Dressage Is Incredibly Time-Consuming and Expensive. It's Also the Most Fulfilling Thing I've Ever Done.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 2 2012 4:30 PM

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.

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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.