My name is Allison Kavey and I am addicted to dressage.
Not just dressage in the privacy of my own arena, mind you. I practice because I depend on the discipline of this most compelling art to teach me more about who I might become in an instant where my mind, soul and physicality are matched with that of a horse. I practice because it is in my blood. I think about half pass angles, piaffe-passage transitions and the rhythm of extended trot when I should be thinking about research, the book that is overdue and my students.
Practice is who I am; it is not my addiction. I am addicted to the klieg lights in the weekend dark in Devon, the early morning sun just rising over the stadium at Global Dressage Festival, the barns where wrist bands and ID badges are required for admission. My parents should have fed me heroin; it would have been cheaper and perhaps a kinder death. Because the monkey on my back has fangs and talons and it will not let go.
The amazing thing about having a truly humiliatingly bad test in a highly public arena—after an exceptionally good warm-up, because who doesn’t love a surprise—is that it teaches you a great deal about why exactly you do this activity. I do it for the extremely rare gift of becoming one with an entirely different being, a 17-hand Dutch mare who believes she is a dragon. This dragon, or hippogriff to be more accurate, allowed me to bow before her in Holland and wait, neck bared, until she bowed too.
I do not enter large competitions because I enjoy watching judges’ faces twist and fall as the 75 percent we had going into the third movement goes into freefall because my hippogriff sometimes experiences anxiety when faced with collected work. I do it for the puzzle, because I am the one who chose the dragon—and she chose me. The dragon has baggage. But I must really want to help her carry it, at least until she is ready to put it down, because we have been handing it back and forth for two years now. Sometimes we manage to take an item or two out and leave it behind, and sometimes the baggage gets extremely heavy and she feels compelled to light things on fire to release some tension. I am not by nature a fire-setter, so I wear a flame-retardant shadbelly and attempt to control the chaos until she can return to doing dressage.
Which brings me back to this addiction…the dragon is more willing to leaving buildings standing when she is permitted to release tension in between high-collection movements and is not asked to perform an egregious series of movements such as zig-zag trot half pass to a half circle of passage to walk to piaffe to trot to extended walk to collected walk to piaffe. Given a moment to breathe (or perhaps extend the trot), she demonstrates consistent competence with flashes of brilliance. Without those moments of release, she resembles nothing more than a spider being subjected to the Cruciatus curse.
My need to be judged at this level brought us face to face with my inability to help her manage her anxiety, and so it is my responsibility to spend time learning how to release her tension in small ways so that we do not explode the next time we encounter the medium tour or the Grand Prix. Another answer is not to compete at all. I have done that, too. For many years, on different horses, I stayed home and practiced, driving myself nearly insane attempting to attain perfection.
Thank goodness QueBa, the Lusitano stallion whose extraordinary love for public performance and loudly adoring women with treats dragged me into the world of CDI Grand Prix and exhibition riding, helped me move past this phase, because it was not helping me ride well. It was making me crazy and too anxious to look anywhere but in the mirror, rather than trusting my feel and our relationship. Of course competition is about trying to do your best in public, assessing where you are in comparison to the standards of the test and other pairs, but it is also a test meant just for you and your horse—who are you to each other when the pressure is on? Can you create a bubble where your conversation with each other is louder than the din? There is no way to know that at home, and for me, it is an important thing to know. I am grateful to QueBa for more things than I can possibly say—he will always be the horse who made all things possible—but perhaps the greatest gift he gave me was that showing is actually fun and an integral part of the training process. We were the most tuned in to each other in the biggest venues, his heart beat with mine in a lot of fancy rectangles, and I will always remember coming out of our silence to screaming applause after our Grand Prix freestyle at the U.S. Dressage Finals in the Alltech Arena in Kentucky.
The dragon and I have achieved this silence a few times, and it is always magical. We have it within us to be in the center arena of the circus, poised on a wire hundreds of feet above the ground, looking only at each other and moving within the beat of our hearts.
When British cardiologist and researcher William Harvey wrote De Motu Cordis in 1628, the treatise that, for the first time detailed the way the chambers of the heart work to pump blood throughout the body and team up with the lungs to reoxygenate it, he was just pleased to have beaten everyone else to the finish line in solving one of the greatest physiological puzzles in the history of medicine. But I think of his magnum opus as a description of any perfect system, complete with the many things that go wrong. I see its title page in the moments after the judge’s bell rings, when I pick up the collected canter, pat the dragon on the neck and tell her “Let’s make them cry,” and find the silence between our heart beats.
The dragon’s heart weighs around eight pounds, mine merely one, but when an electrical impulse causes our ventricles to contract and deoxygenated blood is pushed out to the pulmonary artery to go from blue to red, we are one heart, one creature, heading to X. Many things happen after that in every dressage test, and some of them will go wrong, just as many things can go wrong in a cardiac cycle. It is truly miraculous that more things do not go wrong in every heart every day: If one valve fails to completely seal and allows blood to flow backward from the ventricle to the atrium, this results in an insufficient amount of blood being sent to the lungs. You will turn blue and eventually collapse due to lack of oxygenated blood to power your body. In the dressage arena, when the horse bleeds behind your leg, that is the equivalent of the valve failing. One movement gets behind the leg, power from back to front decreases, frame collapses, disaster.
The magic of the competition arena is keeping the heart beats moving. Over time, this becomes second nature. But with a new partner whose heart can be prone to pre-ventricular contractions, I am the pacemaker and I sometimes fail. We collapse. But one day, we will be one creature, one heart, and emerge from our silence to hear the applause.
Allison Kavey is a dressage rider and trainer who most enjoys “interesting” horses and bringing babies along from breaking through FEI. She is based at Rivendell Dressage in Millbrook, New York. She is also a regular participant in the quadrilles featured in the Challenge of the Americas, in which dressage flirts with circus to raise funds for breast cancer research, in Wellington, Florida. She is a historian of science and associate professor at CUNY John Jay College and CUNY Graduate Center.