The prospect of a presidential hopeful’s horse competing for Olympic gold has brought the nation’s dressage lovers from their barns to defend an obscure sport now known, thanks to Stephen Colbert, as “competitive horse prancing.”

“People are either laughing hysterically or in­cred­ibly offended,” says Aviva Nebesky, a dressage trainer and judge from Bowie.

“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.”

Competitive dressage is promoted at the grass-roots level by the U.S. Dressage Federation, which trains judges, writes introductory dressage tests (the prescribed series of movements horses perform in competition) and provides education for instructors. Beth Jenkins, the group’s vice president, says the USDF saw steady growth after its founding in the 1970s, then a slight drop in membership following the economic downturn of 2008.

Jacqueline Caldwell, president of the 150-member Maryland Dressage Association, says that interest in the sport seems as high as ever but that “people haven’t been out competing the way they used to.” Attending a two-day horse show can cost as much as $1,000, she says, counting entrance fees, a trainer, stabling and hotels.

It’s not a poor man’s sport, but “we’re not all millionaires,” Nebesky says. Sure, you can go to Europe, as Romney did, to buy specially bred horses known as warmbloods for $100,000 or more apiece. But the basic skills Nebesky teaches are useful, she says, for a $1,500 trail horse. Jenkins, who started out with a couple of horses she bought for $500, says dressage “can improve any horse.”

As evidence, Nebesky begins to move Fredi on a diagonal — crablike — across the arena. Dressage aficionados call that a “leg yield” and refine it into the more complex “half pass.” The ability to control simultaneous forward and sideways movement could help a rider avoid an obstacle on a trail such as a fallen tree. Nebesky stops and gives Fredi the aids to turn his hindquarters in an 180-degree arc while his forelegs barely move. That “turn on the forehand” is key for anyone opening a gate on horseback.

Equine showmanship

Those practical aspects of horse training are outshone by showmanship at the Olympics, where muscled equine athletes canter perfect pirouettes and jog high-kneed and rhythmic on the spot. That’s piaffe — derived from warhorses pounding the ground as they wait to charge. Passage is a slow and springy trot.

Such agility results from years of training, designed to show moves a horse would make in the wild. Using force — to control, for example, a horse’s headcarriage — provokes condemnation.

Most competitive dressage is far less eye-catching. More-or-less adept riders walk, trot and canter more-or-less agile mounts up and down and round and round in rectangular arenas marked out with letters to indicate where certain movements should begin and end. Seasoned judges score the execution on a scale of zero to 10. But distinguishing a “good” collected trot from a “fairly good” or “satisfactory” one is all but impossible for the unschooled eye.

“Like watching paint dry,” Nebesky admits.

“Like watching the grass grow,” Jenkins says.

One U.S. show that regularly brings out the crowds is Dressage at Devon. Kaminski, who runs the annual event at a permanent showground in Philadelphia’s suburbs, says its popularity is thanks to the metropolitan location.

“There’s no other place in the United States that you can get the European feeling like you get at Dressage at Devon,” she says.

Among the 50 riders from 23 nations that will compete for gold in London this week are ones from European countries with long-standing rivalries, such as Holland and Germany, where once in a while a horse will attract sell-out crowds.

There have been efforts to make dressage accessible to a broader audience since it became an Olympic sport in 1912 and only military officers could compete. In 1952, the rules changed to include civilian men and women. And in 1996, at the Atlanta Games, a crowd-pleaser was added, the Grand Prix Freestyle in which riders are allowed to choreograph elaborate moves to the music of their choice.

“It made a huge difference at a high level,” Nebesky says. “That is what Olympic dressage has done for the sport.”

Advice to newcomers

Rafalca, the warmblood mare part-owned by Mitt and Ann Romney, is scheduled to make its first appearance in the Olympic arena on Thursday. Does Nebesky have any advice to any newcomers to the sport, drawn in by the famous horse — or the comedy it inspired?

It helps to listen to the commentary, Nebesky says.

She remembers watching the diving at the Atlanta Olympic Games and the utter tedium of seeing competitor after competitor jump from the board and tumble and twist in virtually identical descents to the water until she began to learn from experts what to watch for.

Then she talks about ice dancing: “I don’t ice skate; I don’t know about the edges and blades and what makes this hard versus that. But I know when I watch good ice dancing. I know that some performers are simply more beautiful than others.”

Few people cared about ice dancing, she says, until they saw Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.

Later, Nebesky points to a YouTube video that shows what she says is “dressage at its best!” It’s Dutch champion Edward Gal riding Totilas in the freestyle at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, where they waltzed away with gold (shortly before the horse was sold to a German stable).

The splendid black stallion sashays into the arena and prances through his gravity-defying paces. Gal doffs his top hat in delight. The stadium erupts, and orange-clad Dutch fans rise in astonished applause: How does he make the horse do that?

It boggles the mind.