What do non-horsey people make of dressage? We asked Kin Woo, Dean Mayo Davies and Jack Sunnucks to give us their thoughts on the Grand Prix freestyle.
Text Stacey Streshinsky
Text Dean Mayo Davies, Jack Sunnucks and Kin Woo
To equestrians, dressage is an elegant, highly difficult to master discipline, in which the rider and the horse act as one, in a seemingly effortless manner. To most other people it’s a questionable sport that only posh types with plummy accents can participate in that belongs at the top of “Weirdest Olympic events” lists on the Internet. It doesn’t help that within the sport itself, little is done to engage a wider audience. The commentary is often limited to bland platitudes about rhythm and an abundance of technical terms, which those who couldn’t tell the difference between a half-pass and pirouette — the vast majority of the at-home audience — couldn’t possibly know the meaning of. But it’s not like they’d care in the first place.
Fashion in many ways is similar. While it may not be an Olympic event (not yet at least… Many an editor will tell you that fashion week show-hopping should be as opposed to, like, speed walking), but it is often seen by outsiders as an elitist world. One with incredibly silly social conventions, where the words plumage and pussy bow are used colloquially. While it is no longer as exclusive as equestrian sports, fashion is still often misunderstood by the general public.
Given the similarity between the two usually unrelated entities, we thought it would be interesting to hear what our friends who work in fashion (otherwise known as “fashion people”) would have to say about the Individual Freestyle performances at the Olympics in Rio this year. The brilliant Dean Mayo Davies (Writer-at-Large, Dazed; Fashion Features Editor, Man About Town), Jack Sunnucks (Fashion writer, former Senior Editor of LOVE magazine) and Kin Woo (Writer-at-Large, Dazed; Columnist AnOthermag.com), have kindly agreed to provide us with their commentary.
Dean Mayo Davies
Without literal barometers such as kicking a ball hard into a net (football) or punching someone until they fall over (boxing), dressage is a discipline of relative subtlety. A contrast to its sibling sport, showjumping and in polar opposite to horse racing, it’s a fete of restraint in applause of the graceful. The skill of each rider is almost invisible, a sophisticated language of hands and feet. Or it’s telepathy. Or both.
Broadly, dressage is not unlike a Ferrari rasping with élan around Mayfair in 2nd gear. Whilst the car’s natural inclination is to be in 5th, pushing back your eyelids and deafening you on a clear stretch of tarmac, the skill – and appeal – is in not tearing off the bumper outside Scott’s. It’s entirely based on keeping your cool.
Horses dancing. Even YouTube can’t come up with better. There are three Brits in the saddle today, a number I’m not sure how we arrived at, but the more the merrier. Despite its classic nature, dressage is one of the only truly equal sports, where men and women compete together.
It says a lot about horse folk that no matter how hard they hit the ground, bones shattering with pain forevermore, nothing will stop them getting back in the saddle. The first UK talent up, Fiona Bigwood, was thrown off her horse in freak accident of 2014, suffering major concussion. Despite wearing an eyepatch to quell double vision, she’s at the Olympics.
Carl Hester is on a horse called Nip Tuck, and Nip Tuck looks like he’s really enjoying himself. They’re moving to a special composition by Tom Hunt, strong and orchestral. The score flashes up: 82.482%, a very accurate three decimal places. I’m not sure why it’s that accurate: I was thinking about phoning my tailor to sort out a jacket at the back of my wardrobe. The Savile Row of sport has this effect.
Tom Hunt has also composed music for Charlotte Dujardin, a carnival flavour with the grandeur of strings. Her horse is called Valegro and Valegro doesn’t put a foot wrong. At 93.928%, she’s straight to the top of the leader board, winning gold. She definitely wouldn’t tear the bumper off outside Scott’s.
Aren’t they hot? They must be very hot. Charlotte Dujardin looks quite hot, because she’s wearing a black suit, and helmet, and Valegro is enormous and she’s in BRAZIL, where I’m not sure they have horses but they definitely have jaguars. Having said that, all sorts of non-Brazilian sports are taking place, i.e. golf, so whatever.
Oh God she’s started, and they are trotting beautifully, but it’s more like skipping, very elegant for such a gigantic beast. This is all very important because Charlotte is retiring after these Olympics and obviously wants to win, for a third time, and I’m rooting for her because I too know what it’s like to be a bit past it. Although apparently dressage types can keep doing it forever and don’t get phased out age 19 like Russian gymnasts. [Editor’s note: Sorry Jack, it’s not Charlotte but Valegro who’s retiring. He’s only 15, but much like Russian gymnasts, horses peak in their teens, too.] Anyway, she’s gliding all over on this marvellous beast, I adore her. I wish NBC provided a more illuminating commentary because it might as well be in Latin for all that I understand. She is apparently nailing it, which I imagine is because she and Valegro look like they’re walking on air.
Apparently she has scored 93.857, not as much as the last Olympics but still almost perfect. I feel like her music was kind of unconventional, being samba inspired, but that has made me like Charlotte even more. This seems like a brilliant score but there’s muttering that she might get defeated by the Germans. Happily, she doesn’t, winning her third gold medal. Charlotte forever!
As a kid, my “Tiger mom” introduced me to horse riding and ballet dancing – two activities that she hoped would instill some discipline and focus in me. They are both of course similar in other ways – both highly artificial and unnatural – dressage being almost the equestrian version of dancing, requiring a supreme concentration and ability to be present at all times. Despite not having ridden in nearly 20 years, it’s something that has stuck with me ever since.
I’m rarely reminded of this anachronistic part of my youth, except for the odd occasion during a fashion show, where yet again I witness a highly artificial display put on in order to impress. Like dressage, fashion shows are for the most part, a rarefied sport, available only to a select few. Taken in this way, the models can be seen almost as prized show ponies told to carry out a number of different movements that are judged according to intangible precepts (in the case of fashion shows, “attitude”, “fierceness” and “sass” being particularly important).
Watching the freestyle dressage at the Rio Olympics was like a surreal mingling of my past and present: the addition of musical medleys chosen by the rider bearing an uncanny resemblance to the soundtracks of fashion shows. And where Naomi Campbell is justly revered for the particular way she turns on the catwalk and fixes that leonine stare at you, at the Rio Olympics, it’s all about the ‘piaffe’ – the most exquisitely demanding movement in a rider’s arsenal.
And while Charlotte Dujardin clinched the gold with a massive 93.857%, I’ve always been drawn to the scrappy underdog, the up-and-comer: the jolie-laide of Jamie Bochert say over the pristine perfection of Karlie Kloss. So I was particularly drawn to the hotly tipped Danish rider, Catherine Dufour and her horse Atterupgaards Cassidy who finished 13th in the individual competition. Despite her mistakes, there was something in the way both rider and horse seemed for the most part to be in constant dialogue with each other that made me daydream again of a youth spent dressed up in strangely formal wear where the ultimate goal was how to achieve this perfect harmony with my four-legged friend.