Five-ring Circus

In Defense of Dressage

It’s incredibly time-consuming and expensive. It’s also the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.

Britain's William Fox-Pitt on Lionheart competes in the dressage
Britain’s William Fox-Pitt on Lionheart competes in the dressage event at the London 2012 Olympic Games on Sunday.

Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.

My scientist husband and I have been raising dressage horses in the Cascade Mountains for 25 years. I’ve been trying to build and learn to ride an international equine athlete for longer than that. We started the farm as a money-making venture but found it hard to sell our animal friends, so it soon turned into a labor of love. I raise all the horses to ride myself, but once in a while we sell a youngster to a buyer who will keep it forever, which gives us a great deal of satisfaction.

Around the time of the Olympics, when the sport gets its brief, quadrennial days in the sun, I’m often asked what makes a good dressage horse. Why are these animals so valuable and so expensive to raise? And is dressage as elitist as it’s made out to be?

The path a dressage horse must walk from birth to maturity is incredibly treacherous. Not only does it have to be born with the right conformation to enable it to move like a four-legged ballerina, it has to survive its birth and growing-up years with its soundness intact. It can’t have chipped a knee or some other joint while running around. It can’t have developed any bone lesions. When it comes to self-preservation, foals are fragile and not very bright. I’ve always wondered how they ever survived in the wild.

If the foal survives to maturity, there’s no guarantee it will be a good dressage horse. He (most dressage horses are male, as mares are often too moody) has to have the right attitude and work ethic. He has to try and try to do things that are hard for him. He must stay injury-free. Injuries cause layoffs, which waste time.

It takes years, about 10, to build a world-class equine athlete. He can’t have a temper or want to work one day and not the next. He has to be willing to do the same repetitive exercises over and over: 10-meter circles to the left, then to the right, then to the left again. He has to be able to move laterally as well as forward, which means he has to be able to cross his front and hind legs like scissors. He has to be able to learn to halt squarely. He can’t look as if he’s left-sided or right-sided, meaning he has to move the same way going in both directions. He has to be able to carry more weight on his hind end when he’d rather carry it on his front legs. Even horses that have been bred for dressage for generations don’t always have these qualities.

A horse that does have these qualities usually commands a price that only the wealthy can afford. It does disturb me that dressage is considered elitist. It’s not elitist; it’s expensive. It’s even more expensive to win. Dressage is one of the only sports where your ability to buy the best equipment—the horse—determines if you’ll be victorious.

I could never afford to pay six to seven figures for a competitive mount. That’s why I raise my own and guard their soundness with my life. In order for someone like me to compete in dressage, I have to put my heart and soul, much of my time, and still a lot of money into the sport. Other than publishing a book of my own poetry, raising and training my own horses is perhaps the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. It’s also something that my neuroscientist husband and I can come together on and do together that’s exclusive of our very different careers.

Guarding the horse’s soundness requires constant vigilance. The footing on which he is exercised is wildly important. Not dusty and not too wet, cushiony but not deep, and most important of all not slippery. The perfect footing, spread out in front of my horse and me, should appear like cake frosting. It has to be hand-raked and groomed daily, usually by me. Then my husband grades the footing with our tractor before he goes to work. We have a handyman who works at our farm 10 hours a week. The footing drifts, so to keep it a uniform depth, the handyman moves it around with a wheelbarrow.

While being exercised, my horse wears support bandages wrapped not too tightly or too loose, boots to protect his hooves, and sometimes boots to protect the inside of his lower legs. His saddle has to fit his back and my underside, and when it doesn’t, it needs to be reflocked, which costs about $300. A horse with a sore back is a horse that is not going to want to perform well, if at all. His bridle has to fit over his ears and around his nose without pinching. The perfect bit is attached to the leather part of the bridle on either side of his mouth and hangs in his mouth with just a slight wrinkle at the edge of his lips. There are hundreds of bits to choose from, and all cost more than $100, while the leather part of the bridle could set me back almost $1,000. The saddle pad has to sit just so, and the girth needs to be covered with sheepskin to protect my horse’s delicate skin from rubbing. The pad, the leg wraps, the leg boots, the anti-sweat sheet to put over my horse’s back after the ride—all should be laundered almost daily.

Shoeing the dressage horse is an art. My horse’s hooves must be manicured every five to seven weeks: the old shoes removed and new ones pounded into shape and nailed on. Driving a nail into the wall of a horse’s hoof requires the eye and talent of a surgeon. Horseshoers are called farriers, and good ones are hard to come by. Luckily one of the best lives down the hill from me. His fees start at about $200 for just the two front feet. Talented blacksmiths, like good trainers, equine chiropractors, equine dentists, and lameness diagnosticians, command high prices because their skill can border on the clairvoyant. When these professionals get positive results, the horse feels better, and when the horse feels and moves better, the horse has a better chance of winning.

My horses and I compete but at less-than-international levels. It’s hard to find a qualified person to care for my livestock while I’m away for the better part of a week, so I usually don’t go out of state. I’m very lucky in that my husband drives our rig and works as my groom. Though I don’t always do well in competition, my horse and I always advance. And if we only make it through a dressage test with a semidecent score, I take tremendous pride in that. Dressage is one of the few sports where the advancing age of the rider isn’t a serious detriment to winning. (In the dressage world, I’m called a “vintage” rider—that is, over 50.)

Beyond all the breeding and training, you need good luck to keep a dressage horse healthy and feeling good. Prayer is often necessary. Nothing should upset the horse’s digestion: no blockages, gas bubbles, or torsions. A horse cannot vomit. No limping is allowed. Veterinary visits and hospital stays are common. The cost of an equine MRI, X-ray, or ultrasound is just slightly less than the fees for humans. There is insurance, but it costs me twice as much to insure my horse as it does to insure my late-model Chevrolet truck. Within the past year, my husband and I have spent nearly $20,000 in vet bills for our 2011 foal alone. This was madly extravagant, but to purchase a foal of her quality, assuming that we could find one for sale, would have cost even more and would have taken two years’ time. To purchase a foal like her would have cost me $30,000 to $50,000 if bought domestically and about $10,000 more if I went horse shopping in Europe.

You can see why it takes an army to bring a dressage horse to the international show ring. The owners could be likened to the perfect servant and grandparent rolled into one: slaves to this lovely creature as well as his benefactors. Every time I watch an Olympic dressage competition, my breath catches in my throat. Will the horse shy or stumble? Will the rider forget to do a particular movement? Each rider makes the harmony between human and animal look so effortless, like something they do off the cuff. I’m awed and stunned. There is no sport in the world like this. I know what goes into each performance, and a great ride moves me to tears.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.