A New Hat in the Ring

Pasting the word ?dressage? onto any area of equestrian sport, with Western dressage the current hot-button topic, is in vogue. The problem here has nothing to do with whether the saddle in question has a horn. It has to do with the definition of the word ?dressage? and also the word ?collection,? issues often unclear even to adherents of straight dressage.

The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) defines dressage as ?the highest expression of horse training,? beefing up the usual definition of dressage as simply ?training? that allows it to be applied with broad strokes, leading to confusion.

The definition of collection can be more perplexing. For most riders, collection means making the stride more contained. In dressage, however, collected gaits are larger than working gaits but cover less ground, thus making the parabola of the stride higher, the hind end more active, the balance more uphill and the gait more expressive. THere’s nothing flat about dressage collection.

At dressage shows, collection starts with Second Level tests and requires strength and conditioning. Its ultimate expression comes six levels higher, at Grand Prix.? Collection is Dressage with a capital D, if you will.? Below Second Level, the hugely important basics there allow collection to be developed, but they are the same basics applied to the training of any riding horse.? that’s dressage with a small ?d.?? The lower levels in dressage are the means to an end, not the end itself.

Right now, there are three organizations clamoring to legitimize the concept of Western dressage and four sets of Western dressage tests, including one set written just for Morgans. Each group has its own rules and judging guidelines.? Some of these tests use the terms ?jog? and ?lope? rather than ?trot? and ?canter.? By dressage judging standards used all over the world, not just in the U.S., anything other than a clear two-beat trot and three-beat canter is scored very low, no matter how steady.

These tests appear to be more like pattern riding in a dressage-type arena?an end to itself.? But dressage is much more than a set pattern ridden in a confined space.? The arena and letters, after all, are just points of reference that allow classical dressage to be judged in a competitive setting. Dressage with a big D, with beautifully balanced, expressive gaits, can be done anywhere in any tack and dress.

The U.S. Dressage Federation, which promotes dressage but doesn’t write its rules?that’s the job of the U.S. Equestrian Federation?declines to endorse any Western dressage organization, stating that it won?t imply dressage, as defined by the FEI, and Western dressage are the same thing and that traditional concepts and terms should not be used to mean something different.

The term ?dressage? sounds a lot sexier than ?pattern riding,? which is one reason for its appeal. Pattern riding in competition, based on systematic training that takes into account correct biomechanics, is worthwhile for any type of horse in any type of tack.? Just don’t call it Dressage.

?Margaret Freeman, Associate Editor

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