Book Review: “Dressage for No Country” by Paul Belasik

“I’d consider it almost as much a guide to life as a book about dressage.” Noelle Maxwell offers a review on Paul Belasik’s “Dressage for No Country.”

Paul Belasik’s “Dressage For No Country” is an essential read for anyone interested in dressage. This book is a rare treat, covering everything from history to horsemanship with a philosophical and autobiographical twist as it guides readers through Belasik’s own dressage journey.

Each chapter covers a single decade of Belasik’s career, starting in the 1970s and ending in the 1990s. Breaking chapters into decades felt arbitrary to me – the chapters covered as much or more about the different dressage schools or systems in countries such as Germany, Portugal and Austria as they did about the specific decade in which they’re set. The final two chapters revolve around topics like mindfulness, good teaching and where Belasik believes dressage is going.

Belasik excels at pointing out the positive and negative traits of training systems, coaching and more. He pulls no punches in his criticism – the most striking example being this quote: “When a country sends a rider to the Olympics six times and, unlike Michael Phelps, that rider has no chance of a gold medal, you are not witnessing a testament to one person’s achievements, you are witnessing a very poor program of national development.”

This is a fast, accessible, thoroughly engrossing read, clocking in at 118 pages excluding the recommended reading list and index. It’s also the only horse-related book I’ve seen referencing Zen advice and Basketball Hall of Famer John Wooden – that aside, there are some great quote-worthy pieces of advice that apply to so much more than dressage.

My top quotes are:

  • “Maintaining balance is a process of constantly losing balance and finding a new one.”
  • “The best of anything are not sustained by prizes; they are sustained by the consuming drive to get better.”
  • “If you’re not enjoying what you are doing, you might want to rethink why you are doing it.”
  • “A master is someone who evolves, who knows about randomicity, who understands luck, who shies away from judgment – someone who can adapt. Someone who keeps on living; someone who never stops trying to improve.”

The best piece of advice is found late in the book, on page 105: “Remember that small changes improve performance. You will need full attention to become aware of them; this is where mindfulness becomes so important. Monitor yourself, spot mistakes. When watching video of yourself riding, try to learn to be fair. Once in a while, compare it to the year before. If you have been training correctly, you will see big differences. Learn to know for yourself whether or not you have improved.”

“Dressage For No Country” in short, is a rare, topic-transcending book. It’s about dressage, but it covers teaching styles, history, it touches on breeding and conformation and examines training systems and objectivity in judging, to the point that the autobiographical aspect seems almost an afterthought. I’d consider it almost as much a guide to life as a book about dressage.

Belasik’s appreciation and passion for classical dressage and his belief that dressage is for everyone is made abundantly clear. I also liked his point that “talent” comes down to practice, and he takes a deep dive into the concept of deliberate practice and the 10,000 hours rule. While this is an accessible read, it’s by no means dumbed down – there’s a lot to take in and that’s a good thing. It’s a book I can see myself coming back to over the years and making a new discovery with each read through. This book is a must-have for anyone, even those who don’t primarily ride dressage. Everyone can learn something reading this.