Why we should embrace the horse dancing

Like all sport, dressage promotes hard-work, aspiration, and communal effort.

Thanks to the long list of blue-blooded equestrians, from Zara Philips to Mitt Romney’s wife, it is easy to assume that dressage is a sport for the elite. And to joke about it. The jokes I can’t argue with. Ann Romney’s horse really did do a more impressive job than Mitt last week. But the idea that riding is only for the POSH (Privileged Or Super-rich Horse-owners) is not just misleading – it’s totally back to front.

On the eve of Britain’s first ever dressage medal, and a gold one at that, there are some important reasons why every sports hack, politician, and parent – anyone in a position of responsibility or care – should forget the stereotype and take a dressage lesson or two. Never mind the Olympics, it should be on the National Curriculum.

OK, maybe ponies in the PE department isn’t that realistic. And yes, having some talent and a family able to buy a multi million pound animal is one way of reaching the top. But while money might win you a medal, it won’t win you the respect of the sport. A real master of the horse is someone who can produce their own world-beater, not just once, but over and over again.

Let me introduce you to Carl Hester – a man without title or money – whom the media has consequently and unfairly sidelined. Carl was born on the tiny, car-less, Channel Island of Sark. As a schoolboy he earned pocket money by driving carriage horses for tourists, then took his first real job, aged 19, at a riding centre for the disabled. He didn’t own a horse until he was 20 but found work as an apprentice at a top dressage yard. By working until 9.30pm every night, he became the youngest British rider ever to compete in an Olympic games. He now makes a living training riders and producing and selling horses.

2012 is Carl’s fourth Olympics – and he nearly didn’t make it. Like football teams, many top riders rely on wealthy benefactors to lend them their rides; at the beginning of the year Carl had to call on every contact he had to make sure his multi-million pound horse, Uthopia, wasn’t sold to the Swedish team. But sweeter than his own success in this year’s contest (he is currently in fifth place), is the fact that he does own Valegro, the horse ridden by his team-mate and apprentice Charlotte Du Jardin, who has just smashed the Olympic record with a Grand Prix score of 83.66 per cent.

This year Carl is the kingmaker – in the most egalitarian and selfless of senses. His story shows that, more then any other sport, dressage is about producing something. Carl advises young riders to make their own road to success by making their own horses; buying them young and cheap, training them and selling them and buying more until they work their way up to where they want to be. This is tough advice. Seriously tough. It’s a life work – but one that produces much more than top horses and Olympic gold.

In the past the purpose of this "product" was military. When asked why Germany is so dominant in dressage one German trainer told me:

"Because we had to defend ourselves! We had to defend ourselves from the French! From the Poles! From the Austrians!"

A good point, even if it doesn’t quite tally with our version of history. In Britain, pit ponies were a central part of the industrial revolution – and its values of hard-work, aspiration, and communal effort – that Danny Boyle rightly loves to celebrate.

But even more than this, learning how to listen is the real gold mined through working with horses. Watch any test in tomorrow’s team final and you’ll see each horse’s ears quivering back and forth as they strain to understand their rider’s silent commands. Horses aren’t born "difficult" or "headstrong". Like people, they are made that way when they’re misunderstood (an easy thing to do when you don’t share a first language).

If we really want to learn how to listen we should start paying more attention to the four-legged silent ones. They have a lot to tell us about how our own modern "Uthopia" might be achieved. For some this may be producing their own Olympic horse, or living on an island without cars. For others it may be a society in which politicians listen to their public, teachers to their pupils, and parents to their children. I’d settle for feeling the soft breath of a happy horse on the back of my hand. Whatever your utopia, whisper it; ‘"dressage is for everyone".

Cavalor Telstar ridden by Raf Kooremans of the Netherlands in Greenwich. Photograph: Getty Images

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear