Ever since Ned Martel first described dressage as “a rarefied, ritualized sport often referred to as ‘horse ballet’” in a profile of Ann Romney, the unfortunate analogy has spread.  Contrary to Mr. Martel’s assertion, dressage is not often referred to as horse ballet.  At least until recently.

Now it doesn’t just refer to upper level dressage or freestyles or Cavalia, it refers to any rider asking any horse to do anything under saddle.

Let’s stop.  Everyone.  Please.  Spare me from ever again reading a line like this about a novice rider and her horse: “She uses pressure from her legs, hips and minimal movements of the reins…making him trot and prance and step exactly where she tells him to.”  Prance?  See where this is leading?

Call it riding.  Call it flatwork.  Call it dressage if you must.  But don’t call it horse ballet.  When a horse leg yields under a novice rider it has absolutely no relationship to this:

Nikolai Fadeyechev of the Bolshoi Ballet, Swan Lake, January 1, 1956

It would be nice if it were otherwise — not just for journalists like Ned, but also for everyone who ever sits on a horse.  Unfortunately, it’s not otherwise. Dressage is not horse ballet, any more than your two-year-old running around the kitchen is “toddler steeplechasing.”

I have never come across the phrase “horse ballet” in any of the equestrian literature I’ve read, even though the pirouette is something that horses and dancers have in common.  The term “horse ballet” is simply another contemporary media concoction, an elevation of the everyday to its overinflated excess (see boots and bling and Bravo).  In keeping with the Age of Vulgarity that was its amniotic fluid, it’s designed to make something commonplace seem more than it is, and to have the audience of the hyped-up embrace it when it comes into the world with inappropriate fanfare.

For most riders on horses (including Ann Romney), dressage is nothing more than flatwork.  It’s what every rider does every time every rider gets on a horse.  Boring or worse if you do it badly, beautiful if you do it well, but basic, for most horses and their riders.

It can be fun to dress up, I know, but when you overdress — and this applies not just to apparel but also to language — it’s phony and it’s inappropriate.  As knowledge conveyed, it has all the nourishment of a bag of Doritos and is just as fake in the flavoring.

As I see it, the dressage world already has more than its share of grandiose fantasy, and acceptance of the phrase “horse ballet” isn’t doing anyone any good.  We need to take everyday dressage and its everyday riders down a notch, not put them up a notch.  Just because you put a bling browband on your horse and have a spanish arch on your boots, doesn’t mean you’re performing horse ballet.  It doesn’t even mean you know how to ride.

The lower level dressage tests ask if your horse can walk/trot/canter, whether you can steer and whether your horse can keep from falling on his face during transitions.   They’re not asking too much.  In most Western barns, that in itself must be good for a laugh, since any 2 year old Quarter Horse with a future of any kind can do all that.

This is probably a good time to add that for the life of me and for the record, I will never understand why the USDF waits so long to test walk-canter transitions, when the transition from walk to canter is so much easier for the horse than trot-canter.

As educated riders know, the word “dressage” means training (admittedly, a more plebeian concept than ballet) and it was thought to be the correct foundation for every horse — proper preparation for specialization down the road.  Of course, this was before First Level became a goal in and of itself. And before riders picked horses with extravagant movement that they couldn’t ride.  And before the 17 hand horse fell within the range of normal. And before saddles came with three sets of blocks.  Everything’s gotten bigger, but that doesn’t mean we need to puff it up even more than it already is.

The word dressage might fall flat — although 20 years ago, the fact that the word was French would have been sufficient to give it élan.  Today, that’s insufficient, like a 4 on your dressage test. C’est dommage (what a shame).

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for dreams.  Every rider is entitled to them. And if your dream is to ride Grand Prix and you and your horse can perform difficult movements with grace and elegance, then maybe you will someday be able to perform something that resembles horse ballet.  I just hope you’ll call it dressage.

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