In the early morning haze, the rider gently puts a big Thoroughbred through his paces: an intricate series of circles, serpentines and lateral movements that make the horse appear to dance. There is no sound but the steady breathing of the horse with each stride, the occasional squeak of leather tack and the rhythmic hoofbeats in the soft footing of the riding arena.
This is dressage--and to trainer Tom Betts, it is everything. He has devoted the better part of his 27 years to this classical form of riding that is an Olympic equestrian discipline.
Betts bases his operation, Top Hat Farm (a reference to dressage attire), at The Oaks, a stable in San Juan Capistrano. Betts takes dressage horses in training and boards them with hunter-jumper trainer Jimmy Kohn, who leases the facility from Joan Irvine Smith.
The Oaks, a hunter-jumper facility, is a curious setting for a dressage trainer. While the rest of the equestrians on the property are jumping fences and otherwise gearing up for the Oaks Grand Prix on June 3-5, Betts and his entourage are trotting about in circles and preparing for the 1988 dressage circuit that opens Sunday with the Orange County Dressage Show.
Unlike typical horse shows, dressage competitions require the horse and rider to enter the arena alone and execute a prescribed series of movements (similar to compulsory school figures in ice skating). Instead of being ranked against other competitors, each rider is judged against a standard and is scored from zero (not executed) to the elusive 10 (perfect) on each individual movement. The scores are tallied and reported as a percentage.
"You're always seeking that standard of perfection," Betts says. "It's really challenging. No matter how well your horse is schooling, there's always something to work toward."
Betts is working at various levels with the 22 horses he has in training. He is competing in Sunday's competition at training and first levels aboard General Confusion, a young Thoroughbred he is schooling in higher-level lateral movements such as the shoulder-in and haunches-in. He hopes to qualify the horse for the year-end championship finals at first level.
His string of mounts ranges all the way up to Gable, an international-level horse owned by Ally Hammond of Laguna Niguel. Betts, who has had the horse in training for two years, plans to begin entering him in competitions at the Prix St. Georges level later this season. He is also preparing his own horse, Deposition, to move up from fourth level (the highest national level) to the international ranks.
But this week, Betts' thoughts--and those of about 100 other riders who are entered in Sunday's show--have been on preparing for the specific tests he will be riding in the competition. Betts has entered some of the same classes as Dee Watt, who has three horses in training with him. How does he feel about riding against one of his students?
"I don't consider that we are competing against each other," he says. "This is dressage. We're both riding for a score. It doesn't matter how we are riding relative to each other; what matters is how we are riding relative to the standard."
Betts developed that attitude at the hand of British dressage master Robert Hall, with whom he trained on the East Coast for several years. "After one lesson with Mr. Hall, I was hooked. That's when I knew dressage was for me," says Betts, who went on to train for a year in England and become certified as a riding instructor.
Previously, Betts had been a three-day event rider, training with international competitor Denny Emerson in Vermont. "At that time I thought dressage was just warm-up for cross-country (jumping)," says Betts with a laugh. "But then I learned to love the detail (of dressage). There's nothing like it."
When his parents moved to California, Betts came to visit--and wound up relocating in Laguna Beach five years ago. He initially rode at another Orange County stable and moved his operation to The Oaks about three years ago.
"I'm very happy with my situation," says Betts, who works 10 to 12 hours a day at the stable and rarely takes a day off. "I want to be the best rider I can be, and I'd rather be here with the horses than anywhere else."
Dressage competitions, he says, give him an opportunity to assess the progress he has made with his horses' training--and to determine areas that need more work. On Sunday, he and the other competitors will receive input from noted international judges, among them Victor Hugo-Vidal of the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center in Huntington Beach.
The show at the Orange County Fairgrounds will include 150 rides, with competitors trailering in from as far as Bakersfield and San Diego. According to show manager Darrell Maffei of Orange Park Acres, the season-opening event has attracted a number of top riders, including Olympic candidate Carol Hoffman.
"With tests going on in two arenas all day, spectators have an opportunity to see back-to-back rides at every level--from training all the way to grand prix (the top international level)," he says. "This is a chance to learn what dressage is really all about."
For the Record: Due to a reporting error, the Feb. 13 horses column stated that Joan Irvine Smith has several trainers and riders working with her hunters and jumpers at The Oaks. Smith's sole trainer is Jimmy Kohn and her rider is Alain Vaillancourt.
Darlene Sordillo, author of "How to Ride a Winning Dressage Test," covers equestrian events for The Times. Her column appears every Saturday. Readers may send horse-related news to her at: Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa 92626.