Dressage is More Than a Sport
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Aug 31, 2022
By: Pat Parelli
I am re-reading a book I read when I was 19 years old by Alois Podhajsky, the head of the Spanish School of Riding in Vienna. The name of the book is My Horses, My Teachers.
I remember being an enthusiastic young horseman. I wanted to become really good with horses, so good that even horses thought I was brilliant. Meanwhile, I'm reading from one of the grand masters about dressage. This piqued my interest. Even though I wasn't an English rider, I wanted to know everything about horses: how they feel, think, act, and play.
This led me to be much more open-minded about everything horse related. Whether it was English or Western, speed events, polo, draft horses and driving, or packing in the mountains, I always looked for similarities rather than differences.
Soon I found the only real difference between English and Western is the exact difference between a fiddle and a violin. They are the same instrument, same notes, just played differently. A different style of music, but in the end, it's the same instrument. In other words, the foundation for true horsemanship is the same.
As I kept studying, I thought dressage was a word that only applied to horsemen and was a sport. Then, I discovered that "dressage" means high-level training, which applies to all high-level animal training. For example, what top-level dog trainers do with border collies, Shih Tzu, or any agility could also be described as dressage. This may be hard to swallow for most horse people, but it's true.
In Spain, the word they use instead of dressage is "doma". There's "doma clásica", which would be preparation for warfare, and "doma vaquero", which would be preparation, high-level animal training, horse training, or working cattle. These methods traveled to Mexico, then California, and finally, to Texas. That is why there is not only Western Dressage but Cowboy Dressage. You don't need to ride in an English saddle to do dressage. In my mind, it's precision riding and high-level animal training.
But we must know how that animal feels, thinks, acts, and plays.
The typical application for dressage is a sport for English riders. In a book by Charles de Kunffy named Dressage Questions Answered, dressage is described as a sport and a training blueprint. This made sense. We can do dressage in an English saddle or Western saddle and never apply it to a competition; we can just apply it to our relationship.
I started riding with Walter Zettl six times a year for six days in a row. After six years, I started to really understand how the German scale of training worked: rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness, creates collection. It all started to come together, a real blueprint.
One day I asked him about these funny letters around the dressage arena. And his answer was, "Well, dressage was officer training years ago, and an officer had to prove he had an analytic and logistic way of thinking, just like pilots do today."
If you know anything about aviation, pilots have their own language, vernacular, and way of communicating, which is not easy for the average person. The hard part about flying is learning the language to talk to the tower and other pilots more than just learning to fly the airplane.
He told me the letters were put there to sort out if this candidate had a mind that could follow the coordinates. This is what it took to become an officer.
Yes, they must ride precision riding. Yes, there is a formal way of following this blueprint to prepare horses and riders for warfare.
Suddenly, it made sense to me: this is why it's not simple. It's not for the average man, and it's very complicated. Many people have come up with acronyms like "All the king's men" to help memorize this, which is excellent. I'm a simplifier. If I would do it, I would just go A, B, C, D, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10—something like that, so it would be easy for regular people to get extraordinary results.
But anyway, I hope this has helped you in some way to open your eyes and your mind and your heart to what dressage really can be—not just a sport and not just English. It's high-level animal training, whether on the ground or in the saddle.
The Spanish School of Riding and other European schools prepare their horses on the ground. It's not typical here in America, but all the European schools have lots of preparation on the ground before riding and asking the horses to do these maneuvers with the saddle and a rider.
As a simplifier, the only way I know to do it is to help people that are true horse lovers keep it natural.
May the horse be with you.
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