“Any publicity is good publicity,” says Lori Kaminski, who should know. She runs Dressage at Devon, which is a big deal for this horsey set and brings out crowds on Philadelphia’s Main Line, but is barely known beyond. “Last year,” she says, “I got a TV news crew to come to Devon.”
Comedy Central’s Colbert found an easy target in the equine ballet horses will perform in London this week. Dressage is practiced at the highest levels by men and women in top hat and tails astride steeds as polished as, and pricier than, new Rolls-Royces. They sashay around sandy arenas, sometimes to the sound of music, executing steps with rarefied foreign names: Any horseman worth his (or her) spurs can tell a horse’s “renvers” from its “travers,” distinguish “piaffe” from “passage” and knows the latter rhymes — you guessed it! — with corsage.
But not all horse prancing is competitive horse prancing, and not all competitive horse prancing is Olympic horse prancing. “Dressage,” says Nebesky, 54, “is just the French word for training” — and people have been training horses for centuries. To plow fields. As public transport. And to carry warriors into battle.
The cavalry, believe it or not, is the source of all this fancy hoofwork. As long ago as 430 B.C., the Athenian historian and hippophile Xenophon wrote treatises on training obedient, agile — and, yes, showy — mounts for military purposes, and the regimented displays of Vienna’s Lipizzaner stallions reflect those combative roots.
“How cool is that? ” asks Nebesky. “To adapt what began for the military to pure art?”
She demonstrates that art — what’s known in horse-talk as “collection” and “extension” — by trotting her horse Waterford SE (a.k.a. Fredi) around the arena adjoining her six-stall barn. His stride shortens and then lengthens until something almost magical happens: Fredi seems to grow and then begins to float, hovering over the ground with each step like Mikhail Baryshnikov on hooves.
“People always say, ‘How do you make the horse do that?’ ” Nebesky says.
“That boggles the mind.”
Good for body and soul
As she exercises her bay gelding (more BMW than Rolls-Royce, but still a valuable vehicle), Nebesky describes a constant process of give and take achieved through subtle signals (or “aids”) from her seat, hands and legs. She’s seeking harmony with Fredi, who, in response, starts foaming at the mouth. That’s not a sign he’s hungry or unhappy (and let’s not even mention rabies) but of how relaxed he is, toying with his metal bits “as a baby might chew on a pacifier.”
People are lured to dressage, the former social worker says, because training horses is good for body and soul. A horse’s movement is therapeutic, mimicking the way a human walks. (Remember how Ann Romney took to riding after receiving her multiple sclerosis diagnosis?) And the mental challenge of controlling and then bonding with a 1,000-pound animal is empowering. Many of Nebesky’s clients and competitors are baby boomers, wary of risking aging bodies on cross-country gallops or over fences. And in this litigious society, safety appeals to some teachers, too, says Nebesky, who broke her back in a jumping accident, “because when you fall off a horse, you tend to get launched.”