What is the fastest growing sport in the world? If you answered soccer, you would have been incorrect. Ditto for basketball, rugby, cricket, wrestling, ice hockey, baseball, and football. Here’s a clue: It is one of the three equestrian events at the Summer Olympics. The answer: dressage. Never heard of it? Emanating from the French language, the word dressage translates to “training” in English. But training is only one part of dressage. Dressage is a sport that is similar to ballet, with the rider and the horse working together, showing off the horse’s training, athletic ability, obedience and balance in performing masterful maneuvers, such as a pirouette.
Dressage dates back to ancient Greece. Until World War I, Europe’s most powerful militaries relied on highly trained horses and riders to form the backbone of the cavalry. A strong cavalry was similar to superior materiel, and armies allocated vast resources to their horses and riders. Numerically inferior forces equipped with expert horses and riders could overwhelm a larger army of foot soldiers. New technology has rendered troops and horseback obsolete, but the art of expert riders lives on. Today, the sport of dressage enjoys particular popularity in Europe, specifically Germany, Denmark, England, Holland and Sweden.
In America, dressage is quickly gaining riders and fans. A pioneer in the U.S. is Colombian-born dentist Dr. Cesar Parra. Parra has been riding most of his life. While many teenagers learn to drive a car at 16 years of age, Parra’s grandfather gave him a thoroughbred. After having left his dentistry practices in the Andean city of Tolima and in Boston, Parra now concentrates on dressage. To help finance his team, Parra maintains facilities in New Jersey and Florida where he and his team take care of and train other people’s horses. As a businessman, his primary challenges are to keep his clients (horses and humans alike) happy, providing a superior customer service, and keeping the horses healthy. Not only does he employ veterinarians, he also hires riders, groomers and other experts. Present employees come from Germany, Sweden, Holland, Japan, Israel, Argentina, Colombia and the U.S. Many employees are college graduates. In the U.S. a few colleges, such as Centenary College in New Jersey and Stephens College in Missouri, have equestrian programs. The top programs, though, according to Parra, are in Germany at the world-renowned equestrian academies in Cologne and Warendorf. In Germany, the first level of professional rider is called a “bereiter.” But after 3 to 4 more years of training, the student becomes a Master Rider. An accomplished rider can make about $35,000-40,000 per year, but the big money is in sales and in the training of horses.
Parra and members of his team compete at different locations around the world, and assistant coaches, groomers, caretakers, babysitters and others must also travel. The team’s horse travels with a passport and documentation with proof of vaccinations. A staff member provides comfort for the horses, brushes them twice daily, and rides with them every day. Tendons have to be bound for protection, and the protection is removed during the show. Parra stresses that a winning team may not have the most talented horse and rider, but that a well-organized team can make all the difference. Even the most detail-oriented team can encounter challenges. For example, on the day of the actual competition, the trainer might notice that the horse is in a dour mood or is having an off day (as can occur with any athlete). The trainer deals with the problem by comforting the horse.
In dressage, a rider’s attire is traditional. It even looks like it’s from a previous century, from a different continent, and from a very high social class (like the medieval fox hunts). But each piece of uniform, saddlery, and equipment has its specific use. Similar to the martial arts, riders are classified, and this determines a few articles of clothing. In lower-level competitions, riders wear a jacket. At the upper level, a rider’s attire includes top hat and tails.
Parra works with many breeds of horses, but geldings are easiest to ride. He buys 3-year-old horses and trains them for 5 to 6 years. By then, he knows if he has a champion-caliber horse. He also sometimes sells horses that he raises to loving families.
At the next Summer Olympics, watch for the equestrian events. Who knows? Perhaps representing the U.S. team will be Dr. Cesar Parra! #
Adam Sugerman is co-publisher of Education Update and publisher of his own imprint, Palmiche Press.