Couples like Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, and Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland stunned audiences worldwide with their refined athleticism. These famous dance partners have walked red carpets and dined on caviar with celebrities. But some lesser known partners, like Blythewood’s Susan Todd and Geyser, or Camden’s Becky Shealy and Dani, are no less graceful.
They walk the sandy floors of horse arenas. From pointe shoes to horseshoes, ballet and dressage meet at the intersection of form and beauty.
“Dressage is a lot like dancing,” says Amy McElroy, a highly respected dressage trainer, a FEI competitor, and USEF S dressage judge based in Aiken. “It’s kind of amazing to be able to teach horses to do all these beautiful dance movements. It takes exerting a lot of mind and body control to make it all look effortless.”
Translated from French, dressage simply means “to train.” However, to an outsider, the various levels, rules, standards, and scoring of dressage are extremely complex. Dressage levels range from introductory to the upper levels with the Grand Prix being the highest. This is the level you would see them compete at in the Olympics. Each level has a sequence of tests that, after successful completion, elevates the horse and rider team to the next level. The levels indicate their skill level and experience in the context of competition.
“Every level adds different movements,” Amy says. “You have to learn different figures, increased balance, and control. The horse and rider are treated as a singular unit. In these competitions, it’s one-on-one — just you and your horse alone in the ring. You can have up to seven judges, depending on what you’re doing. If it’s a prescribed ride, it is scored in percentages. The most you can get is 100 percent, but no one has ever gotten that. A well-schooled horse should have a test score in the mid-60s. A score in the 70s is considered a very competitive ride; anything in the 80s is rare and of top quality and is considered a good ride. This is more what you would see for our top level horses and riders, like Olympic riders.”
Dressage can be a small world. Everyone seems to know everyone. Becky Shealy competes at the Grand Prix level, and Amy was her first trainer. “I’ve been riding dressage for 35 years,” Becky says. “I was with Amy for more than 20 years. It’s a psychotic addiction. I never thought I would ride at this level. When I rode with Amy, I was riding lower levels. It truly does take years. Many, many years.”
Growing up, Becky was a horse jumper, which she says is very common. She has been riding her horse, Dani, for 10 years. “Dani was only trained to Second Level when I bought him so we have progressed up the levels together. We call some horses ‘old-school masters.’ They really can teach you how to ride,” she says, “and then you have to find the right trainer, and you are never done training. I train more than I show now.”
Amy notes that the successful trainer-rider bond is truly a committed relationship. “It’s like a marriage. I have many long-term students whom I have enjoyed working with throughout the years and continuing to work with,” she says.
Basic dressage requirements include mastery of three standard gaits: a four-beat walk, a two-beat trot, and a three-beat canter. The rider must learn to balance and move in the saddle in such a way that the points where the body makes contact with the horse — called “aids” in dressage lingo — give direction through the manipulation of seat, legs, and hands.
“In competition, you are not allowed to use your voice whatsoever,” Amy says. “Points are taken off if you use your voice. The communication between horse and rider is physical. You use a lot of your core muscles.” Over time, quite understandably, the horse and rider develop a special bond of understanding and of trust.
Eventing begins with basic dressage, followed by cross-country, which requires greater stamina as the horse, running at a gallop, clears a series of solid fences and natural obstacles — up to 30 or 40 at the higher levels — over a long outdoor course. A speed component is included, and if a horse and rider exceed the defined time frame, they incur penalties.
The third and final phase in eventing is show jumping. Performed in a closed arena, this phase tests the technical jumping skills of the horse and rider, who must clear 12 to 15 sensitive, lightweight fences where the slightest nick will make the rail fall and incur a penalty. Like with cross-country, show jumping also is timed, with penalty points applied for every second over the required limit. At the end of the day, the horse-rider team with the lowest score wins.
A Horse Must Want to Perform
Jill Allard of Oakwood Dressage, a private boarding and dressage training facility in Camden, says basic dressage is actually good for the horse, and it doesn’t require that the animal come from an elite bloodline. Just about any horse can do it and will benefit from it. It combines the therapeutic properties of yoga with the overall fitness benefits of Pilates or Zumba.
“If you have your own horse, dressage is great for any discipline. It teaches both the horse and the rider balance,” she says. “I have a lot of students who fox hunt. Dressage exposes the horse to a range of disciplines. It’s the basic training for anything you will do with your horse.”
Similarly, Amy insists that nearly anybody can do dressage. “It’s a very basic sport and good for the horse,” she says. “The big key is the horse’s mind and willingness and body type to go beyond the basic levels. There is a body type, but you find exceptions all the time. Any breed can be trained to do this.”
Jill says that while most any breed of horse can do dressage, the competitive world has swung toward the warmbloods. “They breed horses now specifically for the movement and expression that they look for in the competitive world. But competitions exist for every breed and level.”
Warmblood horses are the result of crossbreeding between larger European draft breeds and smaller thoroughbreds. Their name is not related to blood temperature but rather to temperament, with hotter-blooded breeds being naturally higher strung and colder-blooded breeds being calmer and more controllable. Athletic warmbloods tend to be even-tempered, smart, and easier to train. Their motivation makes a difference because no horse will perform dressage against its will.
“The horse has to want to work for you,” says Becky. “Some people say it takes 500 to 600 correct repetitions for a horse to learn a single dressage movement.”
Amy agrees. “Some horses are tricky. But we usually can teach and encourage most horses to do these movements and learn to love it.”
Susan Todd of Hidden Creek Dressage in Blythewood is another of Amy’s students. About once a week, Susan drove her horse from Blythewood to Aiken in a trailer in order to train with Amy. Susan owns a Danish Warmblood named Geyser, the half-brother of a horse named Valegro that won the Olympics in 2012. In his career, Valegro won 10 Olympic, World, and European gold medals. She got Geyser when he was 3 years old; he is 18 now and still competing.
“He is super talented. I was lucky. I didn’t know when we purchased him that he had those bloodlines,” Susan says. “Warmbloods tend to be identified by the region where they were bred, such as Danish, Spanish, German, and British. Dressage actually originated across the pond.”
A late bloomer, Susan didn’t begin riding until she was 29 years old. She started out as an event rider and confirms that dressage truly is for everyone. “I teach anyone from 9-year-old children up to 60-year-old adults,” she says.
Chasing the Mirror Ball Trophy
In the 1980s, riders began introducing music into competitive dressage, and the event of musical freestyle has grown in popularity ever since, attracting larger mainstream audiences.
On its website, the U.S. Dressage Federation states: “Because of the skill required to ride to and stay with the music, a higher degree of proficiency is required in musical freestyles than for the highest test of the level. Riders who are proficient at the chosen level of competition can choose to show off their skills by entering a musical freestyle. The addition of music can be an inspiration to the rider and audience alike, not to mention that it gives us a creative outlet and another way to explore the sport we love.”
An entire industry has sprung from the art form, with composers and musicians specializing in equine music.
“A lot of people are afraid of riding musical freestyles, but it’s my favorite thing to do,” Becky says, adding that Amy was the first rider she witnessed perform freestyle. Becky and Dani work with a dressage choreographer. “Dani knows his music. It’s really fun. Around here, I am the only adult amateur performing a Grand Prix freestyle. You don’t just pick a composition. The music is chosen to complement the individual horse’s gaits.”
Susan says she has never done a freestyle, but it is on her bucket list.
“The choreography has to be true to the tests, from easy to hard,” she says. “There are eight movements at the lowest levels. The Grand Prix has about 35 movements. You hire people who are musicians. It’s a big deal. At the lower levels, I have students who have done freestyle, and it’s fun, but it gets expensive at the higher levels.”
What Price is Right?
According to Amy, an average, lower level dressage horse can be purchased for about $25,000. If one plans to compete at a higher level, a good dressage horse can cost anywhere from $50,000 and can even go up to over $1 million. Important also to consider are related expenses such as boarding, continuous training, feeding, saddle and saddle-fitting, equestrian attire, veterinary care, and massage. Yes … massage.
“My horse, Geyser, gets massages as well as chiropractic and acupuncture treatments,” Susan says. “If you think about these dressage horses, they are different from other horses. They are usually bigger and muscled up. They are really, really super athletes. These horses can get stressed physically with the things we are asking them to do. They are so talented. Keeping physically fit to do all that stuff is important, so we do a lot for our horses.”
Becky also employs the services of an equine masseuse. Her horse, Dani, actually recognizes and perks up when equine massage professional Mike Scott arrives to give him his monthly massage. The Camden man also performs saddle fitting services and runs an equine massage school.
Like people, horses tend to have common sore areas related to the activity they are doing. For example, Mike says, a jumping horse likely would need attention to the hamstrings.
“The dressage horse is using the ground as resistance. All those muscles and joints are getting stress on them,” he says. “I look for the stress points. If I can watch someone ride, I watch for limited range of motion, and those are the areas I try to address.”
When he is fitting a horse for a saddle, Mike also uses his massage skills to pinpoint where a horse is hurting. He likens the fit of a saddle to the fit of a pair of shoes. If you wear a pair of ill-fitting shoes out dancing for hours, they become quite uncomfortable.
“It’s important that the saddle fits well, especially at the upper levels, like what Becky is doing,” Mike says. “Without proper fit, the circle of energy between the horse and rider is broken.”
When giving a massage, if a horse is restricted in motion, Mike uses a lighter stroke first and increases the intensity as needed.
“The work I do is relatively deep, and that can be uncomfortable for the horse,” he says. “They may not like it at first but later will realize that it’s actually feeling kind of good. If you are in heavy competition, it makes sense to get equine massage about once a month.” The average massage takes about an hour, and rates run from $85 to $125 per session.
Susan says such investments in the care of a competitive dressage horse pay solid dividends. No one would be surprised if a ballet dancer received massage, hydrotherapy, or some form of physical therapy. Dressage horses are elite athletes that deserve the same.
“The precision a dressage horse has to achieve is very similar to a ballet dancer,” Susan says. “You can see the muscle tone. My horse is 18, and he is on the top of his game because he has been taken care of.”