Dressage, a disciplined style of horseback riding that can become a lifetime sport, grew out of a cavalry tradition, but riders now test themselves in the show ring rather than on the battlefield.
This equestrian competition, most often seen by the public in the Olympic Games, is growing in popularity nationwide, and young Howard County riders are no exception.
"It's the fastest-growing horse sport in the nation," said Clarksville's Linda Speer, a dressage instructor as well as director of the 1,200-member Potomac Valley Dressage Association. "It's definitely a sport that's up and coming."
Speer, who organizes area shows, said she had 98 riders in her most recent local event in June.
The Potomac Valley Dressage Association classifies Howard County as part of Region I, which stretches from New Jersey to North Carolina. A total of 185 young riders entered the show in June; the next is Saturday at Schooley Mill Park in Highland. Speer said as many as 200 Howard countians of all ages, many of them youngsters, compete at some level of dressage during a year and that as many as 400 apply elements of the sport in various horse-related activities.
"Dressage is a very fancy word, and all it means is training. It's `training' in French," Speer said. "It's the building blocks in how you train a horse."
Horses are trained in certain movements such as bending their bodies; moving laterally under the pressure of a rider's leg, called leg yielding; and working in patterns such as a 20-meter circle or a serpentine, a snake-like pattern with loops.
At shows, entrants ride before judges. The more advanced a dressage rider becomes, the more advanced the movements - top-level horses work not only in different gaits, such as trot and canter, but also in both collected and extended forms of the gaits. The upper-level movements are fascinating to watch, requiring precise communication between horse and rider as the horse appears to trot in place, skip and dance.
The basic movements have the same purpose as human stretches and exercises: to create a flexible, strong athlete who uses muscles efficiently.
"If a horse is stiff, it's just like a person who is stiff. And like a gymnast, if they can move properly, the horse stays supple," Speer said. "It's not a fancy thing - basic dressage is a necessity."
Sue Wimbrough, an Olney resident who is co-district commissioner of the Howard County Pony Club, said part of the reason for the popularity of dressage is that it is one of the disciplines that make up three-day eventing.
In three-day eventing, riders must ride a cross-country course and jump fixed obstacles, compete in show jumping in a ring, and ride a dressage test.
"Kids really like eventing," she said. "They might like the thrill of show jumping, but if they can't do the dressage, they're not going to place."
Wimbrough's daughter, Rachel Nystrum, 11, who rides and trains in Howard County, placed first in her division in June's regional show at the walk/trot pony introductory level. Rachel has been riding for six years and working on dressage for five years. She keeps her large pony, Caleb, at a Clarksville farm and trains there.
"I like it because it's relaxing," she said. "It's not as tense as jumping."
Caleb is a Belgian pony cross that was mistreated as a young animal. Part of his rehabilitation included dressage training. Now he and his young rider can do leg yields, shoulder-in and shoulder-out movements, bending and counter-bending, serpentines, figure 8s, and circles at a walk, trot and canter.
Rachel said she wants to continue dressage, and at her age she could have 60 or more years of competition; one dressage rider in the 1972 Olympics was 70. In fact, young and old riders sometimes compete against one another.
"It's a sport you can ride all the way," Speer said. "I know some riders in their 70s and 80s. It's a very enjoyable sport for horse and rider. It's a never-learning sport - you can never learn it all."
By the numbers
Dressage is divided into five skill levels:
Intro/training: Done at walk and trot gaits.
First: Same basic moves done at a canter gait.
Second: Adds "collection," in which the horse is asked to work with more of its weight being carried by the hind legs than the front legs.
Third: Horses perform "flying-lead changes," in which they change which leg is leading as they take a canter step, and walk, trot and canter with collected, medium and extended movements.
Fourth: Applies all elements.