Dressage: To Show or Not to Show?

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage exercises for horse and rider, jec ballou, equine fitness, beyond horse massage, Jec Ballou
Jec A. Ballou

By Jec A. Ballou

Dressage magazines often surprise me. Flipping through their pages, a reader would assume that the vast majority of students spend most of their time preparing for and attending dressage shows. Page after page offers articles about fine-tuning your performance at the next competition, tips for higher scores, and interviews with celebrity trainers gearing up for the Olympics.

At least by my calculations, only a tiny percentage of riders have any serious interest in showing. I can count on one hand the few I encounter amongst the hundreds of riders I meet and teach while giving clinics around the United States. Our governing sports bodies and organizations would do well to recognize this and offer a lot more articles and information that appeals to these hundreds of other riders. But I’ll hold off on that rant for now in favour of acknowledging why the large majority of riders pursue dressage at all, if not to show.

Most of them are committed to dressage for the same reasons I am – its role as physical therapy for the horse. Some have made their way to dressage out of necessity to repair a horse broken by poor training; others have become besotted after witnessing how much it benefits horses of all abilities. Done correctly, dressage makes sound horses out of lame ones. It fixes gait abnormalities; it provides the horse a healthy body and a relaxed nervous system. It allows him to age with ease, alleviating joint strain, inactive muscles, or disturbed circulatory systems.

My optimism for the merits of dressage training springs from the evidence I have accrued over the years. As a kid, I watched my parents “fix” numerous horses who showed up at our barn. In some cases, this meant turning unsound ones into solid riding or driving horses. In others, it meant creating calmer, focused horses from ones that were wired and skittish. My parents never waivered in their confidence that dressage training could ameliorate a range of challenges regardless of whether a horse’s intended job was distance trail riding, carriage driving, or all-around recreation horse.

Since those early years, I’ve added my own list of success stories. I have helped endurance horses with stiff backs regain mobility, and watched cranky riding horses become balanced and willing about their jobs. I have helped rehabbing and aging horses maintain soundness. These results have been so gratifying that if dressage shows were to disappear from existence entirely, I have no doubt that my daily passion and focus for training would be completely unaffected. Granted, I enjoy the goal-setting and accomplishment of taking a horse that trusts me into a dressage arena and navigating a test. But in my professional life, this is a very small side note. I have made my living, and continue to do so, from the multitude of students whose hearts and souls are directed only at helping their horses live better lives.

Maybe this is all boring stuff to put in the dressage magazines, or maybe not. What it does tell us, though, is that the roots of dressage — to train the horse in the best physical manner — still run deep today. The purpose of this sport has perhaps never been stronger.

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Main photo: Canstock/Labrador