Classic Dressage

Special thanks to
The United States Dressage Federation (USDF)
for permission to reprint this article.
Go to the USDF web site

Leading its riders in an endless pursuit of perfection, dressage blends art with sport.

Rarely in the world of sport are athletes called upon to muster the combination of strength and artistry demanded by dressage. Requiring the power and precision of gymnastics, and the grace and subtlety of ballet, dressage challenges mental preparation as well as physical prowess.

    In this article:

  What is dressage?     Dressage tests
  Dressage as a method of training     Scoring
  The rewards     Equipment, saddlery and attire
  Dressage as a competitive sport     How to get involved
  Types of competition      


The word "dressage" (rhymes with "massage") is derived from a French term meaning training. It is not only a method of schooling, but also a competitive equestrian sport.  The basic tenets of classical horsemanship were first recorded in a book by Greek General Xenophon around 400 B.C. It was further developed at the royal courts of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, with its white Lipizzan stallions, is perhaps the most familiar institution dedicated exclusively to the classical art of riding. While once an activity of royalty, today dressage has evolved into a discipline and competitive sport accessible to all horses and riders.

Dressage develops the horse's physique and suppleness and improves the horse's three natural gaits, making it a pleasure to ride. Dressage is considered "classical training" because it uses gymnastic exercises--a series of movements and figures--which have been studied and developed for centuries. When done systematically and correctly, the exercises will cause the horse to be supple on both sides and to respond willingly and obediently, moving freely and energetically, with pure gaits and to the maximum level of its athletic ability. 

Examples of basic-level exercises include
Figures, movements (sideways), and transitions such as trot to halt, or walk to canter. These exercises can be used to start a young horse or to retrain an older one, and can be used by riders primarily interested in other equestrian sports, such as western riding.  As the horse and rider progress, more difficult gymnastic exercises are introduced into their training program. As a result, the advanced horse becomes an athlete, developing strength, flexibility, and the ability to perform collected and extended gaits with lightness and brilliance. This performance of grace and athleticism is beautiful to witness when the horse and rider work in harmony.


The Rewards
The gradual, logical progression of the gymnastic exercises not only leads to an obedient, balanced mount, but it also improves the seat, coordination, and feel of the rider. The rider communicates with the horse with a subtle shifting of his weight, the right amount of leg pressure, and specific subtle signals to the horse's mouth through the reins. To ride in harmony with the horse, the rider must follow the horse's movement with the seat and back, yet maintain elegant upright posture and quiet, independent legs and hands. Developing these exacting skills is a never-ending challenge that requires self-discipline. Dressage is not a "quick fix" approach to training, but a means for building a solid foundation which will cause the horse to be strong, supple, and a pleasure to ride. This disciplined approach to riding also gives a great sense of satisfaction to the rider. The pursuit of personal harmony with the horse is what continues to attract people in record numbers to this classical tradition of equestrian sport.

Dressage has long been a competitive equestrian sport throughout the world and especially in Europe, where Germany has dominated international competition for decades. Dressage first became an Olympic sport in 1912. The United States has won the Olympic Bronze Team Medal in Dressage in 1976, 1992, and 1996.

Although only a very small percentage of horses have the physical conformation, strength, and temperament to succeed in international competition, riders can set their own training goals and compete at the lower levels. In the United States, dressage competition is designed to welcome riders of all levels of experience to compete against other riders as well as against themselves, testing the progress of their training against a standard of excellence.

Types of competition
At the local level, unrecognized schooling shows are a good opportunity for beginners to learn about competition in a relaxed atmosphere and at a low cost. From there, over 700 recognized competitions are offered throughout the nation. These are more formal and follow national rules; the most formal competitions are run under international rules. No matter the size of the show, all dressage competition takes place in a rectangular arena of exact measurements. A "standard size" arena is 20 by 60 meters (approx. 66 by 197 feet) and a "small size" arena is 20 by 40 meters (approx. 66 by 132 feet). Along the outer rails of the arena are lettered markers placed at specific points which serve as targets for performing designated movements and figures.

Unlike western or English pleasure classes where many horses are in the ring together, dressage competition is performed with only one rider in the arena at a time. Dressage competitors perform a test--a specific pattern of movements and figures designed for specific levels of proficiency. All dressage tests unfold in the same way. At the sound of the judge's bell, a horse and rider enter the arena at the "A" marker and proceed straight down the centerline, halting in the middle. The rider then salutes the judge sitting at the "C" marker and proceeds with the test. At the end of the test, the competitor returns to the centerline, once again halting and saluting the judge. At the beginning stages, riders can enter Introductory Level and Training Level. At these levels, the tests require only simple obedience at a brisk walk and trot, or walk, trot and canter along the rail, and in large circles or serpentines. As the horse and rider progress in their training, they move up to higher levels where the tests introduce new and more challenging movements and figures. For example: First Level: 15- and 10-meter circles, lengthening of the stride, serpentines, leg-yield and counter canter. Second Level: Medium gaits, collected gaits, shoulder-in, haunches-in, reinback, walk-canter transitions, counter canter, half-turn on haunches at walk. Third Level: Serpentine at canter, extended gaits, flying change of lead, half-pass at trot and canter. Fourth Level: Flying changes every four strides and every three strides, canter half-pirouettes, trot zigzag half-pass. F.E.I. (International) Levels: Flying changes every two strides and every one stride, piaffe, passage, full canter pirouettes. The first three tests at the F.E.I. level are the Prix St. Georges, Intermediate I, and Intermediate II. The highest stage of development is the Grand Prix, which is the level shown at the Olympic Games and World Championships.

At a dressage competition, one to five judges are positioned at specific points around the perimeter of the arena where they observe the quality of the performance from different perspectives. The judge(s) evaluates the horse and rider by scoring each movement or figure as it is performed against a standard of perfection, with scores ranging from zero (meaning "not executed") to 10 ("excellent"). Some particularly difficult movements are given more importance and multiplied by two.

The judges are not only looking for correct execution of the movements and figures, but also for the quality of the horse's gaits, impulsion (energy and thrust), and submission (relaxation and obedience). A score is also given for the rider's position, balance, harmony, and effectiveness. To calculate a competitor's overall score, the individual scores are added together, divided by the total number of points possible per test, and put in a percentage form. Individual scores of 10 are rare; therefore, the top scores at a competition are usually in the 63 to 70 percent range. After the class is over, the riders can pick up their test sheet and review the judge's scores and written comments. These test sheets will help the rider determine the strengths and weaknesses in his or her training.

Equipment & Saddlery
Dressage encourages using a minimum amount of equipment. The bridle should include a mild snaffle bit without shanks, with reins attached directly to the ring of the bit so there is a straight line from the rider's hands to the horse's mouth. In lower-level competition the horse wears a simple snaffle bridle; curb or leverage bits are not allowed. At the upper levels, the horse wears a double bridle, which has four reins and two separate bits--a thin snaffle bit and a curb bit. The saddle need not be expensive, and for basic training, many Western saddles will do. The saddle should encourage the rider to sit in its central and lowest part, providing a secure seat and encouraging proper posture. 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, as opposed to the "forward seat" jumping saddle which is designed for the jumper rider's short stirrups and bent leg. The dressage saddle's seat is also "deep," rather than flat, to allow the rider to sit close to the horse's back to have the most influence on the animal's performance.

Plenty of opportunities are available to anyone interested in dressage as a method of training or as a competitive sport. The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) has over 34,000 dues-paying members and over 120 Group Member Organizations (local dressage clubs) throughout the nation. Most local clubs publish a newsletter listing upcoming educational programs and competition dates. The local club members can also refer instructors and trainers in the area. The USDF administers a national year-end award program based on test percentages that competitors earn during the year. As an educational organization, the USDF has training programs for judges, instructors, and trainers, and offers special programs for junior and young riders and adult amateurs. USDF members also receive news of USDF and upcoming national programs. USDF's news is published monthly in USDF Connection magazine, the official publication of USDF.



The copy for this pamphlet first appeared in EQUUS magazine, and is reprinted with permission of the publisher. EQUUS magazine provides the latest information from the world's top veterinarians, equine researchers, riders and trainers on understanding and influencing equine behavior, recognizing the warning signs of illness and disease, and solving riding and training problems. An annual index turns EQUUS issues into a valuable reference library. For subscription information, call 1-800-829-5910.

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