I have always found Paul Belasik's writings to be inspirational as well as informative, and so I looked forward eagerly to the publication of his latest book, Dressage for the 21st Century. I was not disappointed! This is a beautiful book, superbly illustrated, which draws on the author's experience, erudition and insight to provide a comprehensive overview of dressage as it could be in the 21st century.
I say 'as it could be', because, as Belasik makes clear in the Introduction, there is a considerable gulf between dressage as art and dressage as competition, with the latter often falling far short of what could and should be achieved. We are given an overview of the history of dressage (a subject with which far too few dressage riders are familiar) and the development of modern dressage competition. Readers with little interest in history should not skip this part - it gives an insight into just what is wrong with so much of the dressage we see today. Writing about recent developments in biomechanical analysis of dressage movements, Belasik says, 'The difficulty here is that analysis of bad models may not explain anything about a desirable model.' - a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree
The book follows a logical sequence of training, starting with breaking the young horse. It defines the physical objectives of training, as well as discussing the practical purpose of the school movements. In each case, Belasik describes not only what to do and how to do it, but why (as well as what not to do and why!): the reasoning behind each step is explained logically and with clarity. Belasik covers a number of subjects generally ignored or touched on only briefly in most dressage manuals. For example, he gives an excellent description of the bit's role in helping to balance the horse. He discusses in great detail some of the most basic principles of dressage, frequently glossed over elsewhere: riding the horse straight and forward, definitions of contact and impulsion, and the principles of lateral balance and inside bend (as opposed to simply telling readers what they should be doing). He also covers in-hand work and long-reining, two subjects much neglected in English language dressage literature.
Belasik courageously tackles the thorny problem of defining correct 'deep' work - a subject which troubles many dressage enthusiasts who are unhappy with much of what we see described as 'deep' work. This book should help to clarify their thoughts on the matter. He also departs from the norm of dressage literature in describing in detail the 'airs above the ground' - a subject which no true dressage enthusiast should remain ignorant of, yet which is usually relegated to the realm of 'historical curiosities'.
For me, once of the best chapters is that devoted to the rider's seat - a comprehensive analysis of the correct seat, together with detailed descriptions of what goes wrong, and why, when riders deviate from the classical seat.
Those readers who are not philosophically inclined may find Belasik's excursions into the realms of martial arts and Zen teachings irritating; I find them illuminating. In spite of his criticisms of some (not all) modern dressage, Belasik's overall tone is positive. He emphasises what can and should be achieved, if correct principles are followed. Above all he bids us remember that horses don't care about what we say, only about what we do. 'Horses don't care about your words: they care about and respond to your actions.'
This is a book which no true dressage enthusiast can afford to be without. It might benefit riders from other disciplines, too!