Dressage (along with show jumping and cross country riding) is one of the three main competitive disciplines of ridden horsemanship, and one of the three component parts of one day and three day eventing. The term ‘dressage’ comes from the French term for ‘training’ and is defined as “The highest level of horse training, where horse and rider are expected to perform a series of predetermined movements from memory” by the International Equestrian Federation.
The basic philosophy of dressage is concerned with developing and perfecting the horse’s natural athleticism, ridden performance and training, with the eventual goal of raising the standard of ridden horses and ponies and enabling them to reach their full potential, along with their rider. Dressage is often thought of by the hobbyist rider as being an elite discipline, and compared to show jumping and cross country riding, sometimes seen by the casual observer to be a rather dry, boring sport- but really nothing could be further from the truth.
Dressage, and the level of discipline and skill which it ultimately instils within both horse and rider, forms the basis of all schooling and good horsemanship and essentially, the fundamentals of dressage form the core skill base from which all other aspects of ridden horsemanship arise. Dressage and dressage training is relevant to practically all other ridden disciplines, from showing to hacking to jumping. It is often said that show jumping should be thought of as ‘dressage interrupted by fences’ and that a good grounding in the basic skills of dressage and the responsiveness of the horse which dressage develops is essential to the progression of any horse and rider.
Schooling in dressage is done with the ultimate intention of being able to complete a ridden dressage test, either in competition or for personal development. Most riders from novice level upwards will have taken part in a riding lesson within an arena marked out by the letters A,K,E,H,C,M,B and F, and these letters are the basic positioning points of the dressage arena, indicating in a test where a movement should be executed or the pace changed. The centre of the area is marked as ‘X’ and entry to the arena generally occurs at ‘A,’ the spot in the middle of one of the shorter sides of the rectangular arena. At higher level dressage, additional lettered points are also notated. A handy mnemonic to remember the basic dressage arena letters and the order of their layout is “All King Edward’s Horses Carry Many Brave Fighters”.
A dressage test is a set routine or sequence for horse and rider to perform, and many different standardised tests are available for all levels of skill and development. Riders of any age can train and compete in dressage or work on honing their skills using dressage tests, with the difficulty and skill level required in the execution of a test increasing with experience. A basic preliminary level dressage test will involve entering the arena at working trot, stopping at ‘X’ to salute the judges, and proceeding at working trot before tracking left or right and going on to complete a sequence of moves including serpentines, changing diagonals, changing reins, 20 metre circles and changes of pace going from a walk through trot to canter and back down, before again saluting and leaving the arena. A preliminary level dressage test is usually completed within a few minutes.
When judging or scoring a dressage test, marks are given from 0 to 10 (with 10 being the highest) for each component move of the test, as well as the overall flow, skill level and obedience of the horse. Dressage is sometimes referred to as ‘equestrian ballet’ and one of the most important components of a successful dressage test involves the overall presentation, and both horse and rider should appear relaxed, competent and in tune with each other, with the rider giving light but clear aids and the horse responding smoothly.
Some of the novice and preliminary skills involved in dressage include different styles of the familiar paces from walk to canter, including medium walk, free walk, working trot, and working and medium canter. Changes of rein are required at preliminary level, and as a horse and rider progress in their ability and experience, the skills required from each dressage test become progressively harder, taking into account collected canter, changes of leg and flying changes, as well as turns on the forehand and much more.
Grand Prix dressage is the elite standard of dressage which is performed at the highest levels of competition, and includes the tests and routines you will see executed in the Olympics. Grand Prix competition dressage displays the highest levels of horsemanship and execution in the world, and incorporates skills such as flying changes in sequence (where the horse changes their leading leg after every first, second or third stride) the piaffe (an elevated trot that involves very little forward movement and is almost akin to running on the spot) and extended trot and canter, which is very impressive to watch and can almost make it seem as if the horse is skimming over the ground without making contact.
Whether you own your own horse or pony or simply go for regular lessons, dressage is open to everyone regardless of age once they have mastered the basics of riding and have good control, posture and competency at walk, trot and canter. Talk to your riding instructor about the basics of dressage, and ask if you can begin to incorporate them into your lessons.
If you are a member of The Pony Club or a local riding club, these organisations frequently run dressage competitions (either as a standalone or as part of larger horse shows) and workshops and training days. Ask your local organisation for details and advice- you may have to be a member of the club in question to be permitted to attend a workshop or show, but lots of clubs also welcome spectators.
The British Dressage Association provides information and guidance for people new to dressage, and may be able to help you in making contact with a local club or instructor. If your looking to buy a dressage horse, you can also check outour dressage horses for sale page.