The art of dressage aspires to perfect harmony between rider and horse. In these photographs, Susan Knight, artist and equestrian, and Trevor Mein, photographer, share their vision of this harmony in motion. As images of concord, they are also inescapably about the art of collaboration, about the subsuming of individual effort and identity in the production of something greater and more complex than could be achieved by any of the players alone.

Every horse has a repertoire of movements that vary depending on its mood and circumstances – galloping, trotting, cantering, leaping, rearing, jumping. Movements with a natural showiness and athletic prowess, the legacy of centuries of fighting and courting in the wild. Pumped chests and flexed necks to enhance size. Kicking, spinning and striking to keep attackers at bay. Over the centuries humans have harnessed – or perhaps we should say ‘saddled and bridled’– this energy for battle. Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder? Job asked.

Dressage, sometimes known as ‘horse gymnastics’, evolved from this military training. These movements were refined and given elegant names: the courbette (a jump with tucked up forelegs); the capriole (a jump from a raised position by kicking out with hind legs); the levade (standing position balanced on hind legs, fore legs drawn) and the piaffe (a composed, elevated trot without moving forward).

If dressage enhances the horse’s natural grace through stylized movement, then photography takes it one step further. Each sequence is broken down into component parts, like the individual frames of a film. The result is to reveal what our naked eyes can’t register because of the speed at which the event unfolds. We see a flow of actions: a ripple of muscle, a flash of tail, a blur of limbs. By arresting this motion the photograph gives us the fine details: the elegant serif of the horse’s tail as it flies back, the shower of hair casting shadows of individual strands on the horse’s hind-quarters.

But there is more to these photographs than arrested motion. Like all art, they take apart the familiar and make it strange. In this case, they break down the instant even further until the horse is abstracted into parts of a whole. All of which heightens the feeling of movement and draws our attention to the animal’s geometry, its curves, its planes and its lines. A taut shoulder. A flexing hind-quarter. An arched neck and mane sprayed like a fan. A head held high with nostrils flaring. Even the white letters of the alphabet marking the dressage stations in the arena (based on titles from the French court) are broken down; turned into a fragmented code.

The final piece of the puzzle is the rider. We glimpse only a forearm, a dark gloved hand or a leg, just enough to remind us of the human element, and of how none of this could happen if the rider’s body was not wed to the horse. Here we are reminded of the largely unseen element of dressage: the finely-tuned flow of bodily signals from equestrian to horse, where even the slightest shift in weight can telegraph a change of direction, position or movement. In effect, a third entity is created. A kind of centaur, the mythical beast the ancient Minoans witnessed when they first laid eyes on nomads mounted on horses. A vision of half-man, half-horse.

In this way, these photographs unsettle our sense of reality. Subtly dislodge it. Open a portal to other ways of seeing and appreciating the long history of humanity’s relationship with the horse: the marriage of the domestic and the wild.

 

Fiona Capp

2010