Subtle in the saddle 

Sizing up the competition at the Missoula Dressage Show

Just beyond Big Sky High School and well within range of Wal-Mart sits the Missoula Equestrian Park, a huge expanse of open land where riders of all abilities may bring their horses for play, show or competition. The park, which offers annual membership for a nominal fee, provides access to a full-sized arena and an impressive cross-country jumping course. At the end of a regular street lined with houses, this surprise of undeveloped open space signals that the Equestrian Park is a different world than that of everyday Missoula. And dressage (pronounced dreSAHJ) is a very different world indeed.

Last weekend, the park hosted the 13th Annual Missoula Dressage Show, and riders from Canada, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington joined Montanans for the event. By 9:00 on a scorching morning, the park was quiet but alive with practice trots and judged events already in full swing in two arenas. A modest concession area was set up beneath a tent where a couple of men scrambled eggs and poured coffee, the morning air tinged with the solid, comforting smell of bacon. In a nearby brick building that looks something like a foreshortened prison tower, an announcer called the official time and events.

This was the beginning of a two-day marathon of dressage, wherein riders and their horses would be judged on everything from piaffe to passage, from the collected canter to the extended trot, from equine immobility to human salute and, of course, on the lengthening of the strides and the flying changes of leg. The judge this year was Hilda Gurney, a former U.S. Dressage Team Olympian and a significant draw to the riders. For the better part of two days, Gurney sat at the end of one arena inside an open horse trailer that someone had abruptly landscaped with a couple of potted trees.

At the stables, riders tended to their horses. Some had come alone, hauling a single-horse trailer on the back of a pickup. Some came with friends to help groom three or four animals. A woman from Idaho stepped down from her trailer in full kit and instructed her husband to walk her stallion around. Everywhere, calm, busy activity surrounded the animals. In tight, cream-colored britches and supple black leather boots that reached to her knees, one woman absentmindedly sprayed detangler through her horse’s tail, then brushed it out with quick, hard strokes. She peeped and chippered to her horse, who stood obediently beneath her hand and flicked at flies with his ears. In a neighboring stall, a woman gently scolded her “boy” for how dirty he was. “He likes to roll,” she said, as she picked bits of grass out of his braided mane and brushed the dust off his belly. “Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you?” she said, her voice rising until he shook his muzzle in the air and she laughed. Then she sprayed his already gleaming chocolate coat with something that smelled deliciously of spearmint.

If the 13th Annual Missoula Dressage Show were notable for nothing else, it would be notable for the absence of cell phones. The consuming focus on the task at hand, on the animals and their care, on the rules, make obsolete such a modern necessity. The sport perpetuates an archaic civility, conjuring a subtler society, a still and quiet time. Control is prized, animal precision essential. The regal countenance of such beautiful animals and the bi-chromatic sobriety of the uniforms demand hushed observation. At the arenas, only a few spectators dotted the fences, watching each participant with concentration. When a rider finished, observers offered discreet applause, the sort reserved for golf or tennis at Wimbledon, the antithesis of rodeo reactions. As a rider approached the ring, she exchanged a few encouraging words with her predecessor, a dialogue repeated at every changeover:

“Nice work out there.”

“Thank you, have a good one.”

The absence of overt competition also marks dressage, a sport in which each player has her moment of complete attention. Legend has beauty contestants sharing mascara in the dressing rooms and squealing with joy for their sisters’ success. Dressage really is like that, a world where the show is a pleasant social opportunity, a chance for equestrians to share tips and hints, brush up on riding-world gossip and learn new tricks from each other.

The history of dressage can be traced 2,000 years to the Greeks, among whom it was employed as a means of battle preparation; in the arena the animals radiate the glorious strength and power of the quadriga on the Doge’s palace in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Martial cavalry adopted the techniques in order to better control horses on the battlefields. Dressage did not assume its present identity until the middle of the 18th century, when its pursuit was an essential element in the royal repertoire of France. Today, the Lipizzaner Stallions of Austria are the most famous diplomats of dressage, their structured, precise high steps as close to dancing as a horseplay gets. It is important to understand, however, that dressage is a partnership, a perfect marriage of horse and rider that allows the horse to respond entirely to his rider’s commands, and the rider to communicate through only her hands and legs.

Once the rider enters the arena in her black wool coat and white britches, she and her horse command all eyes. Her regal posture is made taller by her black hat, a truncated version of the fox hunter’s top hat. Her gloved hands flash brightly against the dark reins, and her legs lay straight and long against the animal’s side. She moves to the center of the arena, a spot marked X, where she halts her horse and salutes the judge. After that, she shows off her horse’s muscular engagement of his hind quarters, his posture as well as her own (unlike in racing or hunting, the dressage rider must surrender her body to the horse’s rhythms, which accounts for an unusual, if extremely well-controlled, floppiness in the rider), their combined grace and harmony, and the prized regularity of their movements. In the ring, they move in a united choreography that looks almost as random as the buzzing of bees around the queen. As with bees, though, exact and carefully coordinated signals—marked arbitrarily with G, E, M, K, F, etc.—dictate just where to step, when and how.

Like most hobbies, the specific terms, rules and rewards make the inner world of dressage almost universally irrelevant and incredibly weird—an equine variant of the high-strung world of dog breed competitions highlighted by Christopher Guest in his movie Best in Show. This is a private world with its own language and secret codes. To the outsider, dressage looks like nothing more than the riding of a calm and well-behaved horse. Such lackadaisical consideration would make any dressage rider gasp with indignation, even anger. The dressage rider has dedicated herself to an obsessive and demanding task that requires months of training, years of progress and a considerable investment of funds.

The husband returned and steadied the stallion in front of his wife so that she could ready him for the show. “Expensive? You might say that’s an understatement,” he said and chortled, casting a look toward their trailer. People will tell you that dressage is a democratic pursuit. “Any horse can do it,” said his wife as she tossed a white quilted pad over the stallion’s back. At this show, there are all sorts of warm-bloods of all ages, it’s true, but the notion of populism is weakened when you take into account the expenses associated with the sport. Horses are expensive, of course, and people who keep them are likely to have money. A good dressage horse—mature, broken, experienced, athletic, open chested—can cost $15,000 imported from Germany. A domestic stallion at eight years old, 17 hands high and merely tagged a good candidate for the sport, can cost $60,000. Used saddles start somewhere in the high hundreds and can fetch several thousand dollars. The habit is regulation, the boots alone costing upwards of $400. Dressage lessons in Missoula can cost as much as $50 an hour. Entry fees for Missoula’s participants range up to $35 for each category, to say nothing of the weekend’s boarding fees and transportation costs, as well as such incidentals as grooming tools and products, membership dues, farrier fees, books and subscriptions, feed, gas, and human lodging.

The Idaho rider adjusted the girth and stirrup leathers of her buttery black saddle, her manner efficient and competent. The rise and fall of horses’ voices waved through the still, hot air. Her husband placed a plastic step stool by the horse’s side, and his wife climbed up and onto the stallion’s back. Just then the announcer called that the judge had ruled black jackets optional. Like the other riders, she ignored the chance to loosen up the uniform, even though the temperature was nearing 90 degrees. She eased her horse around and headed to the arena. In her woolen jacket and her black boots, her white shirt with its ladylike bow, she looked as neat and composed as a nun, her solemn calling to make her horse dance in perfect, crisp precision, and to convince her horse that the dance was his idea.

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