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Dressage: Sport or Art
By Felice Vincelette

Competition has given a new perspective to dressage riding not only in the United States but to the rest of the world. But, what has competition given to dressage? We now have a 12-month show season, which means 12 months of work with little or no time off for the horse. This puts added mental and physical stress on our horses, which in turn now requires mandatory drug testing at all major shows. Also startling are the recent reports of poisonings and mutilations centered on competition horses. It seems we have become like the rest of the horse world, where the glory of the win take importance over the horse.

Trainers are also under pressure because the equestrian consumer wants a quick return on his or her monetary investment and expects the trainer to produce a winner in the shortest time possible. Surely many dressage trainers have encountered this situation and I wonder how many horses have been ruined at an early age because of forced training. In taking a serious look at dressage, we must question the integrity of modern training practices. Trainers must satisfy instant consumer clients in order to stay in business; they must produce a winner or starve. The question of personal integrity is involved here: Does the trainer sacrifice personal principles of training in order to eat, or make a stand and starve? It is rumored that some of our finest trainers have been reduced to buying state lottery tickets in hopes of winning, just to keep their facilities from going under!

Anywhere in the horse world a person can purchase any number of books, magazines, video tapes and gadgets, and be overwhelmed by the vast varieties of methods, styles and devices reputed to teach our horses dressage. There are endless streams of messages concerning correct dressage; how do we decide which is correct? If one is truly interested in dressage one question must be asked: Is dressage a sport or an art form.

If dressage is a sport, then all that is required is that horse and rider execute the movements at prescribed times, not unlike football players on the playing field. No further skill is required. However, if dressage is an art form, beauty, grace and elegance are also required beyond athletic ability. This is required not only of the horse but of the rider as well. What good is it to have a beautifully trained horse when the rider looks as if he is sawing wood? Incorrect riding is prevalent in the upper levels as well. One has only to watch films of world class championships and wonder where the art of the sport is.

Throughout the world there are facilities where classical principles are maintained; one of these is the Spanish Riding School. Worldwide some of our most respected riders have trained with the masters of the school: Franz Mayringer, Karl Mikolka, Hubert Rohrer and Richard Waetjen are just a few. After 400 years of success and influence on the dressage world it is hard to doubt the integrity of the Spanish Riding School. I am not so naive to think that the School is perfect; however, the School has sincerely tried to adhere to the philosophy of classical riding. Many other persons including Dr. Henri L. M. van Schaik, Nuno Oliveira, Robert Hall, Dr. Gail Hoff-Carmona and others have spent a lifetime supporting and promoting the classical viewpoint. Violet Hopkins, at her Tristan Oaks facility in Michigan, tried to redevelop an interest in classical riding and training by offering seminars and clinics with some of the world's best riders and trainers. Ms. Hopkins' efforts produced only a half-hearted response simply because the message being given is the now famous "Things take time." Time seems to be the only thing we have too little of these days. Equestrian enthusiasts are willing to spend thousands of dollars on horses, tack, training equipment, show expenses and other necessary devices to produce a winner. However, these same people are unwilling to spend time on the most important aspect of all: correct and humane treatment.

We live in a world that is stressful and hurried; time is at a premium. In our rush to conquer our world we leave behind a trail of extinction; some things are lost forever, and no amount of money or technology will bring them back. The dilemma we face is crucial; standards of riding are on the decline. The late Dr. van Schaik quotes in his book Misconceptions and Simple Truths in Dressage a passage from W. J. Gordon's The World of London:

“The ease with which a man will lose his eye for the horse is notorious. Let even a good judge live for a while among second class horses and he will insensibly modify his ideal, and he will only get back to his true taste by another stay in first class company.”
This is as relevant today as it was when written in 1893. We have fallen into the second class realm by lowering our standards of excellence and we continually accept second class performances from our horses and riders. The main problem in the United States is that there is no one place where standards of excellence are maintained. To quote the late Ms. Hopkins, “The United States needs a centralized riding facility concentrating on the basics of horsemanship and correct riding and training; a place where a student may participate in the training of a horse through all levels of dressage, under correct supervision, maintaining a constant philosophy through the entire program. Without such a facility we will continually grasp at false doctrines for the answers to our dressage questions."

All these problems have been addressed before. It continues to be a series of problems with which equestrians in the modern world are challenged. However, do we want to be known as the century that brought on the extinction of classical dressage? Without correct guidelines and high standards in the dressage community, the art of dressage is lost to those of us who truly love the horse. -- Felice Vincelette

Editor's Note: I want to welcome Felice Vincelette as a contributing writer to this publication. She is a lifelong horse-woman devoted the Art of French Classical training. Throughout her more than thirty years as a trainer, instructor, breeder of the rare Lipizzan horse, and therapeutic educator, Felice has developed and perfected a unique program based on the elements of French Classicism, integrating healing therapies and the natural language of horses.

Felice is available for private sessions focusing on establishing open lines of communication between the horse and rider. As each horse/human relationship is unique, Felice will formulate a training program tailored to suit the needs of each partnership. Her training focuses on establishing open lines of communication between the horse and rider through the use of the horse's natural language. This development of a language unique to each partnership will open doors not thought possible by modern training methods.


To schedule a private session for your and/or your horse, or for information regarding training, instruction, clinics or workshops, please contact:

Felice Vincelette
FireHeart Lipizzans
192 Beauty Hill Road
Barrington, NH 03825
Phone: (603) 664- 8091

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