For many dressage athletes the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of achievement. To be able to represent your country in the highest level of international competition against the elite of the world would be a dream come true. But that lead me to think about the Olympics and how they have evolved since equestrian events in general were added in 1900 and then dressage specifically in 1912.
Originally women and enlisted men were prohibited from participating – and in Paris, at the 1900 Olympic Games (which took place at the Paris Exhibition) dressage was not even present. But horses were, in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. In fact, we could say that even though dressage was not a part of these Olympics, more than any other in 1900 horses were. It is because at this time horses were still integral to day to day life. The equestrian games were not just theory based exhibitions, but practical, tangible demonstrations on creatures that were around all people every day. Horse drawn carts criss-crossed each other in streets all over Paris and people walked amongst them. Horses were a dominant part of the landscape and culture.
In 1912 dressage was formally added as an Olympic sport, along with Show Jumping and Eventing. They have remained to this day. The practical side of horsemanship was still present and many of us would not recognize dressage from what it is today. It took place in a 20 x 40 meter ring and the piaffe and passage were forbidden, as were all haute ecole movements. One tempis were not present, neither were twos. There was the inclusion of an obedience test where horses needed to be ridden amidst a spooky obstacle course. As well, horses were required to jump, specifically four jumps around one meter in height as well as one with a three meter width. As you can see, the cavalry influence was strongly rooted in the practical. The definition of dressage is “training” and the tests of 1912 show the emphasis on a well rounded, usable horses.
In 1920 Olympic athletes were first required to ride the tests from memory. Could you imagine having a reader at the Olympics? This is also the first instance where the term ‘collection’ was used. Before that the term was ‘slow’ walk, trot and canter. The ring was now 20 x 50 meters and while the piaffe and passage were still not present they had the full gamut of tempis, from fours down to one tempis. The test also included a five loop serpentine.
In 1932 we finally see the staples of our current Grand Prix dressage test, the piaffe and passage. They were removed once again for the 1948 Olympics due to World War II and lack of time to prepare the horses. Then thereafter the piaffe and passage remain.
While today we laud equestrian disciplines as sports wherein woman and men may compete equally, it was not until 1952 that women were allowed to compete in dressage. It took quite a bit longer for our show jumping and eventing females – 1956 for jumping but it was not until 1964 that women were permitted to compete in eventing.
The tests became more and more similar to what we see now over time, with the obstacles and jumping being removed and the tests placing an ever higher emphasis on those originally forbidden movements of piaffe and passage. It is interesting to think about in the past century how much these tests have changed and how in the next century they will continue to evolve. In fifty years will we still be wearing shadbellys and top hats? Will airs above ground and spanish walk be included? Will the dressage ring be 20 x 100 meters? It is easy to not be able to see the forest through the trees in the present, and lose site of how much dressage has changed and is continuing to change through the decades.