits which she believes make dressage a suitable sport for building character in young children.

Born in 1971 to a national show-jumping champion and a dressage rider, her father and mother respectively, Chelbergova received an early start in the equestrian world. Under the Czech Republic’s then communist regime, access to riding academies, horses, and equipment were heavily subsidized and opportunities to train were affordable for many upcoming talents such as Chelbergova. As a young rider, she opted to specialize in dressage and won several national competitions in her teen years.

With the fall of communism came the freedom to travel and compete on the international eventing scene. But for many riders, liberty also came with a price—the drastic decline of government funding for riding clubs.

“The system changed and the horses were no longer the property of the state. Though the clubs still existed it was much more difficult to train because you now had to buy your own horses if you wanted to keep showing.”

Chelbergova says she was lucky. Her first husband (they are now divorced) was a show-jumper and a businessman who owned several horses, and she was able to continue her training and compete in other European countries. She even had the privilege, she recalls, of training at the Blue Hors stud, one of Denmark’s most successful breeding farms, noted forits warm-bloods, including the WEG 2006 darling Matiné.

The financial status of many Czechs has improved considerably since those early post-communism years. More people can afford good quality horses and the membership fees for state-of-the-art riding facilities, and thus a renewed interest in equestrian activities has taken hold. Major breeding farms in the country are fielding growing demand for horses. Libor Hlačík, a veterinarian for Hřebčín Napajedla, the oldest privately owned stud farm in the country, says his farm does healthy business with Czech customers, in addition to its established base of international clients from Western Europe and North Africa.

Czech stud farms enjoy a respectable reputation internationally and have produced winning horses. Clients of Zbyněk Pulec, another private horse breeder, come from as far as Kyrgyzstan. His stud farm, Hřebčín Mimoň, is home to the 1994 German Derby winner Laroche. The Kladruber, an old Czech breed and carriage horse, is bred exclusively by the National Stud Farm Kladruby nad Labem, and Kladrubers are often used for imperial occasions around the world.

Eventing horses, though, are not the primary specialty Sports & Recreation Sports & Recreation of many Czech stud farms. “We breed thoroughbreds for flat and steeplechase racing,” says Hlačík. “The demand for dressage is not so large.” But he clarifies that a horse deemed unsuitable for racing or one that has finished its racing career can be trained for jumping.
The increase in horse ownership among Czechs and the renewed interest in riding bode well for the Czech Republic as a grooming ground for future equestrian stars. Chelbergova, who now teaches Chelbergovato a growing roster of young clientele, says her students have started to compete on the national and international circuits with some success. Some are going abroad to deepen their training. The support system for young riders today is stronger than the one she and her peers had.

“People are taking [dressage and eventing] much more seriously. Investors are putting money into clubs. Interest in owning horses and knowledge of them are becoming more popular. Now, Chelbergova advises, “Trainers should try to stay open-minded, educate themselves more, teach young talented riders as much as they can, and then send them off to learn more. The sport, the lifestyle is a wonderful thing.”

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