Classical dressage is at the same time elitist and democratic, depending on
what angle you are looking from. It is important to keep in mind that you
don't need to be a Grand Prix rider in order to be a classical rider. The
determining factor is whether someone rides in accord with the laws of
nature and the classical principles, and that can be done at any level, high
or low. The quality of what you are riding is much more important than how
advanced the exercises are. Anybody who knows anything will always respect
an honest, classical 1st level rider more than a "wannabe" Grand Prix rider
who has all kinds of holes in his basic education.
As you progress along the path of classical dressage, the number of your
peers and "superiors" decreases. If you are fortunate enough to rise to the
level of the Spanish Riding School riders in the quality of your riding, you have become a
member of the equestrian elite. At that stage you are one of the best riders
in the world. The members of this elite distinguish themselves by an above
average dedication to learning how to ride. They spill more sweat and tears
than others. In addition, they usually also had access to outstanding
teachers for a number of years. Since these teachers are few and far
between, access to them is limited. Ironically, the best trainers are not
always appreciated by those who do have access to them, for whatever
reasons. There seems to be a tendency for appreciation to increase
proportionately to the distance the clinician, e.g., has to travel to the
Riding is eminently democratic as well, because a good seat, tact, feel, and
a thorough understanding cannot be bought. They have to be earned. Have you
ever noticed that the riders with the most talented, most expensive horses
are often the worst riders? They are used to being able to buy everything
they desire. So they buy an expensive horse and expensive tack. They board
their horse at an expensive barn with an expensive trainer. Yet, they will
never learn anything, unless they apply themselves wholeheartedly, and their
horse will never learn anything, unless the expensive trainer is also a good
trainer, which is not always the case.
Conversely, some of the best riders cannot afford to buy horses whose talent
matches their own level of expertise. These "poor" but excellent riders then
have to ride all the difficult horses that nobody else can fix - which makes
them even better riders. But since this is very quiet, unspectacular work,
it doesn't translate into fame and fortune the same way that riding fancy
movements on superhorses does. Without a good horse, even the best rider in
the world is just a pedestrian. That's why some excellent riders are
completely unknown, although they may be better than most Olympic
participants, simply because they were never able to "show off" on a
talented horse with superior gaits. By the same token, mediocre riders
sometimes are highly overrated, because they are lucky enough to ride horses
that make them look good *in spite of* their limited equestrian expertise.
You may also have noticed that some of the most talented students never rise
above mediocrity in their riding. Progress comes so easily to them that they
never care enough to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the pursuit of
classical dressage. They get stuck, and eventually stop riding altogether.
On the other hand, those riders who want most desperately to learn to ride
are often not very talented at all. But their perseverance and their almost
"superhuman" efforts pay off over the course of years and decades,
especially if they have the help of a good teacher. These less talented
students then end up surpassing the much more talented ones, and some of
them even go on to become highly accomplished riders and teachers.
Dedication is maybe the most important quality in a student. It can
compensate for many other shortcomings in much the same way as a willing,
generous disposition can make up for many conformation flaws in a horse.
Often these seemingly less talented riders and horses can surprise you by
surpassing all expectations.
The demographic representation of expertise is always pyramid shaped in any
field. There is a large base of novices and a small number of true artists
who combine dedication, talent, feel, and a superior education. These
artists who form the elite of their field should serve as role models and as
an inspiration to everyone who is involved in the field. Everyone who is
serious about learning and becoming accomplished in this field should strive
within his possibilities to reach this elite someday. The reason is that the
higher we aim, the higher we will climb, and life has a way of forcing us to
make compromises which tend to make us achieve less than we had aimed for.
Even if we don't end up riding like Spanish Riding School riders, we will become much better
riders that way than if we were aiming low to begin with.
In the end, all we can do is make an honest effort to do our best every day,
whether it is at Training level or at Grand Prix. If we do that, we can be
content with what we have accomplished. I often tell my students that the
rider has to lead by example, that we can only ask of our horse what we are
willing and able to do ourselves. In this case, we can say that the converse
is also true. We can only ask of our horse to make an honest effort, no more
and no less. Nobody is perfect, so we cannot reasonably expect perfection of
ourselves or our horses. But that is precisely what the armchair experts
often do. The less practical experience and expertise in the saddle someone
has, the more critical he often is of others. Nobody is safe from the
armchair experts. Even great riders like Podhajsky often found themselves to
be their targets. In fact, they are probably more at risk, because they are
more exposed, and personal envy is a powerful motivation. Podhajsky always
shut all the ringside critics up by inviting them to get on his horse so
that he might learn from them. Not a single one took him up on his offer.