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Janet Turley

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In Defense of Dressage

Posted: 08/10/2012 1:47 pm

Until age 16, all I wanted to be when I grew up was an Olympic equestrian. I'd muck stalls, study horse parasites, ride four hours a day, lug hay bales, scrub sweat-crusted bridles, bandage wounds, and wake up while the sun was still asleep -- all for a sport I loved. My focus was so narrow that I remember asking my mom what was the point of riding if I'd never be on the U.S. Olympic team.

Obviously, I had much to learn about both the meaning of life and personal expectations. I didn't reach the big Olympic goal but those hours in the barn kept me away from most teenage troubles.

My interests changed and the Olympic dream was deferred (more accurately, abandoned) . Alas, Stephen Colbert's "sport of the summer" has both rekindled that nostalgic love of a pony and served as a reminder that the sport's social hierarchy can be a more daunting climb than Everest. Whether Colbert's exposés on dressage benefit the sport or reinforce negative stereotypes, they are undeniably hilarious.

It's easy to obtain corporate sponsorship as a world-ranked gymnast or swimmer. But wanting to fly you and your horse around the globe for international competition? You'd better be either a CEO's family or absolute royalty.

A certain Olympic grand prix dressage horse named Rafalca gives a tangible notion of Mitt Romney's fabulous wealth, and reminds us that he's not quite the proletariat champion of Joe Sixpack. Underscoring his reputation as an elite conservative of questionable assets and flexible morality, the sport's high price tag makes Romney an easy target during this campaign season.

For the detractors who label dressage as not a real sport, it can be difficult to recognize the complexities of any competition without having first-hand experience with it -- especially for a sport based on imperceptibility. It's a faint shift in the seat, a subtle nudge on the barrel, and total slight of hand. Dressage is more nuance than muscle, more self-subordination than dominance, and much less personality. Personally, I like that there's a sport where victory comes without chest-pounding.

Admittedly, equestrianism doesn't exactly produce Usain Bolts or Nadia Comanecis -- those superhumans that leave us commoners slack-jawed in their wake.

Olympic-level competition takes years of training for both horse and rider. The fact that top-notch dressage riders have a just-sitting-there-doing-nothing appearance is testament to their skill. Dressage also necessitates the mutual learning of body language. You can tell your teammate to backflip by simply saying it. However, you cannot muscle a horse into a successful dressage partner.

In fact, dressage requires total silence to communicate to a thousand-pound animal that it's time to prance on cue and in rhythm to music (think Peter Griffin in a tutu, but with a higher IQ).

But even this elite sport isn't solely comprised of the cash-infested and disconnected. There's three-time U.S. dressage Olympian Robert Dover who, now retired, crusades for gay rights and outs Romney's flip flopping on gay marriage. At least beautiful Rafalca has a much firmer backbone than Romney.

Even if you don't have the extra $77,000 to own a world-class horse, you can still hone your passion and talents enough to make ritzy owners spend their precious cash on you piloting their steed. From there, we find our middle-class heroes, such as Margie Goldstein-Engle, the undisputed leader in show jumping titles. As a child, she cleaned stalls and dog kennels in exchange for lessons, and with skill and fortitude, forged her own path through a notoriously cliquish society.

Still, the majority of riders prance around for pleasure and sometimes therapy, which is how Ann Romney got started with it in the first place.

Horses are a high-overhead hobby so enjoying it at a low level does require some disposable income -- but not necessarily the amount that could purchase three homes. My family wasn't close to the top 1%. At all.

Anything is fair game for mockery in this election -- the prancing, the blue bloods, the tiaras and to be very fair, the Obamas. Still, I feel the need to plea: Stop crapping on what's left of my childhood dreams.

Horseback riding isn't quite the event for rowdy talegating, and princesses will always have an advantage in purchasing power. The Indy 500's checkered flag can't be won with a Ford Escort. Olympic gold cannot be achieved on a Shetland pony.

But that Shetland pony could make a nice first dressage mount for a child with big ambitions.

 
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