Dressage 101: What to expect when you tune in

The team dressage competition begins Thursday, and Rafalca, the horse part-owned by Mitt and Ann Romney, is scheduled to appear for Team USA at 7:15 a.m. If you are thinking of tuning in, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Rein in your expectations

Romney’s horse Rafalca has spurred interest in horse ballet, but don’t expect your first exposure to be an unbridled pleasure. Dressage is an acquired taste, one that some hardened horsemen never fully appreciate. The British three-day-eventer William Fox-Pitt told Reuters recently that the sport “is hard to follow.” Fox-Pitt rode a dressage “test” (the prescribed series of movements horses perform in a rectangular arena) last weekend as the first phase of his Olympic trial, which also involved much jumping. “The secret” to enjoying dressage, he said, “is not to watch too much.” Fox-Pitt was talking about a far lower level of dressage than the competition that begins Thursday. But heed his advice: Watch a couple of horses to get an idea of what’s going on, but don’t plan to devote the whole day to dressage.

2. Don’t be put off by the fancy dress

Riders look posh in top hat and tails, but these equine gymnastics have their roots in military maneuvers. As early as 430 B.C., the Greek historian Xenophon wrote about training agile military mounts to be ready for battle. Far from being effete, the moves you will see in the Olympic arena are rooted in the battlefield — and it takes a supple, powerful horse to perform them. You’ll see dressage horses trotting on the spot in what’s called “piaffe,” derived from the way war horses pounded the ground in preparation for the charge. There are also several YouTube videos that demonstrate how similar dressage is to the training cowboys give their horses. Horses make these moves in the wild; the trick about dressage is to get them to do them on command.

3. Don’t just look, listen

Whatever you do, don’t turn the sound down, says Bowie dressage trainer and judge Aviva Nebesky. You can learn a lot from listening to the commentary and even start to spot mistakes. She remembers watching the diving at the Atlanta Games and being bored silly by competitor after competitor jumping from the board and doing what looked to her like perfect dives. She began to get the hang of what was going on only when she paid attention to the commentators.

4. Spot the centaur !

No kidding, watching too much dressage could addle your mind. But almost anyone can recognize sheer beauty, and at their best horse-and-rider combinations move in absolute harmony, almost as one. Among other more technical things, the judges pay attention to rhythm, relaxation and connection between horse and rider. So if you think you’ve spotted a centaur out there in the Olympic arena, you’ve probably got a good eye for the winner.

5. Get back in the saddle.

Every rider knows that if you come a cropper, you have to get back on again. Same with watching dressage. In all, 50 horses from 23 nations will perform in the dressage contests, and if you are not swept away by Thursday and Friday’s Grand Prix team event, you’re forgiven. But think about tuning in again Aug. 7 for the Grand Prix Special medal-decider. Or best of all, wait for Aug. 9, when the creme de la creme will go for gold in the Grand Prix Freestyle — during which the best 18 riders present elaborately choreographed programs of their choice, all set to music. Rafalca may not make the cut, but that’s designed to be the real crowd-pleaser.

Frances Stead Sellers is senior writer at The Washington Post magazine. She joined the magazine in 2014 after spending two years as the editor of the daily Style section, with a focus on profiles, personalities, arts and ideas.
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