[Teach Me Tuesday] Dressage: Just Sitting On A Horse For The Rich... My Response

Yesterday, I read an article saying that equestrians should not be part of the Olympics, that the Olympics are for humans, not horses (you might have seen it as well). I tried to stay calm when reading through this article written by a man who obviously has a very strong opinion against horses.

A follow-up article I've just read from the same author stated that he never ever got as much response on one of his posts.

I am neither rich nor am I just sitting there...

I can understand the struggle of the Olympics: every sport wants to be represented, there are long-established ones next to trending ones. Most of them, I have never ever watched. May it be that they are boring to me, may it be that I do not know the rules. Some of them seem to be extremely popular in certain parts of the world, others I have never really heard of. It is pretty unfair now to say that whatever sport should be out just because I do not understand it, I do find it boring or it is not widely spread in the area I live in. I understand that they want to broadcast popular sports but honestly, the popularity varies across the globe so how would you decide who is in and who is out?

Watching videos and looking at photos of the cross country, you might have seen that there are only few spectators. When I look at my Facebook newsfeed, I see many many people desperately looking for live streams and news updates. So does it mean that equestrianism is not interesting enough just because we (from Europe) did not fly to Brazil for watching our idols? Only four years ago, the arenas were filled when the British rode to their Gold medals in Dressage.

To be honest, I have not watched any other sports broadcast during the last week. I do not know whether there are hundreds of thousand people around to watch canoe sprint (yes, that is Olympic - I have just looked it up!), Trampoline (WHAT?!) or Wrestling Greco-Roman (ah well...). But I think there might be other reasons why the number of spectators might be low also with more or less popular sports. So THAT cannot be taken into account if you asked me when deciding which sport should go.

Back to the original argument of the author of this Deadletter, Olympics are for humans, not for horses. The involvement of horses in the Olympics dates back to Ancient Greece. While in Ancient Greece it was mostly chariot races, in 1900 in Paris you could watch Polo, Grand Prix Jumping, High Jumping. There were no equestrian disciplines from 1904 onwards, but they returned in 1912 in Stockholm with  dressage, show jumping and eventing. It took until 1952 that also women and non-officers could enter as Dressage participants. Women could only enter show jumping in 1956 and eventing in 1964!

Since then, equestrian disciplines are not only the only discipline where animals are involved but also one of the few disciplines where men and women compete against each other (Source: Wikipedia).

It seems that we equestrians can look back on a pretty long history in the Olympics. The author claims that:
I am sure that riding a horse and making it do horse tricks is a difficult skill to acquire and hone to an Olympic level. Also, though, you aren’t doing anything but riding a horse—far easier than running a marathon or lifting weights.
Yes, I agree, as an equestrian, you might not look like Michael Phelps or run as fast as Usain Bolt. We might not train with our horses for eight hours straight very day like gymnasts, swimmers, But we are the only ones that do not only need to get ourselves fit enough but also train our equine partner to highest levels. On one hand, we need to be as strong as a weight lifter and on the other hand as elegant as a rhythmic gymnast. Equestrians strongly rely on cross-training to improve their riding skills whilst not sitting on a horse. The mental side is the same as for every athlete apart from the fact that you need to get the same attitude from a 1000 pounds animal who could easily do whatever he or she wants. To work together as a team takes years of dedication, lots of time spent not only on riding but on the maintenance of your partner. Trainers, grooms, vets, farriers, physiotherapists...all need to work together to ensure that the horse feels good and does well. It does not only takes a ridiculous amount of time, but also money.

The best you can say for dressage is that it’s the most ostentatiously aristocratic of the three Olympic horsey sports, but all horse sports are for the privileged, not the people. Most everyone can run. Not everyone can afford to run a horse around an obstacle course. The Olympics were founded by the aristocracy, but the presence of sports like sailing makes sense, because people have to still sail the boats, unlike horse stuff, where they just sit on a horse.

I am not in the position to say that canoeing might be a hundred times cheaper than horseback riding but I know what my horse costs a month. I can only guess how much it would be for a horse that is in the Olympics. Let alone the purchase prices, the upbringing, training, boarding, shoeing and vet visits for sure cost a ton of money. Is it true that all equestrians are rich? I do not think so. Most of them rely on sponsors and need to work hard for their money. At least I do not know anyone who got rich while trying to make it to the Olympics. Here in Austria, you won't earn any money in dressage up to the highest levels meaning that we are all amateurs who work 9 to 5 in order to finance their expensive hobby. With the decision to get started in dressage, I made the conscious decision that a good part of my salary would go to my horse, that early mornings and late nights are part of the games as well as no fancy schmancy holidays on the Seychelles that I could "easily" afford without having to pay several hundreds for my horse every month.

Riders in equestrian events are entirely beholden to the skills of their mounts. The horses earn the medals, not the humans. The Olympics are to test the limits of human athletic abilities, not the limits of horse breeding and training. If horses want their own Olympics, well they can have them. This is an animal walking, and it does not belong in the Olympics.

Everyone who works around horses knows it already: just sitting there would lead you nowhere. It is the combination rider and horse that brings out the best of them. Mutual trust and respect is the basis for dedicated training plans and year-long investments. And so many do not make it to the top. I do not know how many Weltmeyer offsprings did not make it to the Olympics. Nobody knows whether a Totilas offspring will ever follow his famous father's footsteps. Breeding is important but it is simply no guarantee for success in sports. Even the most intelligent kid might not a Nobel prize prospect without the right promotion. And even the short leg Hafl can perform flying changes that get 8s if trained correctly. What's more, the horse rider combination cannot be as easily changed as buying a new canoe, a new golf bat or a skateboard. I am sure that it is also difficult to find the ideal band, the best arch, the fastest boat. But finding a horse that can make it to the Olympics might only be a once in a lifetime experience. And if this horse gets hurt, you might not have hundred new ones to choose from. We rely on our "material" way more that any other discipline - because we work with a living animal where there is more than just some Teflon or color.

Dear author, if you had the feeling that dressage riders are just sitting and doing nothing, you might have seen some of the world's best riders. That is actually what we dressage riders are aiming for: invisible aids, a pair in unison, dancing with ease in an arena performing movements that horses are born with but that are brought to perfection by their humans. It is so difficult to make it look easy - you should not underestimate the time and effort it takes to get to that stage. Like for every other athlete that is participating in the Olympics.

Actually, it is a good thing that you wrote this post - you brought something on paper that many others might think as well. And it is even better that you get such strong response from the equestrian community showing that our sport matters!

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