Dressage champion Michael Poulin sounds almost Zenlike when describing the sport, which involves training horses to make precision movements.

“You have to know nature, and you have to be able to respond to nature,” he said. “The instructor has to be able to interpret or read what the horse is saying with his movement.”

Poulin is head coach at The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, which is developing a reputation as one of the country’s top-tier training spots for dressage. The center hosted a two-day training symposium this week that drew dozens of top competitors, judges and enthusiasts from around the world.

Founded in 2002 as a breeding program for dressage horses, the equestrian center eventually shifted its focus to teaching the sport, thanks in large part to its director and lead trainer, Gwyneth McPherson.

McPherson, who as a teenager won multiple national and international dressage championships, began working at Pineland Farms in 2003 and convinced Poulin to join her in 2008.

The two decorated dressage competitors said they began to expand and improve the training program in the years that followed. Recently, they have accelerated that effort.

“Over the past three years, we have made a concerted effort to turn it into an elite program,” McPherson said.

By “elite,” she means world-class, not exclusive. One of the center’s goals is to be inclusive and make the notoriously expensive sport more accessible to serious students of more modest means. While owning a horse is helpful, she said, the equestrian center also has its own stable of dressage horses to work with.

“Really our main requirement is to have the right attitude,” McPherson said. “A humble willingness to learn.”

In a dressage competition, trainers ride their horses through a predetermined series of movements while a group of up to seven judges stationed around the rectangular arena evaluate and score from zero to 10 various movements, stops and transitions.

The judges then confer, compare numbers and tally up a final score.

In some events, one of the judges verbalizes his critiques and scores in real time during the performance, directing a constant stream of criticism at the rider, hopefully peppered with the occasional compliment.

It can be a nerve-racking experience, the trainers said.

“To be great, you have to be able to accept criticism without emotion,” Poulin said.

On Wednesday, one of the sport’s top judges, Stephen Clarke, called out his comments and scores at the Pineland Farms facility while trainer Jutta Lee, who lives in Vermont, rode her horse Glorious Feeling in a practice performance.

“Looks a little bit better … still, it needs to be more elastic,” Clarke said as Lee’s horse trotted across the arena. “Seven.”

Formalized movements in dressage include the pirouette (turning in place), piaffe (trotting in place), half-pass (diagonal, forward movement) and passage (a slow, exaggerated trot), in addition to more natural-looking walks, trots, canters and stops.

Poulin, who won a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics, said judges are looking at a variety of factors including balance, rhythm, relaxation, athleticism and symmetry of left and right movement.

Coaxing precise, energetic, animated movements out of a dressage horse requires years of training and experience, he said. For that reason, many of the sport’s top champions have been competing for decades.

“This is actually known as an older person’s sport,” Poulin said, adding that it is one of the few sports in which men and women compete against each other.

McPherson said the equestrian center’s dressage students range in age from 10 to almost 70. The center, at 1545 Intervale Road, offers group lessons for $35 an hour and one-on-one sessions for $50 to $150 an hour, depending on the trainer.

However, anyone can stop by and watch the horses and their trainers in action for free, she said.

“All the parts of this farm are open for people,” McPherson said.

Pineland Farms is a nonprofit enterprise founded by the Libra Foundation, a Maine-based charitable organization funded through an endowment from Elizabeth Noyce, former wife of Fairchild Semiconductor co-founder and microchip pioneer Robert Noyce.

McPherson and Poulin said they are hoping the equestrian center continues to attract more top competitors and talented up-and-comers as dressage, which originated in Europe, moves more into the U.S. mainstream.

“I’d say it’s been getting increasingly popular in this country,” Poulin said. “In Europe, it’s like baseball.”

Dressage trainer David Collins was one of about 100 who attended the symposium on Wednesday. Collins, who lives in upstate New York, said he was impressed by the equestrian center and definitely would come back in the future.

“I really have to say I’m privileged to be here today,” he said.

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