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Bellefonte Native Talks About the Basics of Equine Discipline

by on August 19, 2012 8:43 AM

To many, the word “dressage” brings to mind elegantly-clad millionaires swilling Dom Perignon while assessing equines bought and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. One local dressage trainer hopes to dispel this myth.

Bellefonte native Maribeth Wells of Wellshire Farm describes her dressage clients as “average adult amateurs working full-time who do without in order to provide for their horse.” Like Wells, her clients have a passion for good horsemanship and love for the animal.

Dressage consists of maneuvers derived from a horse’s natural movements. In a brief overview, a young horse will learn to move forward, stepping evenly into both reins. He then learns to “supple,” moving laterally in simple arena figures like circles and figure eights.

Eventually, the horse begins bending his body, transitioning between gaits including the walk, trot, halt and canter. Lateral movements lead to turns on the foreleg and haunches. Classic lateral exercises help the horse to learn balance. After mastering basic movements, the horse may go on to master combinations of gaits, forward and sideways steps simultaneously and moving on diagonals. Ultimately, should horse, rider, trainer and owner choose, the horse may continue to perform “Grand Prix” movements — the pirouettes, passage and piaffes seen in the Olympics. All training, Wells emphasizes, should result in strong, healthy, balanced movement.

Initially developed in ancient Greece, dressage, according to Wells, “was a new form of horsemanship based on kindness and preserving the spirit of the horse.”

During a time when everyone relied on horses for transportation, keeping the animals healthy was as important as vehicle maintenance is today. Dressage helped develop robust animals with the stamina needed on the battlefield. It also created the natural beauty featured in entertainment for the nobility.

Wells wants viewers to realize that, when watching a dressage program, the horse should get all the focus. The riders, she said, “should show off the natural physical and spiritual beauty of the horse.”

In addition to appreciating the aesthetic appeal, she finds dressage the perfect tool for nearly any equine discipline. Wellshire Farm is a member of the U.S. Dressage Federation as well as the Keystone Dressage and Combined Training Association. Its dressage students include trail riders, endurance competitors, reiners, hunters and jumpers. Its true purpose, she maintains, “is to help every horse in every discipline.” The image of wealthy men in top hats and tailcoats sipping champagne, Wells stresses “is only a tiny fraction” of the world of dressage. Any horse of any age or background can benefit from the techniques she uses.

“These classical exercises preserve the special things that draw us to the horse, the things that make the horse proud and majestic,” Wells said.

At the Olympic Games, the world’s most elite riders on the world’s most expensive horses entered the world’s most visible arena, their routines drawing on methods based on the equine’s natural aptitude for grace, athleticism and strength. Maribeth Wells hopes that people recognize dressage for its true origins and its true goals — to focus on the natural beauty, agility and majesty of the horse.

Ann is an Arts and Entertainment correspondent for the Gazette.
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