Dressage at Rolex and Badminton: Making it less boring

In Opinion

Dressage is hard.

Dressage is challenging for horses and riders. That’s why it’s a sport.  But it also represents a huge barrier to entry for prospective fans of three day eventing.  For a newcomer it’s pretty easy to ‘get’ show jumping and cross country.  Jump the jumps.  Don’t take too long.  Stay alive.  Dressage, on the other hand, is famously difficult to grasp.  For many, dressage might as well be French for ‘nap time.’

Dressage is foundational to the sport of three day eventing.  The dressage score means a lot (finishing on your dressage score is a big deal).  The maneuvers that teams execute during this phase are also crucial elements used in show jumping and cross country.  Dressage actually means ‘training’ in French.  These are the horse’s repertoire, the tools that they employ as they make split-second decisions in response to the questions they face during the rest of competition.

Dressage also takes a lot of time.  At the four star level, a dressage test takes about 5 minutes to complete.  In contrast, stadium jumping takes about 2 minutes.  Optimum time on cross country at the 4 start level is about 12 minutes, but the size of the course means that at any given time there might be as many as three riders on course.  Because dressage happens in sequence, one horse at a time, a ’three day event’ like Rolex or Badminton actually ends up taking four days, with two days dedicated exclusively to dressage.  What does this mean for a new fan who is completely baffled by dressage? It means that 50% of the competition is totally inaccessible.

Dressage is important.  But for the uninitiated spectator, it is the most difficult to understand, and the most difficult to get excited about.  Let’s face it, unless you know what’s going on, watching dressage can be more boring than watching paint dry.  This is a huge obstacle to growing the fan base for three day eventing, and contributes to its reputation as ‘elitist.’  Being a fan means acquiring secret knowledge.

I’m not saying that the sport needs to be dumbed down in order to survive.  What we need is education.  The United States Equestrian Federation recognizes the importance of educating fans, and has recently started building out a set of really nice resources in its Learning Center.  But these resources are still very much directed toward horse people.  Equestrians suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge.’  This is a problem in every specialized field.  What is the curse of knowledge? Once you come to know a thing, you easily forget what it was like before you knew it, and so find it difficult to explain.

What I would really like to see is event organizers (or the United States Eventing Association) take the time to provide ‘crib notes’ in advance of an event.  Something as simple as a video overview of the test for newbies — something that explains what’s happening and how judging works in a way that doesn’t also assume any knowledge of the sport —  would go a long way toward bridging information gaps, increasing spectator enjoyment, and growing the sport’s fan base.  By investing in basic education for fans, I expect that events themselves would see increased revenue through increased attendance on dressage days.

As I look forward to Rolex and Badminton, I know that enjoyment comes from engagement, and engagement requires knowledge.  That’s why I am preparing by getting to know the dressage test in advance (fortunately, its the same test for both Rolex and Badminton: 2017 FEI Eventing 4* Dressage Test A).  Unfortunately, there are just not a lot of resources available (that I know of) that do a great job of explaining dressage to people who are new to the sport and don’t ride (i.e. prospective fans).  This includes the websites of the events themselves, which assume a certain level of knowledge and so neglect that large numbers of people who end up being ‘dragged along.’  Failing to reach these individuals is a huge missed opportunity to turn newcomers into lifelong fans.

What resources have you found helpful in navigating the world of dressage?  How do you think the sport could do a better job of growing and supporting its fan base?  Let us know in the comments below.

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