With Olympics on tap, dressage moves into spotlight -- Gazette.Net







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This story was corrected at 10:33 a.m. July 24. An explanation follows the article.

Hooves criss-crossed as he moved sideways, his head facing forward regally.

Atop this equine dancer was Jaralyn Finn using her body masterfully and subtly to guide the horse as he trotted in perfect sync with the music playing in the arena.

Finn is a trainer and rider in dressage, a sport in which horse and rider go through a set of certain movements and are scored by judges.

The sport requires a fusion between rider and horse that is reliant on the slightest movements of the rider. Horse and rider are judged on a scale of one to 10 according to the horse’s movements.

“The goal is for it to seem like the rider isn’t even there,” Finn said. “It’s kind of like being a yoga instructor for the horse.”

The sport is practiced by more than 30,000 riders in the United States, according to Charlotte Brabant at the United States Dressage Federation, a national membership association dedicated to dressage.

With dressage events slated for the first two weeks in August at the upcoming London Olympics, excitement among riders has been ratcheting up.

“I love the Olympic years. It’s so amazing to watch,” Finn said. Finn will be going to London to see the dressage events.

Dressage virtuoso Robert Dover, a four-time Olympic bronze medalist, hailed from the Poolesville area for a time.

Dressage has been an Olympic sport since the 1912 Stockholm games.

At Finn’s Shepherd’s Run Farm, in Poolesville where she practices, rides and teaches some of her lessons, dressage ribbons hang on the walls of the tack room in the barn next to photos of horses in perfect formation.

“[Finn] was the first instructor that was able to help me as a rider in ways I could understand and follow,” said Cindy Hutter-Cavell, one of Finn’s students, “She’s also very talented as a rider of all horses.”

Finn recently broke into the Grand Prix level of dressage, which is the level at which Olympic riders compete.

Last year she won a gold medal from USDF for her lifetime scores in Grand Prix competition.

Dressage began as military training for horses; it literally means “training” in French.

Before the 1950s dressage competitors were only members of the U.S. Cavalry. Only after the cavalry was disbanded did civilians get a chance to compete in the sport, according to the USDF. Still, the Dutch have won every gold medal in the event since 2000 according to the Olympic database. The French and Germans are also frequent winners.

Finn has been riding horses since she was an 8-year-old living just outside of Boston.

“My mom would drop me off and think, ‘Hey, free day care,’” Finn said with a laugh.

In college she rode four years at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and then briefly worked as a lobbyist.

Her big break came in 2000 when she helped form SmartPak Equine, a personalized horse vitamin packaging company. The company now sells all kinds of equine equipment.

From there she went on to train full time in 2006; she currently teaches four or five lessons a day and boards a couple of horses on her farm.

Jaclyn Sicoli, who owns Peace of Mind Dressage, in Walkersville, said she rode horses in other categories growing up, but switched to dressage after college because she wanted a different challenge.

“Dressage has a lot of theory behind it,” she said. “It takes a number of years to train a horse up. For an academically-minded person it takes a lot of discipline.”

Most horses begin training at the age of three and learn the basics of the sport for about a year before moving onto more advanced maneuvers, she said. At age six, the horses can begin to learn even more advanced moves, but only about half progress beyond that point, Sicoli said.

The basic principles of the sport are to teach the horse relaxation and suppleness in movement, she said, adding that, while it may look unusual, none of the dressage movements are unnatural for horses.

Although the sport requires a long period of intense level of training, the rewards make the hard work worth it, Sicoli said.

“It takes a really long time, but it really is breathtaking,” she said.


tlaino@gazette.netDressage was not an Olympic sport at the conception of the modern games. It started in 1912, not 1896.