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".