Dressage is important. Dressage is essential. Dressage is crucial. Every eventer on the planet has heard that nightmare refrain.
It took years of competition until I could think about a 20m circle and a leg yield without grimacing. But to be honest, now I’m over the moaning, hearing other competitors complain is pure gold!
I know I’m not the only person out there who’s had or has a perception bias against dressage but now I understand how it can help make everything so much easier. (I do, truly.) Rewind a couple of years to my first eventing competition, when I was 13.
As a primary school kid I would ride young racehorses in pre-training for my mother around the farm. Aside from the pre-training my weekends were spent riding with my Irish family connections wildly across paddocks and jumping anything and everything in our way. That wild riding certainly developed ‘stickability’ and pluck. But there was no finesse.
There I was armed with my eclectic equestrian skill set, when my mother decided on putting me in as a late entry into Oberon horse trials. (Notice I haven’t yet mentioned dressage or show jumping lessons or training days, or, or, or…that was all to come after my first competition…to be honest I don’t advise this approach.)
At the time I understood the idea of a dressage test just as well as a 13-year-old boy understands women. Luckily, one of those has improved since then. On the morning of the Oberon trials, I went out to the dressage arena and ran around it on foot. Having never been in one before this definitely helped me understand the lettering system, but didn’t do much to improve my test technique.
My horse Chuckie managed to navigate the test with only one pit stop for a nibble on the spring grass and another stop to scratch a fly. Later in the day, the scores were out. There I sat at the bottom with an impressive 40.83%. I looked up at my mum and exclaimed that I’d completed everything, so why, I asked, was my score so low. Her reply was a diplomatic version of: “It’s not what you did but the way that you did it.”
There was so much wrong with my dressage test that the poor judge probably didn’t even notice my borrowed over-sized jacket and military-style britches that ballooned attractively out above the knee. Fashion still isn’t my strong point, and hacking is NOT on my bucket list.
Chuckie was an exceptional show jumping pony/horse who’d competed at a few Royals. As soon as the bell rang he would take off and cart me around the course. I had no idea about striding, lines, distances or even what my position should’ve been. I probably just closed my eyes and he jumped clear.
Chuckie also had a great time zig-zagging his way around the cross country field, although half-way through he decided he was in a race and came to the strange conclusion that leapfrog would be a great idea for the second half of the course. The Technical Delegate nearly had a heart attack.
Despite a 40% dressage test, a cross-country run-out and 21.2-time penalties I somehow still managed to finish ahead of 20 other riders in a field of 40, which was a bit of a miracle really, and not much thanks to me.
For the next two years I was stuck in 15th – 20th position, with no understanding of why, until someone bribed me to go with them to a dressage day (let me just say there was a lot of food on offer). Chasing a picnic with lamb chops led me to the light bulb moment that practicing this sand dancing stuff can actually help you finish a little closer to the top if the circles are round, and you hit the markers. Since then, I’ve had just a few more lessons and I better understand how to ride a 20m circle and navigate a cross-country course. It took a while before I realised it’s better to try and start closer to the top than always working your way up from the bottom. That’s where the dressage comes in. If only there was a way of making your horse jump better without it…
So, it took me quite a few years to appreciate the – to a lot of us – distressing truth that dressage really is important. Just don’t let anyone tell you it is completely dreary. When you are out on a cross-country course and you can jump the centre and adjust your stride, remember that is dressage.
Just don’t tell anyone. Especially any of your competitors. Just tell them dressage sucks and they shouldn’t practice.
Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.