Elegance in equine form

Equestrian dressage brings rider and horse together in perfect artistic unison, attracts a global audience of 393 million and has been a stalwart event at the Summer Olympic Games since 1912. Now, the International Equestrian Federation is seeking to build out the commercial offering for a discipline it sees as the peak of horse training.

Elegance in equine form

As triple Olympic gold medallist Charlotte Dujardin puts it, dressage is all about the “partnership and the connection” between rider and horse.

Originating from a French term meaning ‘training’, the equestrian discipline is considered by many to be the ballet of horse riding. It combines precision, elegance and contained power to create a symbiotic performance.

Indeed, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) defines dressage as the ‘the highest expression of horse training’, where competitors perform ‘from memory a series of predetermined movements’ to create something unique in sport.

As a result of repetitive coaching, the beautifully bred equine athletes are encouraged to develop their natural ability and, through attentiveness to their rider, they will acquire a calm, supple self-control that can lead to graceful Olympic-level performances.

Equestrian dressage has a rich history that dates back to the classical Greek military, which trained its horses to perform programmed movements. The earliest recognised work on training horses was written by Xenophon, a Greek military commander born around 430 BC. However, modern dressage is an evolution of a treatise by Federico Grisone, published in 1550, called The Rules of Riding.

Many of the training systems used in today’s classical dressage are consistent with those preached by the Neapolitan nobleman, who was referred to in his time as the ‘father of the art of equitation’.

And over 450 years later, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the teachings of Grisone were elevated with almost perfect distinction by the composed Dujardin and her horse Valegro, whose sophisticated piaffes, collected trots, double pirouettes, flying changes, perfect transitions and cadenced passages combined to set a new Olympic dressage score of 93.857 in the Grand Prix Freestyle.

Such performances have made Dujardin ‘The Girl with the Dancing Horse’ to the UK press, but pure poetry in motion to a knowledgeable dressage audience. Now, the FEI is seeking to capitalise on that tradition and refinement.  

Dressage is viewed as the peak of artistic expression and training in equestrian sport

The calendar: FEI World Championship and World Cup

Like many Olympic sports, dressage holds a quadrennial World Championship alongside annual World Cup.

The FEI World Cup Dressage series, which has been competed for since 1985, brings together the world's best dressage horses and riders, culminating in the final at the end of each equestrian season in either March or April.

The nine events per year are contested by 276 athletes from 37 nationalities. 1,554 hours of traditional coverage are broadcast on 69 TV channels in 26 countries, complemented a media reach in print, online and social platforms of 985 million.    

This year’s final, held in the American city of Omaha, was won by Isabell Werth of Germany.

Werth, who is the most decorated dressage rider in Olympic history, bagged the third World Cup victory of her distinguished career aboard her 12-year-old mount named Weihegold. Her first win was 25 years previously on Fabienne, and her second ten years ago in Las Vegas on Warum Nicht.

The 48-year-old said after her triumph this year that it was “special to win [the FEI World Cup] again”.  

Aside from the World Cup, the FEI presents its World Championships in the middle year of an Olympic cycle. The sport’s governing body first ran the Dressage World Championship in 1966 and since 1990 it has held it at the World Equestrian Games, in conjunction with its other equestrian world championships. 

The 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games will be held in Mill Spring, North Carolina, US at the Tryon International Equestrian Center from 11th to 23rd September. It will be the eighth edition of the FEI’s blue-chip event and represents the second time that North America will host the competition.

A luxury global platform

With over 393 million dressage fans in 15 international markets, equine events provide a unique platform for sponsors to engage with an international fanbase who are 75 per cent female, affluent, brand loyal and consider equestrianism to be an integral part of their lifestyle. Families, in particular, often flock to the gates to witness the sport in action.

With 542 dressage events worldwide, the sport is a truly globetrotting one. However, the vast majority of World Cup competitions take place in the USA and continental Europe, alongside one in Al Shaqab, Qatar’s equestrian centre.

Equine events provide a unique platform for sponsors to engage with an international fanbase who are 75 per cent female

Further statistics show that half of dressage’s followers are aged between 35 and 53. What’s more, 34 per cent of them have a higher interest than the international average in luxury goods, which makes up a high proportion of the FEI’s sponsorship across the board.

Due to the jet-setting nature of the sport, international equestrian attracts exclusive companies such as Swiss watch brands, champagne houses and international automotive manufacturers, as well as a plethora of high-end riding apparel and accessories suppliers.   

At present, dressage does not boast the large numbers of celebrity trust fund competitors of another equestrian discipline: show jumping. Jessica Springsteen, daughter of rock icon Bruce, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ daughter Jennifer have, for example, have both ridden at an elite level over the poles.

However, dressage did catch the wider sporting headlines at the London Olympics when a horse owned by Ann Romney, a distinguished amateur rider and wife of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt, took to the sand.  

Breeding and travel

It is currently the trend in elite dressage to ride Warmbloods of various types. Dutch Warmblood (KWPN), Oldenburgs, and Hanoverians are currently the most popular breeds, although a smaller selection of riders do compete on less fashionable types such as Andalusians, Lusitanos and Selle Français.

Breeding horses specifically for dressage is, nevertheless, a relatively young science and only dates back to the latter half of the 20th century. Thoroughbred racehorses, for example, can trace their progeny back to the 17th and 18th century in England, when native mares were crossbred with imported Oriental stallions. 

That said, a dressage-bred horse can still cost anywhere from US$60,000 to US$100,000 while a successful competition horse can be placed on the open market for far greater values, often over US$1 million. 

The aforementioned Valegro was, of course, competing at the vanguard of international dressage but when it comes to breeding, the gelding stands apart from the modern type of horse being produced. In fact, like so many other eventual stars, he was rejected at the KWPN licensing for his stallion grading.

The young Valegro was purchased by Carl Hester for the princely sum of UK£4,000 (US$5,387), his bargain price tag due to the fact he was still entire and was not showing many signs of being a future superstar.

Charlotte Dujardin riding Valegro to Olympic glory at Rio 2016

Horses are not only judged on their athletic promise but the performance of their sires. Their inheritance and competition statics are compiled and added to the Colts German Breeding Value Index, which is released by the breeding department of the German Equestrian Federation.

Valegro, who is by Negro, has been judged as the finest of his generation and, with countless world records and two individual gold medals to his name, it is hard to argue with that belief. His main assets in competition were his strength and poise, the latter coming from training as opposed to his breeding, which harked back to another era. 

This opinion was highlighted in an article in Horse and Hound by David Pincus, the co-owner of Sheepcote Equestrian Centre and Stud, who suggested that the fanfare around the stallion licensing and young horse classes has resulted in certain stallions only producing young horse stars, not necessarily medal-winning stars. 

‘Today, three-year-old stallions have to create an optical illusion of balance, energy and power, despite only trotting in-hand,’ wrote Pincus.

Pincus believes that an obsession with extravagant trots, which have been commonplace in dressage breeding since at least the early 80s, has meant that many breeders have got away from the concept of strength in the search for thoroughbred beauty.

Carl Hester, however, in an interview with the Equine Advertiser, said: “I don’t believe it is a breeding problem, I think it is a training problem. I think the quality of the horses being bred, the movement, the types, are lovelier than they were, and they are more natural, but this increased expression we are seeing, that’s wanted for winning, is just getting some people who haven’t got a good training system in place, to do things that are just not right.”

Alongside creating or acquiring these majestic dancing beasts, the highest cost to an owner is the travel. The international landscape of dressage determines that just getting one’s horse to the arena is an arduous undertaking in itself.

Specially designed Boeing 777 cargo planes can carry roughly 50 horses on a flight, which comes complete with generous servings of hay and individual horseboxes, which are mucked out as if at home. Some planes even include horse treadmills for long-haul journeys.

Before the horses are even moved their staff must ensure that all appendages are waiting upon arrival, including saddles, bridles, brushes and horses transportation trailers, which can cost as much as UK£500,000 (US$670,000). 

In an interview with the Omaha World-Herald before this year’s World Cup, Cathy Martin, who coordinates flights for international horse transport company Dutta Corp, revealed that her company flies more than 5,000 horses a year to competitions in the USA, Canada, Europe and parts of South America.

Martin describes the horses’ travel to competitions as “a luxurious trip” and says that they are “accustomed to travelling” in the same manner that a transatlantic chief executive might be. Their comfort is furthered by pilots working closely with air traffic controllers to chart a flight path that avoids turbulence and sharp unpredictable turns.

This article originally appeared in issue 97 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.