Dressage is the ultimate expression of partnership, training and poise.
Defined as teaching a horse to be supple, balanced and responsive. Horses and riders are trained in dressage to develop a horse’s flexibility, responsiveness to subtle aids and overall balance – making the horse stronger, obedient and more enjoyable to ride.
Two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks considered a horse’s ability to move quickly from side to side, burst into a gallop or instantaneously change direction vital skills in the art of war.
Xenophon, a Greek military commander who wrote the earliest accessible work on training horses recognized that if rider and horse were going to survive in battle – those vital skills and the pair’s ability to work together were imperative. Consequently, developing what is now known as dressage as a method to train horses for warfare.
Dressage, the name evolved from a French word meaning “training”, continued to be developed by various military groups as a form of specialized training until the unique riding discipline was civilianized and flourished during the Renaissance period.
FROM SURVIVAL TACTIC TO COMPETITIVE ART FORM
Today, competitive dressage is practiced worldwide and recognized as one of three equestrian Olympic disciplines. The sport involves progressively difficult levels of riding integrating multiple tests within each level.
National dressage competitions are governed by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). USEF creates the five levels of national tests:2
- Training Level: To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit
- First Level: To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit
- Second Level: To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters; moves with an “uphill” tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level
- Third Level: To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an “uphill” balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits. Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement. The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage than at Second Level
- Fourth Level: To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and has developed sufficient suppleness, impulsion and throughness to perform the Fourth Level tests which have a medium degree of difficulty. The horse remains reliably on the bit, showing a clear “uphill” balance and lightness as a result of improved engagement and collection. The movements are performed with greater straightness, energy and cadence than at Third Level
Each test within a level is a series of movements that must be performed in synchrony by the horse and rider. Tests involve movements based on the degree of competency required. Each movement is scored by a judge or set of judges on a scale of 0 (not performed) to 10 (excellent) looking for obedience, suppleness, accuracy, and horsemanship.
The United States Dressage Federation describes the competition’s tests as progress checks of the horse and rider as they move up through the levels. Each level builds upon the previous level’s principles. This helps to ensure that the horse and rider build the strong foundation needed for the skills required at higher levels.
Special tests can be built into any dressage competition. These include musical freestyle and performances featuring multiple horses and riders, known as quadrille and pas de deux.
In addition to the movement ratings, there are five marks given at the end of each test called “collective marks”. These collective marks are described by the USDF as the …
- Freedom and regularity of the horse’s gaits
- Horse's attention and confidence, lightness and ease of movements, acceptance of the bridle, lightness of the forehand and straightness
- Horse’s desire to move forward, elasticity of the steps, suppleness of the back, engagement of the hindquarters
- Rider’s seat and position on the horse
- Rider's correctness and effective use of aids
Every test has a score sheet with a series of boxes, the judge assigns a score and often a comment on the movement performed. Points for the test and collective marks are tallied and documented as a percentage of the total number of possible points for that test. In most cases, a score of 60 percent or higher is thought to mean the horse and rider are ready to move up to the next level in the competition.
Upon successful completion of the lower levels, the horse and rider are ready to perform at the Federation Equestrian International (FEI) levels of dressage, which consist of Prix St. Georges, Intermediare I, Intermediare II, and lastly, Grand Prix.
There are also special classes in dressage competitions, where young horses and breeding stock are shown in-hand and judged. Young horses are judged for their potential to become a dressage sport horse, and breeding stock is judged on their capability of producing dressage sport horses.
BRAIN OVER BREEDING
Dressage is all-inclusive. It is a sport that is open to any breed and experience level of horse. And, while all horses and riders can benefit from dressage training regardless of current ability or preferred riding discipline, not all horses have the characteristics needed to be competitive in the sport.
Dressage is both mentally and physically challenging, meaning a good dressage horse must by a willing and eager partner. An obedient disposition will make training sessions much more productive.
As with people, horses have different personalities. When it comes to dressage, riders ultimately need to focus on selecting the horse that is their best counterpart and compliments their personality.
Dressage requires horses, and riders, who enjoy the challenge compared becoming agitated as the training grows more difficult.
THINK BIG PICTURE
While a horse’s overall build is not judged in the sport of dressage, conformational defects may become more of a factor as a horse progresses throughout training. There are some key conformation traits many dressage officials say riders can look for during their selection process.
Ideally, the horse will have an “uphill” appearance – meaning when looking at the horse, its overall composure represents strength and symmetry. A sound horse will be proportionate when assessing the horse’s length of the front end, back and hindquarter.
“The most important quality in a dressage horse is also the hardest to recognize early on. It’s the inner quality of heart that a great horse must have. It’s the part of a horse that makes you love riding – a good work ethic,” says Steven Wolgemuth, USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist.
PUTTING IN THE WORK
Dressage training is focused on physical development through a progressive conditioning process made up of interconnected components, known as the Pyramid of Training.
The pyramid is six levels of increasingly advanced elements – rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and at the peak, collection.
As defined by the USDF, the Pyramid of Training outlined below illustrates the steps which are essential ingredients in the correct training of a horse.
Rhythm is the term used for the characteristic sequence of footfalls and timing of a pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter.
The rhythm should be expressed with energy and in a suitable and consistent tempo, with the horse remaining in the balance and self-carriage appropriate to its level of training. In each gait, the horse’s steps should be clear and regular.
Relaxation refers to the horse’s mental state (calmness without anxiety or nervousness), as well as his physical state (the absence of negative muscular tension).
A relaxed horse willingly accepts the rider’s aids and moves with elasticity and a supple back. Suppleness refers to the horse’s ability to smoothly change balance forward and back and side to side. A stiff or rigid horse will not be able to utilize its body effectively, resulting in irregular gaits and agitation.
Contact is the connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. Good contact is indicative of good riding and good training.
The contact to the bit must be elastic and adjustable, creating fluent interaction between horse and rider with appropriate changes in the horse’s outline. Signs that the horse is taking an elastic contact include chewing of the bit and a moist mouth.
Impulsion refers to the pushing power of the horse and is associated with a phase of suspension that exists in trot and canter.
Many things contribute to the horse’s impulsion. The horse must be given adequate time and proper training to develop the muscles of the hindquarter. As the horse develops impulsion, his strides will become more powerful, forward and elevated.
It is measured by the horse’s desire to carry himself forward, the elasticity of his steps, suppleness of his back, and engagement of his hindquarters. Impulsion is necessary
to develop medium and extended paces.
Straightness focuses on the horse’s longitudinal axis and pertains to the development of forward thrust and the carrying capacity of the horse’s hindquarter.
If the horse is traveling straight, the hind feet will track in the hoof prints of the front feet when traveling in a straight or curved line.
When collected, the horse shifts his weight and that of the rider from the forehand to the hindquarter, distributing the weight more evenly between all four legs.
Then, because the center of mass is shifted backward, the forehand is lightened and elevated. The joints of the hind legs bend more, resulting in shorter, more energetic steps. The collected horse is more expressive and elegant in its movement.
Riders are not required to perfect each step in the pyramid before attempting the next. Although, throughout training, the horse’s muscle development and conditioning should be assessed in order to progress without physical or mental harm.
The USDF suggests using these steps as a reference for understanding the general progression and shared development from the beginning of training to its end.
DRESSING FOR DRESSAGE
Dressage is an elegant sport and competitors attire should reflect this. The goal of dressage attire and tack is to be functional and conservative, while keeping the focus on the horse.
For the horse: Dressage tack is tightly regulated. In competition, a dressage horse should be well groomed, with oiled hooves. The mane should be braided, and the tail should be partially braided.
While not required, a dressage saddle is specially designed for the closest contact between the horse and the rider’s leg. It is an English-type saddle that has an intentionally deep seat and longer flaps than a jumping saddle, allowing the rider’s legs to be closer to the horse for more precise cueing.
For training through second level tests, riders need a basic, unornamented snaffle bridle. Horses competing in Olympic level dressage events must wear a double bridle, a snaffle and a curb. Bit guards are not allowed.
For the rider: Dressage attire is fairly strict in competition. Riders competing at the fourth-level or below are required to wear dark, neutral coats with light breeches. They must wear a colored stock, a collar or tie, light-colored gloves, black boots, and a helmet, derby or top hat.
Riders in international competitions must wear a dark navy or black coat; a white or cream stock; white gloves and breeches; black dress boots; spurs; and a top hat.
Hair has to be neat, contained under the helmet, in a hairnet or fashioned into a bun. Helmets should be ASTM/SEI certified and dark in color.
Current and retired members of the Armed Services and police units may ride in the uniform of their service. All riders who choose to wear Armed Services or police uniform must wear protective headgear.
For more horse riding guides and tips read these articles:
1Loch, Sylvia. “DRESSAGE, THE ART OF CLASSICAL RIDING”. 1990. North Pomfret, Vermont, Trafalgar Square Publishing.
2”2018 USEF RULEBOOK”. January 2018. United States Equestrian Federation. https://www.usef.org/forms-pubs/PiZ5Mms1FY8/usef-rulebook
3“Dressage Equipment Booklet”. April 2017. United States Equestrian Federation. https://www.usef.org/forms-pubs/sAH3nOVD85c/dressage-attire-equipment-booklet
Fred is the editor of Equine Ridge. He grew up raising horses and has been riding, training, and competing for almost four decades. Fred started out performing on the AQHA and PHBA circuits. Fred trained other competitors in English and Western riding disciplines and today offers free riding lessons to youth who would otherwise not be able to afford lessons. When not working with horses he can be found backpacking or trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Email Fred at email@example.com