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Beauty and Beasts : Dressage Enthusiasts Admit That Their Beautiful, Alluring Sport Is Not for Everyone


Let's face it: Dressage was not meant for the masses. At best, it is a horse practicing ballet, balancing a neatly trimmed rider, wrapped in black coat and tails, and crowned with a matching top hat.

It is the ceremonious ascent into the world of sports as precise as ice skating compulsories and as elegant as yachting.

But that's not the only reason it languishes in obscurity.

"It's an ongoing expense," said Helen Miller, who ran a show at Coto de Coza this weekend. "It's very easy to spend $20,000 a year on a horse if you are a competitor showing your horse and schooling your horse."

And that doesn't take into consideration the cost of the horse, which can run thousands of dollars. Exactly how much? No one will say. It's dressage etiquette to be discreet.

There simply is not enough money in the world to finance this sport for the masses .

Not only that. It takes years of daily training to develop enough muscle and skill in the horse to master Grand Prix or top International class movements. That is, if the horse has the potential.

Also, every day the horse sits idle marks the deterioration of its muscles, memory and sensitivity. A three-week vacation can destroy months of training.

Dressage is full-time leisure, but it's hardly leisurely.

This weekend at Coto de Caza, the elite of the equestrians flaunted their skills as part of the San Juan Capistrano Chapter Spring Show, one of three West Coast selection trials for the 1986 U.S. Equestrian Team (USET). The team, composed of the high scorers from selection trials across the nation, will compete at the World Championships of Dressage in Newmarket, Canada, next August.

Until then, it's work, work, work.

"It's the kind of thing that once you're committed to this life style, you just keep going, no matter what," said Kamila duPont, a Grand Prix rider ranked 13th in the nation by the USET.

How committed are these riders?

- Marie Meyers, this weekend's Grand Prix Special third-place finisher, moved to Virginia for seven months in 1982, leaving her husband and home in Hidden Hills to train with 1984 U.S. Olympic Team member Robert Dover, who won both the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special events at Coto de Caza. She had attended several of Dover's clinics, given once every three months in Southern California.

It was something she had to do.

"I have a husband who understood how important it was, which is the only way you can do this sport," she said. "You cannot do this sport if you do not have the support of family."

Dover has since moved to Calabasas.

Do others share this zeal for the sport?

"Everybody," Miller said. "That's just the norm."

- Pam Nelson, a Grand Prix rider, moved from Palos Verdes to Coalinga, a small farm town in Central California, last year to improve her access to both Southern and Northern California shows.

Besides, the horses like it better there.

"(Dressage is) a great communication between an animal and a human being, and I find that horses give very, very much," she said. "I mean, everything that they have, they give. And we're quite lucky, I think, to be associated with them."

- A year and a half ago, duPont, then ranked 7th by the USET, lost her right eye while lunging a horse. The horse let loose a swift kick from its hind legs that ended in three weeks of hospitalization, two operations and a glass eye for duPont. It didn't end her riding career, though.

"Unless I had been crippled, there's no reason for me to do anything else," she said. "I still love this."

DuPont continues to ride and teach at the Flintridge Riding Club in La Canada, where she is the dressage trainer.

All of this for a sport. But, the top riders will tell you, dressage simply transcends the definition of sport.

Said Dover: "It's a feeling of really artistically presenting myself and my horse in the same way if I were able to paint beautiful paintings and exhibit them. I would be so proud of that, and I go (into the ring) not just because of the competition of it."

And the horse, like a prized painting, is impossible to replace.

Just ask Hilda Gurney, a 1984 U.S. Olympic team member. She once turned down a German businessman's blank check offered for her prized horse, Keen.

There is just one explanation.

"Would you sell your children?" she said.

Now that's something the masses can understand.

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