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Dressage is a controversial sport in not only its use of horses but also in its classification as a ‘sport’, and yet it still remains a category within the Olympics.
Dressage, a form of horse riding which is performed in exhibition and competition is often looked at as an artform. It is defined by the British Dressage association as ‘all about learning to work with your horse and help him achieve greater suppleness, flexibility and obedience; enhance his natural movements and ability and improve his athleticism’.
Dressage was not always part of the Olympics, coming into the programme in 1912 for the Stockholm Games. Although, according to FEI, the international governing body for horse sport, Dressage was featured in the Ancient Olympic Games in 680BC.
Despite its history, however, dressage is still viewed as a controversial sport to be featured in the Olympics due to rows over animal cruelty, and its classification as an actual ‘sport’.
The concept of dressage initially began as a military idea, to train horses for war. But dressage has since developed into an Olympic sport, in how it puts such training ‘into practice in front of a judge (or judges) to show the horse’s development is progressing against a set ideal’, according to the British Dressage Association.
Both rider and horse perform a set of movements within a rectangular arena. They are subsequently marked for their efforts by a judge or board of judges based on factors such as technique and rhythm.
The FEI’s first object and principle of dressage is ‘the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education’. But how happy are the horses who take part in the Olympic sport?
In 2009, at the Blue Tongue World Cup, footage was released on YouTube that resulted in allegations of ‘cruel’ training methods surrounding the sport.
Patrik Kittel, a Swedish rider, was warming up his horse at October’s World Cup dressage qualifier at Odense in Denmark. The video shows a dressage horse, named Watermill Scandic, being ridden using a technique called ‘rollkur’. A technique where the horse’s neck is drawn round in a deep curve so that its nose nearly touches its chest. In the video, during Kittel’s practicing of the technique on the horse, the horse’s tongue seems to loll out and proceed to turn blue.
At the time, dressage trainer and author Lady Sylvia Loch spoke out about the incident, calling the technique ‘so, so cruel’. She went on to say: ‘The horse can only see its own feet, so it is reliant on the rider for balance which is simply psychological torture.’
Loch believed it is methods like this which threaten Dressage being seen as a serious and good sport, she told The Guardian: ‘Dressage should be a delightful ballet where the work looks effortless. It doesn’t need vile and unnatural methods. Horses shouldn’t be brainwashed like this.’
However, Roly Owers of the World Horse Welfare charity defended the rollkur technique, saying, ‘In my view rollkur was not the cause of Watermill Scandic’s tongue going blue.’
Kittel also commented on the event, explaining that ‘Scandic sometimes plays with his tongue. During the filmed period of my training, he caught his tongue over or between the bits. I stopped when I noticed and put it back in the right place.’
The incident was investigated in two parts by the British Horse Society, the FEI also issued a statement. They said: ‘FEI’s main concern has always been, and will always be, the welfare of the horse. We are taking the issues raised in the video and in the comments made by members of the public very seriously and have opened a full investigation.’
The FEI subsequently received an online petition with the signatures of tens of thousands of people in protest. Equestrian fans even threatened to boycott the London 2021 Olympics over the incident. However, it is reported that the FEI later ruled Kittel’s methods were not excessive due to ‘no reliable evidence’.
It is incidents such as these which lead to such concerns being voiced around what is nicknamed ‘equine ballet’. British Dressage even had to appoint animal welfare officers in 2002, due to seeing ‘unacceptable’ cruelty between riders and horses.
Even if incidents, like the one that occurred between Kittel and horse Scandic, are not acts of intentional abuse, horses are still subject to rigorous training due to the competitive nature of the sport.
Not only has dressage not always been viewed as an Olympic sport in the past and seen as controversial due to horses’ welfare, but the sport is also very much still viewed as elitist; the annual cost of owning a horse is upwards of $4,000.
Addressing the issue of animal cruelty, Horse Racing Sense said:
Many horses compete at the highest level of dressage and are not treated cruelly. However, some dressage competitions and training are cruel. Harmful conditions arise through forceful and rapid training methods. But, training practiced with patience and care is beneficial for you and your horse.
Owners of competitive dressage horses are typically animal lovers, but they also have a desire to win. Sometimes this competitive spirit overrides their better judgment and they incorporate cruel training practices.
The Team Dressage Final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics took place on Tuesday, July 27, with Germany taking gold, the USA taking silver, and Great Britain with bronze. The Individual Dressage final took place the day after, on Wednesday, July 28, which saw Jessica von Bredow-Werndl from Germany winning gold, Isabell Werth from Germany taking silver, and finally Charlotte Dujardin from Great Britain taking home the bronze medal.
Despite the controversy surrounding the Olympic Sport, Dressage has continued to return to each Olympic Games since its 1912 debut. As more and more new sports get added the games, such as skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, it seems some traditions, no matter how questionable, are still being held on to.
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