John Henderson, Dressage at Devon board member, takes the press on a barn tour. It’s only Wednesday (Sept. 26), the second day of this six-day horse show, so press doesn’t mean much: just me, my photographer and two older women from equestrian publications who have much nicer cameras than my photographer. The five of us stand at the threshold of what John calls “his baby,” a production studio for a live webcast of all the dressage action.
The studio is a room with a dozen screens, two soundboards and a red foam finger on a shelf that says “Dressage #1.” It is also, according to John, the future of Dressage at Devon—which, you ought to know, is itself the largest horse breed show in North America.
“We’re like the film industry in 1906,” John says. Ready to explode onto the cultural scene.
The night before, Dressage at Devon doubled its audience with the webcast, though I don’t know if he means twice the total seating capacity (five thousand) or twice the number of people who actually attended these first two days, and it might sound condescending to ask for clarification.
“It takes one million dollars to put this show on,” John says.
And he is more invested than anyone else. Not money-wise; he is the man behind the curtain. He chaired the 2005 committee that moved to split Dressage at Devon from its parent organization. He brought in vendors from the west coast and Canada, the boot maker from Ecuador. Ninety-seven percent of them also sponsor the event, so John co-produces commercials for the webcast. Dressage at Devon is a big deal in a small world, and John is optimistic it will grow beyond that.
But he knows its limitations, not least of which is the Devon Horse Show every spring. Held at the same fairgrounds, the Devon Horse Show showcases a wider array of equestrian events, like show jumping.
“Show jumping appeals to the American psyche—it’s exciting,” John says. “Crash and burn.” Either you’ve jumped the barrier or you haven’t.
Dressage, literally French for “training” and also known as horse ballet, has no such obviousness. In fact, the point is for horse and rider to appear completely natural together during a series of predetermined movements at prescribed gaits. Competitors ascend through several levels of training, the ultimate goal being to maximize the horse’s physique and responsiveness to commands. The skills learned in dressage apply to most other equestrian pursuits (the most notable exception is racing), from, yes, show jumping to hunting to warfare.
As such, the art of dressage goes back thousands of years. Xenophon of Athens, a contemporary of Socrates, codified many of the principles of classical dressage in his treatise On Horsemanship, which is the earliest surviving text on the subject. A soldier, Xenophon understood what made an ideal war-horse—more than anything else, extensive training. So, to avoid training unworthy horses, he identified the physical traits of young horses that hinted at a strong body later in life.
The judges do the same thing on Wednesday. Horses, separated into various breed-, size- and age-groups, trot around the inside edge of the main arena, scrutinized not so much for their execution, but for their materiale, their natural talent or potential.
So says the woman next to me, who declined to give her name. That’s okay; everything about her was typical of today’s group of fans: middle-aged, white, female, an amateur rider herself.
“The horse threw—” she reconsiders: “Let’s just say there was some bad behavior from the horse. But he placed because the judges saw some talent in his movement and gait.”
The official Dressage at Devon press kit likens this to looking at a toddler and determining whether he or she would be good at ballet as an adult.
The riders we watch are local amateurs like her, competing with their own horses at the lower levels for prize ribbons, free saddle pads and a chance to qualify for higher competitions. Those who don’t qualify have a very expensive hobby.
“For most of us amateurs, it’s just something we enjoy doing,” she says.
Even though there are only around five hundred people here (almost all in privately owned boxes on the western side of the arena), this subculture is large and avid enough to support three separate regional monthlies: Mid-Atlantic Horse, The Horse of Delaware Valley and Pennsylvania Equestrian. Advertisements for horses—priced from $7,000 to $28,500—and one for a horse farm—71 acres and an insulated barn in Munfordville, Kentucky for only $229,900—decorate telephone poles and a bulletin board outside the women’s bathroom. The vendors, their tents arranged like the air around a donut, mostly peddle tack, the necessary equipment and not-so-necessary accessories of equestrian enthusiasts.
The tack is priced exorbitantly, according to Valerie Chambers and Jackie Langdon, two seniors from Downingtown West High School who were able to attend without cutting because of Yom Kippur. They are enthusiasts, but with the ironic detachment of our generation; and they are my best window into this world of horse people.
“You have to be slightly crazy to trust a thousand-pound animal,” Jackie says, talking about herself and everyone else there.
They show me around the stores, giving me a much-needed initiation to all things tack. One tent has sample of the dirt-sand substance used in the arena and training grounds. I figure they might know what it’s really made of, so I ask.
“Rich people things,” Valerie says.
It’s hard not to scoff, even for these two horse people, who have been riding since before they started kindergarten.
How else do you respond to a horse massage pad that drapes the animal’s body like a poncho? Whips of every length you dreamt of, combs for horses’ hair themselves made of horses’ hair, and saddles for each style of riding—anything a rider has a real or fabricated need for, right here.
The most ornate tent is not even occupied by a salesperson. Instead, just out front, a man in a smart suit and boots splashes around in a bucket filled with dirty water. Jackie is determined to try these boots on, and approaches the salesman to ask about the boots. He gives his pitch, waxing about the special material (used by no other boot, you know) that ensures waterproofing, cleverly waiting to the end to reveal the price: $400 or so. Jackie walks away, knowing that she cannot even fake the decadence needed for them.
There are few stores that don’t sell tack, and instead sell other things treasured by the horse people demographic: jewelry, ladies’ day hats, sweaters for dogs, and, because they really aren’t so different from you or me, food. Before the barn tour, as I wait for my photographer and Italian hoagie, the owner of the neighboring restaurant tent ambles over and chats with the guy making my sandwich. Business is slow, but they knew the first few days would be like that. Talk turns to the show.
“It’s like watching grass grow,” the neighbor says. “Friday, Saturday night, when they’re out there dancing [to music], it’s something to watch.” The sandwich-maker nods as he arranges my toppings with care and symmetry. His wife, who took my order at the counter, cracks how he acts like an artist when making hoagies.
The neighbor continues, “But today, it’s boring, unless you know what you’re looking for.”
Out on a bench just below the private boxes sits a gray-bearded man on the opposite side of the spectrum. He walks with a cane, hangs a green-and-white rosary around his neck, reads the newspaper with a giant magnifying glass and makes catcalls throughout the day in a low, booming voice:
“Hello there, handsome.”
“Shake that tail! What a beautiful tail!”
These phrases, frowned upon when directed toward a human, must be considered just as bad when yelled at horses. No one sits anywhere near him.
No one would have that luxury on Friday and Saturday night, when the arena is packed to see some of the best dressage horses in the world. Some of these horses and their riders competed in the London Olympics, including the Grand Prix champions, Jacqueline Brooks and D-Niro, a silver Swedish warm-blood. They are quarantined in special stables, John says, and even he cannot access them. The judges are similarly prestigious, if their four- and five-star ratings, as declared by the very British public announcer, are any indication.
The spectacle for the Grand Prix is heightened by the music, which is often chosen by third-party experts with an eye for influencing the audience and the judges. Their routines, which must include certain moves in some order, are choreographed in the same manner. Jaimey Irwin rides Lindor’s Finest to a medley of ‘80s songs; music from The Dark Knight movies shows up in more than one routine; David Marcus, rider of the third-place Chrevi’s Capital, says later that all his music was from Clash of the Titans. The audience roars for the right routines. Many have rented headphones that provide running commentary from a dressage expert.
“The atmosphere is electric,” second-place rider Pierre St. Jacques says later at the press conference. “It’s that kind of experience that allows us to go to Europe and not be fazed.”
I take eager notes with four other reporters in this cellar-converted-bar. Two bottles of wine remain un-drunk in the corner. Perhaps the only dry room in the area. Above, the vendors—some of whom could not watch the routines and so consoled themselves with wine (it’s not like anyone was going to shop during the show, anyway)—pack up their tack. Most of the audience has left, but a few parents, children and dogs held upright by their front legs remain for the sock-hop in the middle of the arena, which is Dressage at Devon tradition.
What do horse people do if not follow horses? Do the twist, they’re told, and they comply: the horses dance, then the horse people.
By Marciano Lopez