The dance behind dressage

After four years aboard her beloved Morgan horse, Norman, Krista Renfrew likens dressage to learning a new language, one spoken exclusively between horse and rider.

Dressage, known as the ballet of the horse world, is an English form of horseback training in which a rider commands their horse to walk, trot, canter and transition using very subtle cues.

It appears as if the rider is not moving, said Renfrew, director of special events at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Renfrew, who started riding horses at age five, chose to pursue ballet over horseback riding throughout her childhood but returned to the equestrian world four years ago.

She now trains with Norman and a private dressage instructor once a week and tries to visit Norman a couple times a week at the barn in Cottage Grove where he stays. Renfrew and Norman have competed in at least two dressage shows each of the past two years.

The pair competes in the introductory level of dressage but will soon advance to level one. With each show, they perform a standard routine that has been choreographed by professionals. Judges eye the interaction between horse and rider and score them based, in part, on their cooperation in working together.

In training, Renfrew and Norman are always striving to improve a certain transition or polish a particular nuance.

“The great thing about dressage is it’s a competitive sport, but you’re really competing against yourself,” Renfrew said.

Along with patience and repetition, the sport requires attentive listening by both rider and horse and a tightknit relationship between the two.

“It’s patience and being able to understand that you have to be able to get through the hard stuff to get to the good stuff,” Renfrew said.

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