We are a very fortunate group indeed – having access to or owning beautiful horses that are measured by levels of competence as reflections in training. Dressage is not a simple sport to understand, to excel in, or to achieve the highest levels. It takes years of training, practice and expert help from trainers and coaches. The athleticism and accomplishments are not easily understood by the general public.
Why should we care and why am I writing this opinion piece? Because it matters. It matters from the larger view that goes beyond any of us and our horses. Who knows where the future pools of talent lie for the continuation of our sport – for the Olympics, for Young Riders, for Regional and National competitions, for international competition? If we are not ambassadors for our sport, then who should be? When we enter recognized shows, we enter a public forum. Whether we want to be or not, whether we like it or not, we become ambassadors for our sport.
The general public is not well informed about our sport. Most people I meet have never heard of it. People I meet on my travels throughout the U.S. ask me what I do with my horse, and I answer “dressage”. The response is, “Oh, like Mitt Romney’s wife!” I have actually quit using the “d” word because of the general public’s reaction. It is perceived as an “elite sport” and/or a “sport for elitists.”
It is not a team sport and nothing we do as riders engages us as a team. It is somewhat of a solitary endeavor; beyond your coach/ trainer and horse, there is no need to interact with anyone. Schooling in your home barn does not require any outreach or friendly engagement. Time spent in the barn and practice is all about you and your horse. However, when we enlist in shows, everything becomes a public statistic – who was your horse’s father, what is the age of your horse, scores you receive are posted on the internet, and so on. We are a public representation of the sport of dressage. While I realize there is a certain level of performance angst or stress at shows, there is also a lot of down time between the scheduled rides.
What responsibility does each of us have to be kind to someone who may be at their first show, or a rider doing his first test ever, or an interested person who wants to learn more? The least expensive thing we can do in this sport is smile or answer a simple question. As ambassadors, we ought to encourage people to become interested and support our sport at local, national and international levels. Many of the riders representing the U.S. are dependent on grants, family support, crowd-sourcing, fund raising and other means to reach the highest levels and go to the Olympics or Pan American Games. Why not generate interest through outreach at shows with a friendly smile or kind word? You may inspire the future of the sport.