Horse Activities: Dressage

Born of classical equitation, dressage (which translates roughly to “training” in French) is a time-tested system that teaches the horse to carry a rider with willingness, precision and grace. The standardized progressive training methods used in dressage are designed to develop a riding horse’s natural potential— everything from supple, balanced movement and cadence to technical consistency and responsiveness to subtle cues. Dressage is therefore considered by many to be a suitable foundation for any style of horseback riding.

The word “dressage” can also refer to a traditional competitive sport based on this same classical system of training. Traditional dressage competition involves individual standardized tests at different levels that are ridden from memory and judged at dressage shows. Each test calls for level-appropriate movements that are ridden at different gaits and speeds in a standard-sized arena marked by a standard set of markers. These markers have letters of the alphabet on them and are used to prescribe where the movements in each test are performed (“Enter at A,” “Between E and F: Change rein, free walk,” etc.).

Lower-level dressage tests, which are usually ridden in English tack, encourage willing, free movement and contain simple exercises such as a working trot, a 20-metre circle at a working canter, and a halt. As a horse and rider work their way up the levels in traditional competitive dressage, they will usually start using a specialized dressage saddle that is much like an English saddle, but with long vertical flaps. Full or double bridles are also usual at the upper levels.

In advanced dressage tests, horse and rider are asked to perform a rigorous range of movements such as collected and extended gaits, flying lead changes in sequence (“tempis”), the half-pass, the shoulder-in, the pirouette and the piaffe. At its most refined, dressage has been called “equine ballet” because these upper-level movements, though difficult and powerful, are executed with great elegance.

In addition to being a stand-alone competitive sport, dressage is one of the traditional phases in three-day eventing or horse trials. It is one of the usual phases in combined tests, as well.

There is also a competitive sport called Western Dressage. Utilizing a system of levels and tests similar to its traditional cousin but adapted to Western-style riding, Western Dressage is a blend of traditional training methods, with horses ridden in Western tack. A similar discipline that utilizes different rules and tests but that arose from the same initiative is called Cowboy Dressage.

Any breed of horse at any level can be schooled in dressage; however, most of the horses competing at the upper levels of traditional dressage at this writing are various types of warmblood. Dressage is one of the equestrian sports contested in the Olympic Games.