On June 15, “The Rail” horse-racing blogger Leslie Knauf described how two sports perhaps perceived far apart on the equestrian spectrum—racing and dressage—have in fact long been interwoven.
“The highly contained nature of dressage,” Knauf writes, “with its collection and extension of the horse’s three gaits — walk, trot and canter — within a relatively small arena would appear to be the antithesis of racing — galloping at top speed around a vast oval — but its fundamental principles of rhythm, looseness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection can provide a solid foundation for all forms of equestrian sports, including racing, where it already has had Triple Crown implications.”
This was news to me! Sure, I know the stories of ex-racehorses that have gone on to successful dressage careers, even at the highest levels (of course most notably Hilda Gurney’s Olympic mount Keen). But has dressage actually been used to prepare a Thoroughbred for competition on the track?
Knauf goes on to explain: “More than 35 years ago, the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew was a gangly, unraced 2-year-old with significant coordination and conformational issues. Paula Turner, then the wife of Seattle Slew’s trainer Billy Turner, reportedly used her previous training and competitive experience in dressage and three-day eventing to help Seattle Slew develop the impulsion and self-carriage the young colt needed to overcome his physical challenges as he embarked on his career as a racehorse.”
It would appear the 1970s were the heyday for this dressage-racing integration! And with the winning examples provided, it certainly appears to have been a formula that worked.
I do think that there is today more awareness regarding the need for retraining those Thoroughbreds that do not “make it” as racehorses for one reason or another. Programs such as New Vocations Racehorse Adoption, directed by TSB author Anna Ford, go to great lengths to prepare these horses for the new homes and new “jobs” that can secure them a long and healthy future. (Anna Ford’s book BEYOND THE TRACK is a wonderful resource for those considering adoption of an off-the-track Thoroughbred.)
However, it would seem that there are also great possibilities for racing trainers to more actively incorporate dressage principles as they prepare young stock for the track. This kind of “cross-training” is surely not so farfetched as it seems.
Perhaps Leslie Knauf’s point, made toward the end of her New York Times’ piece, should be more boldly stated, and yes, repeated: “…the paradigm for racehorse training already is starting to shift toward incorporating fundamentals of other competitive horse sports, including dressage, as part of their racing training, which promises the potential for an even brighter future for racing’s most important players. The odds are heavily in favor of all involved — especially the horses — coming out as winners.”
—Rebecca Didier, Senior Editor