When people ask me “what do you do with horses?”, they get one of two answers, depending my very quick analysis of their background – and my mood.
Non-horse people, neophytes, and the vast majority of people too young to vote get a very short answer: I pet them, ride them, and watch them, mostly.
Aficionados and connoisseurs get a longer answer, which often spawns an hour or so of follow-on discussion.
What I “do” is what I call (and what Newcastle called) manege. It is a form of high school horsemanship related to the modern notion of “Dressage”, but different – and, I argue – by now, really fundamentally different.
I use a methodology drawn from, primarily, the notions Francois Baucher and William Cavendish (The First Duke of Newcastle).
Why not just call it “dressage”? Because the word has lost all relevance and meaning. The lower-case version of the French derivative has come to mean simply “training”. The capitalized version refers to a specific competitive format with little more practical utility than English Pleasure, Hunter/Jumper, or Reining. In modern usage, more or less any form 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, their imitators, and a (long) training progression which (officially and of its own admission) never “graduates” from the double bridle.
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 most often criticize as overly prescriptive, often incoherent, ultimately ineffective for the vast majority of riders and horses, and quantifiably misaligned with the original precepts and objectives of “high school” horsemanship – the original object of finishing or ‘dressing’, or, if you will, dressage.
This term – “high school”, as it relates to horsemanship – is inadequate in the US, where the term “high school” refers to the least demanding academic certificate one can earn – below undergraduate school and graduate school. In a horsemanship context, “high school” refers to what we would consider graduate school.
And thus, what I “do” is “manege” horses. I manage them using an academic progression, and bring them to be manageable – to perform as a finished manege horse should.
The original manege horse was a jet fighter – not a ballet dancer; a highly educated animal capable of performing with the fidelity of Pablo Mendoza’s Merlin (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. The real dressage horse is fully appreciable by a gifted and committed few.
What is the end goal or reward for pursuing such a degree of horsemanship?
This is for each person to answer on their own. For me, the reward is the experience of the pursuit itself. That experience is a personal one – so much so there is little point in me evangelizing and promoting it. But suffice it to say, there is no cheering crowd to be had, no audience to impress, nor any medals to win. There is no one to be ‘better than’ or out-do.
In the end, there is only us and the horse in the moment; and the overarching pursuit of an ultimate equestrian – and human – understanding. And that, cavaliers, it the very Truth of it.