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 the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.