I have been watching the Olympic Games via TikTok.
This is not out of despair at being unable to log into my 7plus account, but because TikTok offers me something that professional sporting coverage does not: comprehensive coverage of the dressage that actually explains what’s going on.
This is extremely helpful because I, like most people, do not properly understand dressage. There is a draft of this column that puffed up my own understanding of the sport, but let’s be real. One blue ribbon at a low-level pony club event at Euroa showgrounds in 2004, where the judge’s main comment was “has potential”, does not an expert make.
Watching grand prix dressage I can identify all of the movements and tell you how to ride maybe a third of them, although I’m not sure I’d have the core strength in my 30s to do anything more than a sitting trot.
Some tests, like Jessica von Bredow-Werndl’s spectacular effort on Dalera, make it easy on spectators – even a layperson can see why they are favourites for the individual gold medal.
But I couldn’t tell you why the German rider Isabell Werth scored 10s for her piaffe on the impossibly leggy Bella Rose 2, while other – to me more classically correct – attempts scored less.
Sadly, the official commentary is little help. The commentators either know even less than me or are proper horse industry veterans, and therefore incomprehensible.
Mainstream social media is also not helpful. The aim of dressage is to present horse and rider as a harmonious pair: it should look as though the rider is doing nothing. It is incredibly difficult and takes thousands of hours of training and exceptional fitness for the rider to appear to be doing nothing during a grand prix test. Most riders can’t even keep their lower leg still in the canter. But that doesn’t stop Dave, 48, from Brisbane, who once went on one trail ride, from taking to the comments to say, “How is this a sport?” and “The horse does all the work.”
Enter TikTok. Equestrian TikTok is a large and diverse community – professional riders and trainers appear alongside kids who are just learning and teenagers who think they’ve learned it all, and the comment sections of every video are a minefield of “TikTok trainers”.
Within all the chaos are a few gems, professional trainers who are generous with their knowledge and time, pro grooms who provide videos on horse care, and vibrant debates about ethics and standards in equestrian sports.
One of my favourite accounts is called blondedressage. It’s run by a dressage nerd called Saara, who posts videos critiquing grand prix judging, scoring challenges and discussions of top riders. For the past week she has been focused on the Olympics.
It has been an education, helped by the fact that her Finnish accent makes me feel as though I’m attending an expensive dressage clinic.
Watching her videos feels like watching the tests with a knowledgeable horsey friend, a feeling I haven’t had since watching VHS tapes of the World Equestrian Games in my instructor’s lounge room in high school.
So much of dressage is subjective. Different judges can offer wildly different marks; fashion and names matter a great deal, and a horse with flashy movement will always score higher than a less spectacular horse who produces a more correct and accurate test.
It’s a sport that requires discussion. Perfection is unattainable so we are left with endless debate: over different training methods, different styles of horse, quiet riders v stronger riders, shortcuts that constitute abuse, shortcuts that just make for bad riding, musculature, feeding regimes, calming supplements, turnout schedules – everything. The endless debates are as much a core part of dressage to me as the German training scale. And we debate that too.
It is also a sport with frequent disappointments, because horses are big animals with a tendency to think everything will eat them. Horsetok came together in sympathy for a Finnish rider, Henri Ruoste, whose horse Kontestro decided a photographer posed a mortal threat, and the Australian Kelly Layne, whose 12-year-old gelding, Samhitas, reared during the piaffe, landing her at the bottom of the ladder with a final score of 58.35. Both were praised for their calm, soft response to their horses’ freakouts – a kind reaction outweighs a bad test in TikTok’s eyes.
All of this can be confusing even when you know the rules. One of my favourite interactions of the Games so far came in the comment section of a video posted on the 7Olympics TikTok account of Severo Jurado Lopez , whose test on Fendi T scored 68.370. The comment asked, “Is 68% good?” The reply was, “It depends.”
Would 68% be good for Isabell Werth, or the British rider Charlotte Dujardin, who scored 80.96% with her beautiful young horse Gio? No. Would it be good for a new pairing, or a top pairing having an off day, or a Guardian journalist who was disqualified from her last test because her horse panicked and jumped the barrier? Yes.
Speaking of Gio: TikTok discovered that the rhythm of the chestnut’s piaffe perfectly matches a popular sound usually layered over chunky cats or white women badly twerking; while his one-time changes match Cardi B’s Up.