What’s in a name? Misconceptions abound with ‘dressage’

Inka Spatafora of Loma goes over a dressage test with one of her students, Jim Farmer, during the October Fall Harvest Show for the Grand Valley Dressage Society.

Inka Spatafora warms up a horse at the Mesa County Fairgrounds prior to competing at last month’s Fall Harvest Show.

Inka Spatafora wants to coin a new term for “dressage.”

The French word that rhymes with “massage” gives too many people the wrong impression about the classical form of horse training Spatafora has been involved with since she was a child in Germany.

“This type of training goes back to war horses and the military,” she said. “Those horses had to be supple. They had to leg yield.”

They also had to be obedient and immediately responsive to a rider’s commands, without fighting or bracing against the rider, she explained.

But that type of sensible, no-nonsense training has given way to a view of dressage as artistic, prettified horse dancing for many.

“Unfortunately, what we see in the big dressage world so much today is more flashy horses with really big movements,” she said.

Many people reach the conclusion that they need expensive, showy horses to participate.

The reality is, “dressage can help any breed in any discipline because it works on correct riding and development of the horse’s muscles,” Spatafora said.

“Dressage is a true rider-horse connection that applies aids to perform specific gymnastic exercies.”

Balance, lightness of the horse and rider, a correct seat, suppleness for the horse and a lack of tension are all keys in classical dressage, the type she teaches.

Spatafora is completing a term as president of the Grand Valley Dressage Society, the local nonprofit group that puts on dressage shows at the Mesa County Fairgrounds each spring, summer and fall, hosts educational meetings about equine issues and promotes the technique and sport of dressage.

Spatafora and Deb Crooks, who also serves on the board of Grand Valley Dressage Society and is a longtime member of the group, are among the pre-eminent dressage trainers and riders in Mesa County.

Spatafora began working with horses when she was 5, starting with vaulting as many European riders do.

She didn’t begin riding with a saddle and bridle until two years later, and she continued competing in vaulting for a long time after that.

Even now she starts her beginning riding students with basic vaulting exercises, using a surcingle and bareback pad.

It helps the novice develop a better feel for the horse at different gaits, she said. And the riders don’t learn to rely on stirrup and reins for balance.

Spatafora worked and trained at a barn in a region that regularly attracted some of the best riders in Germany, and she got to meet and train with many of them.

They included jumpers and eventers, not just dressage riders.

When she was 20, Spatafora left Germany and moved to Californa, where she hoped to ride and train at large equine facilities. She found it difficult because of competition from so many riders.

She did meet her husband, John Spatafora, in California, however. They married and soon decided they didn’t want to raise a family in Southern California.

John, a chiropractor, began looking for jobs in other, more acceptable areas. He found a position as an associate at a clinic in Grand Junction, and the Spataforas moved to the Grand Valley in 1993.

Four years later, they opened their own chiropractic practice, with Inka Spatafora doing much of the bookwork and related tasks.

During their first years here, she put aside her horse interests to concentrate on the business and raising the couple’s two young sons. One is now a student at Colorado Mesa University, while the other attends Fruita High School.

In the late 1990s, Spatafoa began teaching dressage at the Redlands Equestrian Center. She joined the Grand Valley Dressage Society in 2000.

A few years after that, she and John bought their own small farm near Loma, where she keeps three of her own horses, boards horses she is training for others and gives riding lessons.

About four years ago, she also began working on dressage with members of the Grand Valley Pony Club, helping youngsters in club to understand the importance of dressage for jumping and eventing.

She also travels regularly to Moab, Utah, giving dressage lessons and training horses there. Spatafora also attracts riders and horses from outside Mesa County.

Husband John’s chiropractic experience has influenced her horse training, Spatafora said, helping her to understand horses’ spines and muscles.

“It also helped me understand how I can block the horse’s movement in a bad way.”

She frequently works with horses that have movement or injury issues, often because they received improper training and developed their muscles poorly.

She utilizes John’s chiropractic and acupunture skills, as well as the assistance of local horse therapist Andrea Datz to correct some of the physical problems in horses she trains.

And, through all this, she continues to search for a better word to describe the multi-faceted training technique we know as dressage.

“I haven’t come up with the right term yet,” she says, with a quick smile.


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