Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand America. Never do I feel this more than when I’m talking to my riding students. I hope it isn’t the case throughout the whole country – and, surely, it can’t be, because the US does produce good riders for international competition somehow – but certainly for the majority of kids who ride year-round and choose to ride at the camp I work at, the concept of a flatwork lesson is a completely alien concept. If these kids aren’t jumping, they don’t consider it worth their time to be on a horse.
My classical riding education is somewhere between lacking and poor, and certainly nowhere near finished, but unlike one child I currently teach, I didn’t reach the age of 14 before learning what “change the rein” means. Now, imagine my surprise when said camper’s answer to my question of “what do you do during your lessons at home?” was “oh, you know, dressage and jumping”. I stood and scratched my head for a second, asked her to ride a serpentine and was met with a puzzled expression. Earlier in the summer, a different camper – who rides nicely and is a very sweet girl – had expressed an enthusiasm for learning dressage. “Okay,” I answered, “do you have any ideas of what exactly you’d like to learn?” Her reply was, “I’d like to ride a working trot.” This from a girl I’d given several cantering and jumping lessons to. I bottled the response, pointing her at my boss, as I didn’t have the heart to give the answer which ran through my head of, “what kind of trot did you think I’d been having you ride all this time?”
Realistically, the definition of dressage is a wide one. Those whose only knowledge of equestrianism is the Olympics may well believe dressage to only exist at the highest level, whereas true linguists may prefer to define it as controlling one’s horse (therefore, technically, if you are in control of your horse, you are doing dressage), but many equestrians will probably land somewhere in between. I would certainly expect a teenager who’s been riding since they were little to know what “change the rein” means, and I would also anticipate that they have an understanding of bend, collection and extension, plus some lateral movements, even if they aren’t able to successfully demonstrate all of those things on any mount. But perhaps I’m too tough?
Many riding establishment proprietors will probably testify that clients are economical with the truth when it comes to their skill level, and when you don’t see the place a student normally attends and the kind of horses they ride, the only way to judge is from what you see in front of you, but surely there is a standard qualification out there somewhere? Is it possible that some stables are teaching people to walk, trot and canter around an arena aimlessly – and without consideration of their horse’s way of going, or the scale of training – whilst giving the impression that this is true dressage?
I’ve thought many times during the last two summers that I’d love to be a fly on the wall when my students return to their usual riding centres, and observe the teaching. No instructor is perfect, and it’s entirely possible that students misunderstand, misinterpret or outright lie, but something very different to my own horsey upbringing is going on over here, and I’m not convinced it’s the good kind of different.
Dressage: controlling your horse, piaffe and passage or increasing your awareness steadily over time, in order to improve the technique of yourself and your horse? You decide.