Dressage is a challenging sport. Commonly translated to “training” in French, it is considered a form of art due to the meticulous moves to execute required of both rider and horse. With a rich history extending back to Greek horsemanship, the earliest accounts of horse training, written by a Greek military commander named Xenophon, date back to roughly 400BC. Continuous development by the military and European aristocrats subsequently led to the establishment of the Imperial Spanish Riding School of Vienna in 1572. As of today, it is this era on which dressage bases many of its current standards. However, dressage did not become an Olympic sport until 1912, and only military officers were allowed to compete until the rules changed in 1953, when civilian men and women could compete. Enthusiasm and support for dressage still persist, evidenced by the assiduousness and passion of people who compete.
Kriss Phelps is one such individual. As an initial 4-H’er in Michigan, she started riding Western, gradually moving to Hunt Seat, Reining and eventually loving Saddleseat. She showed everything in 4-H from Showmanship and Halter to Training Level Dressage, Hunter Over Fences, English Equitation, Western Horsemanship, Gymkhana, Trail, Reining, and Cutting. But it wasn’t until later that she became truly involved in dressage.
“In 2007, I bought a horse to resell to a client,” Phelps said. “After having him in the barn for a week, I knew his disposition wouldn't suit the client. So, I started him under saddle as a Hunter and showed him for one season, and he hated it! I realized that he wanted to be a dressage horse, so I started trying to learn more about that. I showed him First level the next year, then eventually found Christine Betz for an instructor. My scores drastically improved with her help. With Christine's patient guidance, I was able to train Nite Wings ESF from Third level on up to Grand Prix in 2015. I earned my USDF Bronze medal in 2011, my Silver medal in 2013 and my Gold in 2015.”
Phelps explained how being judged in dressage differs from being judged in other sports, such as pleasure classes. Since dressage is a sport where competitors perform a series of memorized moves and skills, there are many various factors judges consider when choosing a winner. She added that while in pleasure classes competitors are mostly judged in profile, the profile is only one of many things being judged in dressage; however, this precise nature is one of the reasons she is drawn to the sport.
“What has appealed to me is the exacting nature of dressage,” Phelps said. “No matter how trained the horse is, there is always some element that needs to be improved. So, you work on the pieces and parts of your tests and work to up your movements, which in turn raises your overall score. It’s so rewarding when you can improve your scores on a particular movement that's been eluding you.”
As far as advice for amateurs and people new to the dressage world, Phelps emphasized the importance of finding a trainer to connect with and who is still learning so he or she can provide knowledge from personal experience.
Phelps is showing Crescendos Allegro+//, Hero BA and WF Zeno Spirit+//. Currently, both Crescendos and Zeno are sitting in first place in USEF standings. With three shows left this season - two with Crescendos and one with Zeno - she hopes to keep their rankings until next month at the end of the competition year.
“Dressage has been such a journey for me,” Phelps said. “It has helped me learn to communicate with the horses that I train on a much different, much less forceful and more harmonious level. I've taken three horses to the Grand Prix so far with the help of Christine Betz. They all learn differently, and you have to figure out what makes each horse click. It’s very challenging and even more rewarding when you can get a horse to partner with you so that the two of you create a dance.”
Dancing is one of the best analogies for dressage because like dancing, dressage is a carefully-executed show where two partners must forge a powerful bond to understand one another. It is a relationship built on trust, connection and empathy. A person’s relationship with the horse is especially important since it can dictate not only whether they will win or lose, but how they handle losing. Dressage is an art, and like dancing, with harmony and trust, two individuals can create something beautiful and memorable so long as they work hard and believe in each other and themselves.
If you are interested in training with Phelps or want to know more about dressage, visit her website here.