Dressage is the foundation of all other disciplines.Laura Fry (Discovering Dressage, London: Ward Lock, 1995)

Until a short time ago, all I knew about dressage was that it involved “putting a horse through its paces”whatever that meant.

During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, I listened to a radio talk show during which a few people called in to complain that dressage was boring to watch, even arguing that the sport should be removed from Olympic competition. The talk show host patiently explained that, to enjoy watching dressage, you had to know a bit more about it. I now agree.

First, I looked into the history of dressage. I was interested to read that it has its origins in the military. Soldiers riding their cavalry horses in the days of muskets and rifles had to have their hands free to do the aiming and shooting.

The horse had to respond to subtle shifts in the rider”s balance and leg pressure. The French were apparently the first to develop this “art” and named the practice dressage, a French word for “training.”

The secret to enjoying dressage as a spectator sport is to understand and appreciate the subtlety of the communication between rider and horse. “But nothing happens in dressage,” complained the radio show caller, “It”s like watching the grass grow.” And therein lies the secret: if you can see something happening, like a pull of the rein or a seating shift by the rider, or slight resistance by the horse, then you”re seeing flaws! The beauty and challenge of the sport is training that builds rhythm, agility, collection, posture, responsiveness and communication by contact.

How Is a Horse Trained for Dressage?

In the early stages of training, a major objective is to have the horse carry the rider”s weight over his hindquarters. This improves the “lightness” of his forehand and makes him more agile and easier to steer and stop.

What Are the Requirements of Dressage?

Graphic example of serpentine and half circle maneuvers.In dressage competitions, the horse and rider perform in tests that display the horse”s balance, obedience, and suppleness. The competitions themselves are much like figure skating, in which the athlete must perform a specific set of maneuvers. In dressage, the rider and horse demonstrate three basic gaits (walk, trot, and canter), and ride a number of patterns that include circles and figure eights. At more advanced levels, the skills and patterns become more complicated, including diagonals, serpentines, flying changes and pirouettes. Clearly, these are lovely to watch. Among the more interesting movements are the piaffe, a highly “collected” movement in which the horse trots on the spot, and the passage, an elevated trot that makes the horse appear to float!

Tack and Turnout for DressagePictures of dressage top hat, saddle and boots.Rider: Dress requirements vary with the level of competition. At all levels, riders are expected to wear a hard-shell hat (hunt cap or helmet), a short riding coat in a conservative color, neckwear (tie, choker, or stock tie), breeches or jodhpurs and boots. At the advanced levels, competition rules may require tailcoats and top hats. Members of the military and police ride in uniform.

In some competitions, at some levels, spurs are optional; at other levels, they may be required. In both cases, they must be metal and conform to a set of regulations.

Riders are given plenty of leeway for inclement weather. For example, in rainy weather, a dark protective cover may be worn over the helmet, and a rider can wear a transparent raincoat. In very hot weather, the rider may compete without a jacket, as long as she wears a white or very pale-colored shirt (short or long sleeves), without any neckwear.

Horse: In competition, an English saddle is required and, most often, the saddle of choice is a dressage saddle. This type of saddle has straight flaps to accommodate the dressage rider”s straight leg. The dressage saddle”s seat is also “deep” rather than flat, to allow the rider to sit further back and maintain the lightness of his horse”s forehand.

Many rules exist for the choice of bridles, bits, and saddlery. In fact, the list of prohibited items is somewhat longer than the list of requirements. But above all, simplicity rules: a plain snaffle bridle and a noseband made entirely of leather are good choices. Usually a padded noseband is permitted. At higher levels, only cavesson nosebands are allowed. Competitors should check rules on the choice of bridles and bits for their particular level of performance. In general, martingales, horse boots, blinkers and other gadgets are prohibited and may be cause for elimination.

Grooming a Horse for Dressage

No special grooming is required for dressage; points are neither added nor eliminated for grooming standards. Of course, a horse looks best if his appearance is very neat, his tack is clean and polished, and his coat is gleaming. Braiding is not required; many choose to braid the mane and/or tail to show off the horse”s good features. Some horses are intolerant of pulling or braiding; in that case, bandaging the tail is recommended. The mane and tail should be clean and even.

The Dressage Horse

It is a well-known fact that when a person finds himself on top of a horse, looking down at those on foot, something happens to him psychologically. His ego receives a tremendous boost; he becomes an important person.Margaret Cabell Self (Horse of Today, NY, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1964)

Any horse can perform the basic movements of dressage. In fact, many equine experts insist that every horse should receive the type of training that helps him bear a rider well. And riders should learn the proper seating and subtle movements that communicate to the horse what he should do, developing the obedience qualities that are vital to all other training.

Among the breeds that have been champions in Olympic-level dressage competition are horses with Thoroughbred and Anglo-Arab bloodlines. Hanoverians also excel at dressage.

If your goal is to train your horse so that he can eventually perform in dressage competitions, you”ll require a practice arena or a suitable field. An indoor arena is ideal. However, if that isn”t an option for you, locate a field in which you can mark out a 20- by 40-meter rectangle. Place cones at the corners so you can see the boundaries clearly. As long as the field is safe and level, you can practice basic patterns. When you reach more advanced levels, you”ll require an indoor arena.

Dressage Competitions

The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) is the governing board for dressage. This means that FEI rules are those used in major competitions, including the Olympics.

Individual countries can devise their own tests and regulations, particularly at the elementary levels. Many competitions have several levels of performance. The more advanced levels use FEI rules, and are therefore known as “FEI tests.”

The FEI tests include:

  • Prix St. George
  • Intermediaire 1
  • Intermediaire 2
  • Grand Prix (advanced competition that includes the pirouette, piaffe, and passage)
  • Grand Prix Special (top 25 performers from the Grand Prix compete in a shorter, more concentrated version of the Grand Prix)
  • Free Style Test (Grand Prix performed to music; involves the top 15 individuals from the Grand Prix Special who ride a choreographed routine set to the music of their choice).

At the Olympics, men and women compete together. Participants compete individually; team scores are calculated by adding the three highest individual scores for each team.

Graphic example of competition arena sizes.At the basic level, competitors perform in arenas that are twenty meters wide by forty meters long. At the Grand Prix level, the arena or “ring” is twenty by sixty meters.

Several organizations publish test rules and hold international events. Here are a few organizations that you should contact for information:

  • Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI)
  • United States Dressage Federation (USDF)
  • American Show Horse Association (ASHA)
  • United States Combined Training Association (USCTA).