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Intimate Connections – Unconventional Riding in the High Desert

By Anna I. Sochocky

Cowboy boots, wide-brimmed hats, and silver conch-studded belts may be a famous uniform for many riders in the northern New Mexico high desert, but look a little closer, and a disparate attire – complete with top hat and tails – dots the mountainous landscape. Indeed, a faithful and robust community of riders sustains a competing course of equine study, the study of classical dressage.

Classical dressage mimics the horse's natural abilities and movements in the wild, as when a stallion raises its neck and inflates its carriage to display its authority to other horses in the herd. Emphasizing precision of movement, suppleness and athleticism, and seamless communication between horse and rider, the roots of dressage date back to the 15th-century Greek warrior and philosopher Xenophon, who urged kindness and reward when training horses for battle. The advancement of dressage from military purposes to artistic pursuits began as early as the Renaissance when riding came to be viewed as a sophisticated endeavor. Both horse and rider refining the nuances of their forms.

Although the population of Santa Fe does not compare in size to cities in Florida, California, and New York, where many national trainers are based, the area is saturated with dressage riders equal in skill to the standards set in other parts country. The desire to perfect their own craft and proficiency has motivated Santa Fe’s dressage riders and instructors to build a kinship of interest strong enough to entice top clinicians to offer clinics for students, competitors, and amateurs alike. The City Different a magnet for international experts. Herwig Radnetter, once a senior rider with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, leads clinics in Santa Fe three or four times a year, drawn to both the distinction of the facilities available and the community's excellence's riders.

As a teenager, Herwig Radnetter found dressage uninspiring, preferring instead the mania of jumping to the sport's quiet exactitude that would later define his thirty-five-year-long riding career. But when he saw someone from the Spanish Riding School in the saddle, he recognized the intricacy and elegance of a rider's connection with a horse engender. Radnetter first came to Santa Fe five years ago at the invitation of Karen Brushed, owner of Pinon Farms, and has developed a steady cadre of serious riders coming to learn. “If you look at this group of riders and horses I teach, the standards are very, very high,” remarked Radnetter during this summer’s visit to Santa Fe. “The people I teach are usually in the advanced level of dressage. I really like that a group is a steady group that comes to all the clinics. You see the progress of both the horses and the riders."

But why is the sport so attractive in New Mexico?

Trainer and competitive rider Emily Keene may have an answer.

"Horses are popular here because our world is so disconnected from the natural world, and they are a way of getting connected to that natural world. Dressage specifically is popular because it is the most intimate sport. The sport is infinitely difficult, intimately fascinating, and the connection with the horse is so subtle. It is reflective for both the rider and the horse."

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