June 2019 - Dressage News & Views
Written by by Nan Meek
Tuesday, 28 May 2019 02:44

dressage news

The Perfect Horse.

by Nan Meek

You know that fizz of delight you get when something comes full circle? That’s the fizz I got when I saw the May 6 & 13 dressage issue of the respected sport horse magazine, The Chronicle of the Horse.

There on the cover was a Spanish Riding School Lipizzaner in levade, the most collected of the collected movements of dressage. Sadly, the horse’s name was not listed, but I believe the rider is Norbert Tschautscherr and the “eyes on the ground” is Arthur Kottas, both now retired from the Spanish Riding School.

A Must-Read: The Perfect Horse

The headline “Collection’s Beginnings & Biases” intrigued me and I immediately turned to page 24 to read on. There I found a wide-ranging interview between COTH columnist Jeremy Steinberg and his friend, classical dressage expert Paul Belasik. “Have you read ‘The Perfect Horse’ by Elizabeth Letts?” Belasik asked Steinberg.

“This is a must read for every serious dressage rider.”

In December 2016, California Riding Magazine published my article, “Writing the Perfect Horse: A Conversation with Author Elizabeth Letts”. A different interview, from one horse lover to another, both of whom revered the Lipizzaner. The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis was about more than the Lipizzan rescue fictionalized and romanticized in the Disney film, The Miracle of the White Stallions.

Elizabeth interwove the stories of Polish, German, Austrian and Czech horsemen with those of their American counterparts, U.S. Army soldiers of the 2nd Cavalry who rode tanks instead of horses, but who were still horsemen to the core, along with the Lipizzans, Arabians, Thoroughbreds and other horses held in Hostau, today on the western edge of the Czech Republic but then directly in the path of the advancing (and hungry) Russian army.

There was so much well-researched detail in Letts’ book that I read it several times just so I could absorb it all. My book club, equestrians and non-equestrians alike, found it a fascinating read, as well, both for the sheer drama of the rescue story as well as the detailed history of World War II. “It read like a novel with its fast pace, relatable characters and gripping action,” one reader said, “but I learned a lot that I didn’t know about the war, too.”

Paul Belasik, in the COTH article, tied in the historical details covered in The Perfect Horse with how modern competition dressage horses developed from that time to today. He referred to the influence of Germany’s Gustav Rau and his control over almost all equestrian sport in Germany, detailed in The Perfect Horse, saying, “To me, these are some of the initial reasons for the German dominance in competition dressage and the virtual monopoly of warmbloods at the highest levels of competition today.”

Two Friends Talk Dressage

Steinberg and Belasik discussed a variety of topics, including the historic influence of sponsors on equestrian sports. Even as far back as the Renaissance, the impact of royalty and the nobility in sponsoring talented trainers and riders was recognized and celebrated. Not long after our own American Revolution, the French Revolution destroyed Louis XIV’s court and thus the French royal stables as well. “Small, independent trainers have always kept it alive,” Belasik remarked about the survival of dressage through the ages. So, it seems, have sponsors, from the Renaissance courts to modern corporate boardrooms.

One myth that the two friends appeared to debunk is the long-held theory that the airs above the ground originated with military use in battle. The pesade, levade, croupade, ballotade, capriole, courbette, and mezair require such extensive training that I’ve always found it difficult to understand how horses trained to such movements could be put at certain risk on the battlefield. Belasik’s theory in his conversation with Steinberg is that horses at play and mating enthralled their human observers, who then attempted to replicate those actions. “So an amazing discipline emerges,” he says. “It is guided by art – riders evoking beauty, not destruction and war.”

Whew! I really didn’t like the idea of such well-trained horses being sacrificed on the battlefield. I hope Belasik’s theory is right. The sacrifices of war, whether human or equine, are always a tragedy. You only have to watch the evening news to see that such sacrifices continue to this day, in warfare where horses have been replaced by much more lethal methods of transport and destruction.

Another topic tackled by Steinberg and Belasik is why any airs above the ground were not included in the Grand Prix test. I won’t go into the entire explanation here, but what stood out for me was their discussions about piaffe. Having had my expectations of the piaffe defined by the abilities of Lipizzaners who can sit down on their haunches far in excess of most other breeds, I’ve always thought the piaffes I’ve seen in FEI competition were somehow lacking, but given that Olympic and World Cup horses get high marks for their piaffes, I put it down to some deficiency in my own amateur understanding.

Belasik emphasizes in this article that the jumps, or airs above the ground, “are proof that all the previous training of collection was correct.” He goes on to say that as a set-up for the airs, the function of the piaffe is to help collect the horse, so its balance is more on the hindquarters, so the horse can sit and lighten the forehand. Sit being the operative word, as I understand it. On the other hand, he says, “When the piaffe in itself is the end result, all kinds of mistakes get accepted and justified.”

His depiction, later in the article, of the piaffe in a “continuum of energy in the trot” made sense. He compared the difference between the horizontal and ground-covering extended trot and the elevated collected trot and piaffe to the gears in a machine, with the low gear with power but little speed being the piaffe. He makes the point that the ability to “exhibit all the various trots including piaffe seamlessly” is proof that balance in trot has been mastered. “That skill in the end is more important than the piaffe by itself,” he concludes.

If these topics whet your appetite for more, Paul Belasik’s latest book, Dressage for No Country, takes the discussion even deeper. A consummate storyteller as well as a highly respected international rider and trainer, writer and teacher, his books are difficult to put down once you’ve started to read, even if you’re not a dressage geek like me. Thanks to him, Jeremy Steinberg, and The Chronicle of the Horse, for stimulating a thought-provoking examination of dressage myths and realities.

A lifelong horse owner, Nan Meek lives on the scenic San Mateo County coast where dressage courts and riding trails overlook the Pacific Ocean. She competed in dressage to the Prix St. Georges level with her late beloved Lipizzan Andy (Maestoso II Athena II-1), and now practices the discipline of dressage with her handsome Spanish warmblood Helio Jerez 2000 and dotes on the newest family member Mischa (Neapolitano Angelica II-1). Yes, dressage is embedded in her DNA.