When people ask what I “do” with horses – implicitly: Western? (Yes); Hunter? (Yep) ; “dressage” (Absolutely); Trails? (Sure) – they get one of two answers, depending upon my quick analysis of their background. And my mood.
To non-horse people, ‘social equestrians’, abject neophytes, and the vast majority of people too young to vote: “I pet them, ride them, and watch them.”
Aficionados get a more thoughtful answer, which goes something like this: What I “do” is what I call (and what Newcastle called) manege – or, if you will, a form of heritage dressage. It is a training philosophy related to the modern notion of “Dressage” (because it well preceded it and ultimately, spawned it), but different in important ways – and, I argue – so far superior that there is really no comparison. I apply a personalized methodology inspired by and drawn from the philosophies of masters I believe “got it right” – beginning at the beginning with the great William Cavendish – First Duke of Newcastle.
Why not just call it “dressage”? Because the word has lost all relevance and meaning. Moreover, my buckaroo clientele might well mistake me for the very thing I rail against – when, in reality, I perceive the Ed Connell horse (ultimately, a colonial derivative of the horsemanship exhibited by Pablo Mendoza) as much closer to the feel and performance of the instruments I create – and teach others to create. (I cannot mention ‘Western’ equitation without, in the same breath, imploring you to never mistake the laughable sterling-silvered caricatures pushing peanuts around the show ring for a legitimate reined work of art).
The lower-case version of the French derivative – ‘dressage’ – is too generally interpreted as merely “training”. This interpretation loses the object entirely, and we have an English word which fits the bill already (called, surprisingly, “training”). Dressage has never meant merely “training” – not since even before Newcastle. It is training with high school development as its object.
The capitalized version – ‘Dressage’ – has been reduced to the mere name of a class listed in horseshow brochures, a la English Pleasure, Hunter/Jumper, or Reining. Precious few exhibitors of “Dressage” have any inkling what it is to pilot an actual high school-trained animal – let alone make one – and most would be unable to without much more development.
In modern usage, more or less any form of training notionally and technically implies “dressage”, including, of course, Dressage. But we can no longer think of Dressage (or dressage) without also inferring notions of super-sized warmbloods executing super-sized trots; Germans; oblivious imitators; and (long, thoughtless) training progressions which never (according to the system) “graduate” from the double bridle. (Ever look at old images of the founders? Maybe they’re riding ‘Western’? Wait … there was no ‘West’ yet!.).
Thus, if I were to say I ‘do dressage’ (or ‘Dressage’), most people would, unfortunately, presume I subscribe to the very equitation and training progression I criticize as overly prescriptive, eventually incoherent (to people and horses); and ultimately ineffective for the vast majority, because it is so misaligned with the original objectives of high school horsemanship – not to mention counter to bio-physics and equine psychology..
And thus, what I “do” is “manege” horses. I manage them … I bring them to be manageable in an antique context – to perform as a finished manege horse should.
The original manege horse was a jet fighter – not a ballet dancer. He was a highly educated animal, handling with the fidelity of Pablo Mendoza’s Merlin (grown-up warning: shows mounted bullfighting) – something very different from the ‘false object’ of modern “Dressage” (no offense to whomever this is … a perfectly reasonable performance, given context – but not Newcastle’s dressage, nor Baucher’s, etc.). The product should be a “living work of art”, to quote Nuno Oliveira, whose dressage – like Mendoza’s – pursues the original ideal. Today, the “real” dressage horse is fully appreciable by a gifted and committed few connoisseurs.
What is the end goal or reward for pursuing such a high degree of understanding and expertise in horsemanship? It cannot be ribbons, but you knew that already.
It is for each person to answer on their own. In my case, the reward and the pursuit are one in the same. The experience is a personal one – so much so there is little point in evangelizing and promoting it. There is no one to be ‘better than’, nor anything to ‘prove’ per se. It is merely about connecting – in the most fundamental sense.
And this is the root of any legitimate art, is it not? This is how we distinguish works of art from mere marketing litter: art distinguishes itself as a pure artifact of another’s sincere connection – however fleeting – to what our highest selves know a priori. For every artist – for every art – the treasure is in the realization.
And that, cavaliers, is the very Truth of it. To the work.