This article was produced in association with FEI
If you’ve ever witnessed Isabell Werth competing on one of her fine horses, you’ll know that dressage is as much an art form as it is a sport.
The elegance, grace and skill with which she and her horse perform their movements – the various balletic figures required in dressage competition – are breathtaking.
This German rider has been the poster girl for dressage for the last 20 years. Astride some of the most skilled horses on the planet – Gigolo, Satchmo, Weihegold OLD and Bella Rose – she has graced equestrian arenas at multiple Olympic Games and FEI World Equestrian Games™, trotting and cantering her way to 10 Olympic medals and seven world championship titles. She is now the most decorated equestrian in Olympic history.
“I had the luck to make my hobby and my passion into my profession,” says this 48-year-old who first started riding on the family farm in Rheinberg, in western Germany.
One of equestrian sport’s most conspicuous disciplines, dressage stages individual and team competitions in a rectangular sand-filled arena. Standard dressage sees riders and horses perform prescribed movements: the piaffe, for example, a calm, elevated trot on the spot; the passage, a slow, prancing trot with a pause between each stride; or the pirouette, usually a 360-degree turn on the spot, done at a canter.
In freestyle dressage, meanwhile, riders and horses are free to perform their own choreographed movements.
The latter is particularly popular amongst fans since riders have the opportunity to express their personality and show off more dramatic movements to a musical soundtrack of their choice, rather like in figure skating competitions.
In recent years spectators have been treated to displays backed by film soundtracks, famous pop songs, even hip hop. Freestyle dressage is credited with bringing the sport to a much wider global audience.
Unusually for sport, the vast majority of that audience is female. The governing body for the sport is the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), based in the Swiss city of Lausanne.
Its research shows that, of the world’s 393 million dressage fans in 15 different countries around the world, three-quarters are women. Of those, half are aged between 35 and 54, and nearly 70 per cent are in the “middle-to-high income” bracket, with a “higher interest in luxury goods”. Another key demographic is that 64 per cent of fans travel to dressage events in family groups.
The FEI explains how this makes its sport so attractive to commercial partners. “The FEI is uniquely positioned as a sports federation with a highly engaged high net worth fan base, many of whom live an equestrian lifestyle which makes them attractive consumers,” says Ralph Straus, Commercial Director at the FEI.
“The demographics for equestrian sport in all key markets are consistent and desirable for a wide range of prestigious businesses and brands.”
Dressage’s upmarket and clean-cut image is another reason it attracts sponsorship. Both human and equine athletes are always superbly turned out during competitions.
Horses tend to have braided manes, trimmed coats, clipped or pulled bridle paths, and polished hooves. You’ll often see riders in impeccable tailcoat jackets, breeches, ties, gloves, helmets or top hats.
There’s surely no other activity where human and animal collaborate in such perfect harmony. “Dressage is often compared to ballet,” says Straus. “The intense connection between human and equine athletes is a thing of beauty to behold.”
Just as the number of spectators is growing, so is the number of riders. Arguably the most famous dressage training centre of all is the Spanish Riding School in the Austrian capital city, Vienna.
The sport is popular all across Europe and North America, and recently there has been significant growth in Brazil, Russia and China. According to FEI figures (see box), worldwide there are currently just under 4,000 registered dressage riders, just under 5,000 registered horses, and 542 international competitive events. As in the other equestrian disciplines of jumping and eventing, dressage traditionally sees men and women competing alongside each other as equals.
As well as dressage at the Olympics and the FEI World Equestrian Games™ (in alternating four-year cycles), the other major series is the FEI World Cup™ Dressage. Rather like the PGA Tour in golf, or the ATP and WTA tours in tennis, this sees the world’s best riders and horses compete at a selection of qualifiers throughout the year for one of the coveted spots in the annual FEI World Cup™ Dressage Final.
Globalisation of the sport
It was first established in 1985 and was a trailblazer at the time as it effectively introduced freestyle dressage to a fairly purist community.
Today, the series comprises four leagues – Western European, Central European, North American and Pacific – and has over 30 qualifiers leading to the annual showdown which demonstrates just how effective freestyle dressage has been in the democratisation and globalisation of the sport.
There is also an international team event called the FEI Nations Cup™ Dressage. The Paralympic version of the sport, para dressage, is growing in popularity, too. FEI figures from last year bear this out.
Globally there were 20 para dressage events in 2016, a rise of 122 per cent since 2007. These events featured over 300 para athletes and 423 horses, a rise of 164 per cent and 274 per cent respectively since 2009. The apogee of the sport is at the Paralympic Games.
Dressage traces its origins back to Ancient Greece, and in particular to a military general, and a student of Socrates from the fourth century BC called Xenophon.
A treatise he wrote called On Horsemanship includes training exercises still used in the sport. One of his famous lines encapsulates the aesthetics of dressage: “Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful”.
Dressage horses really are the gymnasts of equestrian sport. Normally starting at the age of four, they train for five years or so, concentrating on exercises designed to make them stronger and more supple.
This prepares them for the various movements they will eventually have to perform competitively in the arena. Given the years of training, it’s not surprising that skilled horses can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy.
While Isabell Werth may be the poster girl for the sport, there are plenty of talented young riders working their way up through the ranks.
Right now experts have their eyes on 22-year-old German Sönke Rothenberger (already a gold medallist in team dressage at the Rio Olympics), and a 20-year-old Spaniard called Juan Matute Guimon.
Another of the sport’s established stars who has contributed enormously to the popularity of the sport is the British rider Charlotte Dujardin.
She enjoyed a wonderful and very close relationship with her horse Valegro, now retired, and has held all the individual elite titles in the sport. Such is her skill that many fans expect her to continue to play a leading role in the sport for many years to come.
“I want to create,” she told The New Yorker magazine, explaining her dedication to dressage.
“It is probably like an artist. They see in their head what they want to draw, and they draw it. It is like I have a feeling inside me that I want to create on a horse.”