In our modern culture of dressage the standard of horse is skyrocketing, with each generation of sport horse blowing the previous out of the water. There is also a focus on the prodigy, with young Grand Prix horses being brought out possessing amazing natural capabilities. With all of this focus on youth, power and ability we tend to lose site on what I believe is the highest achievement a trainer can strive toward: the presence of many beautiful old horses in their barn.
I do not believe in the factions to which many people subscribe, namely “classical” versus “modern” or “competitive” dressage. I have seen plenty of “classical” trainers who were brutal and lamed their horses. I have also seen “competitive” dressage barns in which the horses were happy athletes. There is dressage that is correct and which functions to make horse stronger and more beautiful, which will cause them to age elegantly and happily in their work and then there is dressage that will not. But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding.
The older horse is that proof. Of course there are soundness issues and inherent problems that exist with any individual horse. Each body is a unique structure and should be treated as such. But the overlying trend will still show the integrity of a training program. Do the horses stay and age within the program or are they used up, broken and then replaced?
If new clients came into a barn and based their decisions upon not only the appearance of the horses, but their ages and soundness levels, then the dressage landscape would change significantly. People tend to appraise horses, judging them on their appearance and potential. Therefore not many are excited about announcing that Buttons is twenty and still showing or Revere is twenty five and still is ridden successfully in a full program. This is a mistake. Trainers should be incredibly excited to announce that these horses belong to their program. They are a testament to correct training and the true value of dressage. Likewise incoming clients should be thrilled to hear that their trainer has the skill set to muscle and maintain horses into their golden years.
We can lose site of the fact that dressage is not just a sport, unlike some other sports. Dressage changes the way a horse moves gymnastically for the better. Once enough balance and strength is in place, we display this bodily state of being with movements to prove that it is so. Therefore a dressage horse never retires. As he or she ages we might not ask them to display more advanced movements as often for the sake of their joints, but the better balance and improved strength never wane. A true dressage horse should never ‘retire’ from the sport, because ours is more than a sport. It is a way of bettering our horses physical and mental health with that stimulation.
So look around you. If there are some elderly mares and geldings with gray around the eyes, being enjoyed and ridden successfully then you are in a place that practices true dressage. Below is a video of Isabelle Werth enjoying her nineteen year old Satchmo.
- The Spiral Of Training (dressagedifferent.com)
- Anatomy of Dressage: How To Hold And Use A Dressage Whip (dressagedifferent.com)
- The Warm Up Ring: The Agony and the Ecstasy (dressagedifferent.com)