What Is Dressage?

To the uninitiated eye, dressage may appear a bizarre pastime and one that encourages horse and rider to “dance” through a series of steps to gain applause and acclaim from a panel of judges. At its heart, however, dressage is much more than this.

What Is Dressage?

It is a way of connecting with your horse, and a unique way of training and riding together, learning to ride with your horse and help him to achieve his very best, all with your guidance and training behind him.

Whether you are a budding equestrian, or simply keen to understand what is going on in the ring, we have put together everything you need to know about dressage, its history, and the benefits that it can offer to both horse and rider.

The Basics

Dressage is an Olympic discipline and is practiced in competitions and tournaments all across the world. The Grand Prix is the pinnacle of dressage, and this is an international event held once a year, with the Grand Prix musical freestyle acting as the pièce de résistance to the entire sport. 

On a basic level, dressage focuses on working with your horse, rather than against him, and emphasizes helping them to achieve a greater level of flexibility, suppleness, and obedience, and encourages them to enhance their natural athleticism, ability, and movements.

The very term, “dressage” comes from the French “dresseur” – literally, to train, and the practice can be dated right back to the 17th century when cavalry riders were required to work with their horse in an incredibly disciplined manner – a horse who failed to respond, or didn’t follow a command, could be a death sentence on the battlefield.

Over time, the sport developed and evolved, becoming increasingly flamboyant and elegant as it headed to Spain and Vienna, and became the sport that we recognize and enjoy today.

The 1912 Olympic Games, held in Stockholm, saw dressage officially recognized as an Olympic sport, though at this time, only military officers were eligible to compete.

This continued until 1953 when civilian men and women were permitted to enter, and the sport continued to grow in popularity until the formation of the United States Dressage Federation in 1973 – the bringing together of 81 pioneers of the dressage world.

The Dressage Test

The ultimate end goal of dressage is the test – this is a chance to put all the hard work and training into practice in front of a judging panel, and the aim is to demonstrate how effectively the horse is developing and progressing when judged against a particular set of criteria.

Movements are performed in a rectangular arena, often to music, and marks or points are awarded by the judges.

Dressage tests take place in a 20m x 60m arena and include a range of movements, designed to flow into one another elegantly and seamlessly.

During the dressage test, both horse and rider will be judged on how well they are able to perform a specific sequence of movements, with marks from 0-10 available.

A mark of 10 is given for excellent performances, 5 is for sufficient movements, and a 0 is given if no movement was made.

At the end of each test, judges will award four general impression scores for the movements that they have seen, and the marks are added and divided by the total possible, providing a percentage mark for the test.

An overall mark of 70% is considered to be very good, while a score of between 60% and 70% is good.

A score of 65% or above is typically required to enter a competition at the national level, and a consistent score of 65% or over indicates that both horse and rider are ready to move up a level, and compete against higher-ranking pairs.

 The movements performed in each test will depend on the level that is being competed in. As you rise through the ranks, the movements become harder and more complex, and levels increase from the training stages up to the Federal Equestrian International (FEI) levels – these are the pinnacle of dressage tests.

What Is Dressage?

The Principles Of Dressage

In understanding the nuances of dressage, it can be useful to take a closer look at the so-called “principles of dressage” – these are the qualities that a judge will look for when marking a test, and the skills that the rider must be able to confidently demonstrate. The principles of dressage include:

  • The rider is meeting the objective of dressage, that is, developing the horse into a happy, capable athlete, and keeping them calm, flexible, and supple while remaining keen and confident. This is demonstrated by free, regular paces, harmonious, light, and easy movements remaining light on the forehand, with engaged, active hindquarters, and accepting the bit without resistance.
  • The horse appears to be doing what is required of its own accord and is confident and attentive. They should also be straight on the straight lines and bend where needed on curved lines, all while submitting generously to the rider.
  • The horse should be light and responsive to the cues of the rider, with active, engaged hindquarters, and “life and spirit” throughout the body. The walk should be regular and unconstrained, the trot should be active, supple, and regular, and the canter light and balanced.
  • The horse should be lively and supple, moving without resistance, and obeying any commands willingly, with no hesitation. They should also appear calm and happy, balanced both physically and mentally, and able to respond precisely to aids.
  • The horse is on the bit at all times – that is, the neck is arched according to the level of training and competition, and the horse should be happily accepting the bridle with a constant, light contact.
  • Both trot and canter show cadence and the horse is regular, balanced, and in harmony with the rider. Cadence is also maintained throughout each movement.
  • Paces are regular and even

The principles of dressage can be useful for both judges and riders; the former can use the guidance to mark movements, while the rider can use these to help perform and perfect movements.

What Are The Benefits Of Dressage?

In addition to looking beautiful and elegant, dressage also offers several benefits to both horse and rider, and these include:

A Softer Mouth For Your Horse

A soft mouth for your horse is one of the major advantages that you can enjoy from regular dressage, and this helps to create a much more enjoyable riding experience for both of you.

Without proper training, some horses can tend to become hard in the mouth, and this means that they will not respond to your cues, hand onto your hands, and focus on putting all of their weight onto the forehand, disengaging their hindquarters.

Dressage helps to bring horses off the forehand, encouraging them to activate and engage their hindquarters and move more evenly and smoothly. This, in turn, softens the mouth, helping them to engage with more gentle, subtle cues, and offering you both a more relaxing and enjoyable experience.

A More Forward Going Horse

Coming off the forehand will also allow your horse to really stretch their legs and enjoy their full range of motion, and this will result in a horse that is more forward going, and enjoys a smoother,

more active ride, without the risk of them running away with themselves – this can be a particular issue for some horses on the trot.

This will also improve the comfort of the ride for riders – when your horse is using their back properly they will be more relaxed, and use the correct muscles to support and move themselves.

As a result, trots and canters will be more balanced and comfortable, and you will both feel more balanced and connected overall, reducing your chances of a fall.

A More Responsive Horse

With regular dressage training, your horse will be able to respond to both hand and leg aids more quickly and easily, thanks to a stronger and more engaged hind end. This helps them to feel more balanced, and so they are less likely to hang onto your hands. The end result is a more responsive horse, which is good news for both of you.

In addition to a more comfortable ride for you, your horse will also benefit from being more supple and flexible, as well as enjoying stronger, more evenly developed muscles.

An Incredible Bond

There is something truly amazing about memorizing a test, entering the ring, and then working with your horse to complete every movement to perfection.

Dressage offers a chance for you to really bond and connects with your horse – you are both on the same page, striving towards the same goals, and working as one harmonious being. This is an experience that we can guarantee you will never forget.

Final Thoughts

If you have ever dismissed dressage as being “boring”, “too showy” or “a waste of time”, then this is your chance to change your mind.

When practiced correctly, dressage offers an amazing opportunity to work with your horse, and this can help to create a bond that cannot be replicated in any other equestrian event.

Furthermore, dressage offers numerous benefits for both horse and rider that can improve your fitness, boost your skills, and help to create a more comfortable, harmonious experience for both horse and rider.

Catherine McDowl
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