Are you a Dressage Diva?
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Are you a Dressage Diva?

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Dressage, it shot to prominence after Team GB’s team gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics with the cherry on the cake being Charlotte Dujardin’s individual Freestyle to Music performance but is dressage really achievable for lesser mortals?

What is dressage?

Dressage is sometimes described as ‘horses that dance’ or ballet on horseback. At the top level, it is a highly skilled classical art representing years of training with historical antecedents that date back centuries to the classical schools of Europe. So, is dressage something that can be enjoyed at a lower level?

Elements of dressage

Dressage is about the training of the horse and is designed to promote certain characteristics:-

  • Suppleness
  • Forward movement
  • Straightness
  • Balance
  • Flexibility
  • Obedience
  • Regularity

Dressage tests are a set sequence of movements performed using the letters around the arena.Every competitor rides the same test and is marked by the judge for each movement, the rider with the highest percentage winning the class.

A dressage test should simply reflect the level of your ability and the horse’s training. The tests are grouped into levels from the beginning Intro tests which don’t even include canter right through to International level. Within each stage, there will be a variety of different tests which can only include certain movements appropriate to that level. Tests are picked by the competition organisers and their numbers published on the show schedule. Tests are reviewed annually and new ones produced with older ones being removed.

What happens on the day?

Your dressage arena is usually marked out by low white boards which provide the specific size and shape. The test will either be in a 20 x 40-metre arena known as a short arena or a 20 x 60-metre arena which is international size. The test sheet will tell you which size of arena that particular test is to be ridden in. The long arena has more letters than the shorter arena. The surface that you ride on will be dictated by the venue centre.You should be able to find out beforehand whether your test is outdoors on a surface, indoors or on grass.

Dive in!

All dressage has to be entered before the competition and not on the day because the organisers have to allocate a certain amount of time for each test. So just before the competition, the rider times will be published.You will be allocated a specific time for each test you have entered.

Whilst the judge is finishing the sheet from the previous competitor, you can start trotting your horse around the white boards. The test will begin when the judge rings their bell. Sometimes, if you are outside on grass, the judge will be sitting in their car to judge with the writer in the passenger seat beside them. They will use the car horn to indicate they are ready. Once the bell goes, you may start your test.

What does a test sheet look like?

The sheet will be the same colour as the level so blue for Prelim, green for Novice and so on. The judge will have dictated a mark and a comment to their writer and your sheet will include all of these in a long list.At the bottom of the score sheet, there is a section for the judge to write an overview of the test in their own hand. They will also mark individual aspects about the horse’s way of going, submission and gaits plus the rider’s position and effectiveness. These marks are called the collectives and they are used to split riders who have tied on the same score. All the marks on the sheet are aggregated and presented as a percentage.

Tack and Equipment

Unaffiliated competitions borrow the rule book of British Dressage, the name of the affiliated discipline in the UK, so the rules are usually identical for all levels of competition across the venues. Sometimes, at unaffiliated events, the rules are a little less rigidly enforced.

  • Check the rulebook for permitted nosebands and bits, martingales are never allowed.Double bridles are introduced as optional from Elementary upwards and are compulsory from Advanced
  • You may warm up with boots or bandages on your horse’s legs but these must be removed before you start the test
  • You can either learn the test or have it read by a caller. Even if you use a caller, it is always worth being familiar with the test so you can prepare for the next movement
  • Short whips and schooling whips which do not exceed beyond a certain length are allowed
  • The usual saddle cloth is a white dressage square
  • Most riders use a straight cut dressage saddle which is specifically designed to promote both the security and influence of the rider. These have long girth straps and short Lonsdale or dressage girths.This positions the girth buckles further down the side of the horse so they are not sitting underneath the rider’s leg

The Inside Track

If you have never ridden dressage before then go along and watch some competitions at the venue you are planning on competing at. That will allow you to observe other riders without the distraction of your own horse being present, you can check the route and get a feel of the place. If you really want to get an added advantage then offer to write for some local dressage judges. Test riding is a skill all of its own and sitting next to a judge for a few hours can be very instructive.

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