Why Dressage IS Circus

A salute to performing artists in the rectangle and on stage

Dressage does not appear to accommodate freaks who prefer life outside prescribed social norms. Ninety degree angles, white pants, white leg wraps, white saddle pads, shadbellies…this is not the circus. But we are freaks and dressage—the arena, the discipline, the long days and short nights under the lights—is our circus. And it is time we talked about it, because I am well over the memes saying competence in piaffe equals a latte-swilling psycho bitch with a manicure and a collection of heels that would make Imelda Marcos blush.

Winning team, Challenge of the Americas 2019: Lauren Chumley, Rebecca Cowden, Allison Kavey, James Koford, Betsy van Dyke and Noel Williams. Choreographed by Tigger Montague (Susan J. Stickle)

Buckle up; this is not the anthem you are anticipating. Of course dressage riders clean stalls, throw hay bales and stack shavings. That means we work in barns; it is not why we are freaks. 

We are freaks because we appreciate the irony of perfection, we take the show on the road, we believe discipline and imagination can transcend the physical bounds of gravity and nature. We speak at least two languages—equine and human—and we write a new one with each horse, bringing a shared vocabulary into the heat of the spotlights. We are often exhausted, usually dirty, cold/wet/hot, generally several hours from “home,” financially unstable, not credit-worthy and obsessed about minutiae like the angle of half passes and giant questions such as why “submission” is a problematic word for the horses we love. We sometimes drink too much, we take medications prescribed for horses without discussing this with the veterinarians, we frequently do not have health insurance, and a lot of us have gastric ulcers exacerbated by anxiety, too much coffee and ibuprofen. We have ridden with broken bones not for the reason we tell you—we need to survive—but because we cannot survive if we are not riding. We are the only sport that dresses men and women identically and has inordinate numbers of openly gay professionals telling each other they need to be straighter—in their lines, not in bed. We dream of pirouettes and passage with so much volume that we win the war with gravity and piaffe so upright that it resembles nothing more than a tiger balancing on a ball on her hind legs. We wish the rectangle had more dimensions so we could leave the boundaries of the horizontal and vertical and warp time. We live for 6 minutes of perfection in sand, and though it is horrifically unacceptable to admit it, we miss our top hats.

Recent films have taken to celebrating the 20th century’s greatest freaks and the worlds that forged, sheltered, and revered them. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocket Man,” “The Greatest Showman” celebrate the potential of imagination and a fabulous wardrobe for transforming the world. But all of these films owe a debt to the musical that brought freaks out of the closet and onto the stage; I am, of course, talking about John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s heady musical and its film of the same name, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” 

Like Hedwig, we know the power of the wig, and like Elton, we appreciate the power of the glasses, and like every good performer, we get the magic of makeup. When we put on our show clothes and put our feet in our stirrups, we go to work—not as neurotic professionals but as artists bent on making something gorgeous and impermanent. Should you think dressage has little to do with the spike heeled, gender abundant, fake-fur wearing god/dess Hedwig, then you have never been “backstage” the night of the breast cancer fundraiser and quadrille competition that is the highlight of March in Wellington: The Challenge of the Americas. This is our Halloween. If you could be back in that tent barn—which rings every circus chord in our shared cultural memory—the night of the Challenge, you would see an enormous number of extremely accomplished riders wearing bizarre costumes, bathing in glitter, putting makeup on ourselves and our horses and obsessing over the details of choreography we have practiced for two months. Because dressage’s night at the circus must not include mistakes, and we are working to convince teams of six horses to move as one so that we can make the audience believe that we are not just trotting around a rectangle but instead sailing the high seas, back in the age of Aquarius, or—in fact—at the circus.

Circus has a mixed cultural meaning: it celebrates human oddity and ability, or it makes a show of difference. It testifies to the triumph of art over the mundane, limns the sawdust with glitter, makes hours of practice disappear in the perfection of a gorgeous routine. It reflects generations of tradition; dressage has in fact been a part of circus longer than it has been a competition sport. To be part of the circus is to pay homage to our original purpose: first we defended kings and queens, and then when they came home from the wars, we entertained them. Circus extends that to an audience that purchases tickets, rather than acting as patrons. Like the ballerinas who also left courts for dance companies, and sometimes ballet for modern and post-modern dance, dressage has the potential to entertain. And entertainers are freaks. I have had the great fortune of speaking with the dancers at the dance company called SLAM (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics), their award-winning choreographer Elizabeth Streb, and the outrageous musicians of the string quartet Ethel. They speak in one voice from their different disciplines about the addiction of lights and audience, the high that comes from ringing applause, and the gut-level joy of making people scream. The private arts we all practice for hours every day gains meaning when people watch it, react to it and shout for more. We are introverts who take immense amounts of time developing our ideas into movement, action and sound and then we go to extraordinary lengths to appear in front of audiences we hope to bring to their feet.

FEI officials and the organizers of this sport across the world spend ink and time worrying about our lack of audience appeal. But they are so far from the glitter, hoof paint and lights in the warm-up rings that I fear they might have lost touch. Have they looked at this art—historically or even in its current polite form? As Hedwig says, “We are camp, we are freaks, look at him, look at them!” 

We have no homes but outside our horses’ stalls, waiting for the lights to come on in the arenas so we can cue the music and enter at A. And freaks sell. So line up, get your popcorn, wedge yourself into the stands and stand up; we are coming.

For more information about Challenge of the Americas or to get tickets for this year’s performance on March 6, please check out the Facebook page or go to

To learn more about SLAM and Elizabeth Streb, visit

For more information about the rocking string quartet Ethel and to hear their outrageous album “Circus,” see

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 professor at CUNY John Jay College and CUNY Graduate Center.






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