The sport itself is demanding. To reach the echelons of Grand Prix (dressage tested at the highest level), power must combine effortlessly with lightness and precision, and the relationship between horse and rider come together for a six-minute performance in front of seven judges. The horses respond to invisible instructions from their riders as they glide through a pattern of seemingly impossible movements, each marked out of 10. These include the mesmerizing ‘passage’, with the horse almost suspended in the air between steps; the dramatic extended paces, which unleash their breathtaking power; and, most difficult of all, the ‘piaffe’, in which they trot on the spot.
World Equestrian Games, European Championships and Olympic Games aside, the most prestigious competition is the Dressage World Cup, with a prize pot of nearly €275,000 ($312,000), contested annually by 18 horse and rider pairs who qualify via leagues across three continents. Under the spotlights of winter’s glamorous indoor World Cup circuit (which culminates this April in Paris), audiences have watched dressage’s best, including defending champion Germany’s Isabell Werth, the US’s Laura Graves, Denmark’s girl-next-door star Cathrine Dufour, Sweden’s long-time hero Patrik Kittel and Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester, who won a historic team gold at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Just as medals are won on the tiniest fractions of percentage marks, the equipment features intricate detail. “Dressage comes down to appearance and aesthetics; crystals add to the image you present in the arena,” says Natasha Baker, one of Britain’s most decorated Paralympic dressage riders and a double silver medalist at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, held in Tryon, North Carolina. “It’s also a creative sport – especially in the freestyle to music competitions,” she adds. “But we are restricted in what we can wear: a dark jacket or tailcoat, white breeches and boots. Adding a little sparkle in the form of tasteful crystals means we can make an outfit our own while still adhering to tradition, especially when an item is bespoke or customizable.”
For the 450th anniversary of the Spanish riding School in Vienna in 2016, Swarovski made crimson and gold-edged saddle blankets adorned with 3,000 crystals, which are still used for special or festive occasions. Swarovski crystals are also now offered by an array of equestrian brands. “Kask and Samshield use breathtaking crystals on their helmets, while Otto Schumacher makes beautiful bridles and crystal browbands,” says Julia Hornig, the owner of Classic Dressage, a prominent UK equestrian retailer. “In the past year, we’ve seen several brands starting to add jewels to horse boots, too.”
It’s not just the elite equestrians using adornment. At competitions of all levels you’ll find bridles, spurs, bits, stirrups and saddles sparkling with crystals, from brands such as Samshield, Stübben, De Niro and Sprenger. As Hornig says, “It costs so much to keep a horse that every single day and ride has to be special.”
This story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of SALT magazine.
Image credits: Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images; Jürgen Hammerschmid; Rob Carr/Getty Images