Friday, July 10, 2009

Dressage

My father was a soldier, indeed the child of a soldier. He began his military career at age 14 by entering Hungary’s foremost military academy, known as Ludovika. The year was 1921, thus he just barely missed being part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’s military elite by three years. That union fell apart in 1918. But what are three years in a tradition-bound institution like the military? Father’s education began with learning to speak German because, at Ludovika then, and for quite a while after, the old habits lingered and the ghost of Austria took a while to fade away.

He remained a military person in fact for some 25 years—until Patton’s army released him from the P.O.W. camp where World War II had ended for him. He was then a man of 39, an ex-major, and an ex-professor of the institute where his career had begun, the Ludovika Akademia, as Hungarians render it. In the interim he had commanded a horse-artillery company, later a battalion, had fought against the Russian army, and in the process, not very far from Lodz, in Poland, where Brigitte grew up as part of a German family, he lost his left arm in a mine explosion. A military man in fact for a quarter of a century, but a military man in spirit for as long as he lived. He closed his eyes in 1981 in Kansas City.

But Father’s passion and life-long preoccupation was dressage, the equestrian sport. Here too his place and time of birth had a bearing—the rest was talent and inclination—because Austria then, and indeed since 1565, has been the home of the Spanish Riding School. It is still there and, so all agree, the last and perhaps final bastion of l’haute école where training methods as they were practiced in the eighteenth century still remain largely unchanged. With this part of the culture, and, in those days, equestrian sports being largely practiced by the military, Father became interested in the sport and advanced in it rapidly enough so that, before the war changed everything, he had risen to a national stature in the sport, once won a bronze in a national competition, and hoped soon to be ready for the next Olympics. I was born as the 1936 Olympics were being held in Berlin. Father anticipated participating, cross-your fingers, in the 1940 event—but it never took place. It was to have been held in Tokyo, alas. By then we were living in another world.

Dressage is the art of training pure-blooded horses a variety of intricate gates and leaps you do not see horses performing in the wild. It is a sport in which horse-and-human become a single performer—truly an art where, despite an endless preoccupation with technique, the ultimate performance is one of feel and interaction between two living entities, and the beauty of the thing is also perceived—and truly appreciated only—by the trained and prepared mind.

Horses and equitation, not surprisingly, were part of my childhood. I heard words like collection, pesade, levade, courbette, and mezair almost daily. Collection refers to an intensified form during all standard gaits; the other words refer to so-called school-jumps and airs above the ground. What I mostly saw, however, when I watched my father train his or others’ horses, was the animal, unsaddled, making endless circles around my father, standing at the center of the circle, and communicating with the animal by gestures, sounds—and sometimes it seemed only by facial expressions—re-teaching the gifted horse how to do the basics right—the walk, the trot, the canter—and, above all, how to come to a stop in a state of perfect collection.

It should not surprise you, really, that our very first acquisition in America, something like a month after our arrival, was a horse. Her name was Lady, a nice Palomino mare. To reach her we had to catch two bus lines, both to their terminal points. After that a third bus, I think it was Greyhound, got us far enough out into the country to reach Lady in her sylvan haunts. And I, in my middle teens, had the honors of carrying the saddle on each and every bus, and then lug it further on the long walk to the far off farm where Lady lived. I learned in this process that I can overcome all embarrassment and stare it right down—and if pretty girls were on the bus I also learned the power of a wink to conquer all.

My father rode horses and trained people in horsemanship right up to the point where, suddenly, he changed from a slender, active, hardy man, into his seventies by then, by the onset of stumbling, loss of balance, into an invalid. He was diagnosed with cancer. It took him off rapidly. If there is dressage in heaven, I’ll know where to go to see my father. I expect to find him there, patient, inscrutable, making strange noises with his mouth, waving an arm, snapping a finger, as some young Pegasus learns his piaffe.
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The picture, courtesy of Wikipedia, depicts the croupade. Other pictures, showing airs, are available at that site here. Those inclined to go deeper, herewith the web page of the United States Dressage Federation and here the web page of the Spanish Riding School; you can select English as a language there.

4 comments:

  1. This brings tears. And how strange you should write this just yesterday when I spoke of Grandpa for the first time in years!

    Next week-end, I am going to visit my friend Isabelle in Candes Saint-Martin - a village in Touraine - and we were discussing which train I should taketo get there. The nearest towns to Candes with train stations are Port Boulet and Saumur... For political reasons - SAVE THE TRAIN STATION!! and such other militant battle cries - Isabelle said I should come via Port Boulet but she said Saumur was the bigger station and I'd have more choices. I said "My grandfather, the horseman, would have had me choose Saumur and, in fact, in all my years in France I've never seen the town." Isabelle assured me she would take me there during my visit. So, next week-end as I stroll in Saumur - and, if I know Isabelle, drink some of the town's good wine - I'll be thinking all the more of Grandpa and this post will help me imagine him better. I'll make not a post but a toast! And if what I believe of heaven is true, something I think I read in a Jean-Paul Sartre play, believe it or not, then Grandpa will hear me thinking of him and see Saumur through my eyes!

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  2. Lovely! You perceived the feelings I had as I wrote this. The idea for the post occurred to me at the tail end of a walk a part of which I'd spent sitting in contemplation at the little cemetery next to St. Paul's church on Jefferson, a setting in which, in a way, one communes with the ancestors.

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  3. thank you so much for your post. I have had the unique opportunity to train with a German master (Herr von Neindorff) before he passed away just a few years ago, and for a short time at the original Lipizzan stud farm in Kobilarna Lipica, in (what is now) Slovenia. There are too few of the masters left, and too few of the stories (however abridged) of their lives. I did not know of your father, but I am humbled to be able to read your memory of him. Thank you. If you are interested, my website is http://www.iride.at

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  4. Mary:

    Delighted that you came across this posting. I visited your website much pleased that this high art continues to be taught by highly skilled and dedicated persons like you who've learned from the masters and are the masters/mistresses of the current generation. I wish you much luck and will follow events by way of your site.

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