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Why Is Dressage Still an Olympic Sport?

Is "horse ballet" cool or cruel?

by Sarah Emerson
Aug 11 2016, 6:05pm

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us.

Some sports leave you in awe of the human body and its extraordinary capabilities—diving, gymnastics, or the 400 meter dash. Then there's dressage, also known as "horse ballet." Why is dressage still a thing? Dressage is possibly the worst Olympic sport, and is also arguably cruel.

No event bums me out as much as competitive dressage. The International Olympic Committee describes it as "the essence of partnership as riders compete with highly trained horses, together becoming one." But, considering the sport's allegations of animal cruelty, perhaps its description should be changed to "the breaking of a horse's instincts and body, through often tyrannical training techniques."

Dressage is an artifact of medieval warfare when horses were ridden into battle, and today, is preserved primarily by the rich. Sometimes called "classical riding," this equestrian style is defined by horse and rider performing pre-choreographed moves that creepily evoke images of a child's dance recital. Competitors are scored on a scale of one to 10, based on things like rhythm, relaxation, straightness, and impulsion.

Image: Wikipedia/Chefsna

But what spectators don't see behind the perfectly braided manes and spotless jodhpurs, is a subculture of physical and emotional abuse. In extreme cases, trainers have been documented beating their horses into submission using whips and prods. Animal welfare officials appointed in 2002 by British Dressage witnessed riders punishing their horses in the arena by forcefully pulling on their bridles, without fear of reprimand. Others have seen frustrated riders using spurs on their horses to the point of drawing blood.

In 2012, scores of people protested the London Summer Olympics after a YouTube video showed Swedish jockey Patrik Kittel using the "rollkur" technique—a controversial practice in which horses are made to hyperflex their necks down toward their chests—on his mount.

Even if the abuse isn't intentional, as many competitive athletes can attest to, the stresses of rigorous training can still take their toll.

There's also the added fact that equestrian is perceived as a sport of the elite. Remember Mitt Romney's $77,000 tax credit, a mare named "Rafalca"? The average annual cost of owning a horse is around $4,000, and that's not including travel and competition costs if you're a professional rider. Look into the crowd at any equestrian event, and you'll see the faces of billionaires, blue bloods, and a solid representation of the one percent. (Side note: I tried to dig up diversity numbers for dressage, but somewhat suitably, only found this screed on the importance of celebrating diversity among horses.)

Thousands of you will watch the equestrian events this week, hoping to see the magical unity of horse and human. For centuries, horses have symbolized a unique kind of freedom and untamed beauty that some cultures have even elevated as god-like.

But instead of beholding their natural majesty, what you'll see are the results of a broken spirit. So go ahead, enjoy the "horse ballet," but if you feel a little bad afterwards, I think you'll know why.

Correction: An earlier version of this story conflated Tennessee walking horses, a breed of gaited horse sometimes used in dressage, with dressage horses, and misattributed a video of horse abuse to the sport of dressage. This error has been corrected to reflect accurate reports of cruelty in dressage.