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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New New Labour: forget ideological purity – Jeremy Corbyn is building a mass appeal party

Rather than a Seventies revival, the Labour leader is creating a social democratic party giving opportunities to all parts of the population.

Does the general election result signal a new political and, dare I say it, public relations phase for Labour?

There is a consensus among commentators and MPs across the political spectrum that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been a continuous struggle to revive the party’s ideological purity and rekindle its cultural and political relationship with the trade unions.

The Economist cover depicting Corbyn as Lenin with the caption “Backwards, Comrades!” encapsulated the mood about a leader thought to only offer old and sometimes toxic solutions to new problems such as the gig economy, Brexit, fintech and corporate taxation.

Criticisms about militant left politics and Seventies nostalgia exist in a political and cultural framework constructed and passionately preserved by New Labour and its proponents. New Labour was the mark of a newly reformed party that had detached itself from the politically and electorally incapacitating idea of common ownership of the means of production (known as Clause IV), and endorsed competitive market economics.

The 1996 manifesto “New Labour, New Life for Britain” set out the party’s “third way” approach to realign the free market with social justice. For New Labour, the state’s minimised role in the economy, the liberalisation of financial services and public-private partnerships can and will lead to an effective taxation system and investment in health, housing and education.

The intellectual architects of New Labour cast this ideological departure as a necessity for denouncing an alleged anachronistic and unrealistic socialist way of thinking, and effectively regaining the trust of the electorate.

Whereas Tony Blair’s New Labour embraced the free market for communicating the party’s modernisation, Corbyn subverts the logic of the free market for the same effect – to present a party fit to govern in the 21st century.

Corbyn’s leadership cannot and should not be perceived as a nostalgic return to a strong state thriving on high taxes and the provision of welfare at the expense of social mobility, entrepreneurship and ultimately electability. Instead, Corbyn’s leadership is an attempt to develop a New New Labour based on the premise of participatory democracy.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of perpetual financial crises, political volatility and consolidation programmes, citizens in the UK and across the world are frustrated with the lack of political imagination and determination.

The conviction of the efficiency of an independent market in every aspect of social life including health, housing and education prevents political leaders and policymakers from implementing radical ideas. Corbyn’s leadership and political programme highlighted the limitations of New Labour in times of crisis and distrust. New Labour has grown old, and the disbelief in socialism appears as a conservative dogma that only contributes to an ever-greater disparity between citizens and parliamentary politics.

The 2017 Labour manifesto, “For the Many Not the Few”, envisions a productive role for the state but such a role is neither restrictive nor a top-down affair. Corbyn’s New New Labour regains its legitimacy as a social democratic party – and the electorate’s trust – by striving to create opportunities on both national and local levels for all members of the population to make meaningful contributions to policymaking, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to these opportunities.

From crowdsourced Prime Minister’s Questions, massive mobilisation of activists inside and outside the party’s structures to the understanding of wealth creation as a collective endeavour, the Labour party has the potential to become a creative platform upon which membership, participation, individual ideas and anxieties do matter.

Progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth and nationalisation of key industries are nostalgic musings about lost political battles as long as there exist rigid boundaries between the citizen, politics and the economy. The restructuring of Labour and the redefinition of activism according to the principles of participatory democracy have enhanced the meaning of deliberation and proven that social democracy is capable of dynamic reform and renewal.

What does the future hold for Labour and its multiple ideological orientations? Condemning Tony Blair’s New Labour and praising Corbyn’s new kind of politics after beating expectations in the election is not enough. It should be the duty and aspiration of each Labour leader to formulate a New New Labour for a party that is faithful to its social democratic values and is able to govern by offering new solutions to new problems.

Dr Kostas Maronitis is a cultural and media sociologist, and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. He is the author of “Postnationalism and the Challenges to European Integration in Greece”.