What is Dressage?

The History of Dressage: Dressage is often likened to figure skating, ballet or gymnastics on horseback. The word "dressage" comes from the French word meaning "training." The practice of dressage traces its origins as far back as ancient Greece, where Greek soldiers and philosophers alike used humane and systematic training practices to train their horses for battle and to improve the beauty of their horses under saddle. Later, dressage was used on the medieval battlefields of Europe and as a form of art and entertainment in the courts of Renaissance nobility. Cavalry officers in the modern military also practiced dressage as recently as the 1940's. From these traditions, we get our modern dressage competitions.

What is dressage? Dressage is the systematic development of horse and rider, resulting in a balanced, harmonious team. In its most basic stages dressage helps the horse and rider communicate with each other and develop balance, strength, flexibility and accuracy. For this reason, riders with different backgrounds and competitive goals - jumping, eventing and barrel racing - often use dressage as a way of creating a pleasant, athletic mount and improving the horse's performance.

At its highest levels, dressage improves the horse's ability to use his body, producing a horse that is light and balanced and seems to float effortlessly through the arena. The communication between horse and rider becomes so subtle that the horse seems to be performing on its own without any input from the rider. As horse and rider become more proficient in dressage, they begin to perform the more spectacular movements, such as the collected and extended gaits, lateral movements (where the horse travels sideways and diagonally) and collected work such as the pirouettes, passages and piaffe (where the horse trots in place). The Lippizan Stallions of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna demonstrate the "haute ecole" or highest degree of training in dressage with their famous "airs above the ground."

The levels of the dressage tests

Dressage tests are designed as a way to show off the horse's abilities and to evaluate his level of training. Because it can take years of practice and dedication to reach the upper levels of training, horses and riders of all ages take part in dressage competitions, and there are multiple levels of tests, which increases in difficulty, giving everyone an opportunity to compete at a level that is appropriate.

The dressage tests are a prescribed series of movements that each horse must perform. Tests for the lower and middle levels of the sport are designed by a national governing body of equestrian sport- USAEquestrian. There are five levels, each with a number of tests that increase in difficulty, preparing horse and rider for the next stage of training and competition.

Training level: Tests 1,2, 3 & 4
First level: Tests 1,2,3 & 4
Second level: Tests 1,2,3 & 4
Third level: Tests 1,2 & 3
Fourth level: Tests 1, 2 & 3

The more difficult tests for upper level horses are designed by the international equestrian sport association, the FEI, and are used in international competitions around the world.

Prix St. Georges
Intermediare I
Intermediare II
Grand Prix
Grand Prix Special

The horses in Olympic competition use the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special tests as well as performing a Musical Freestyle. Here, the horse is required to do flying lead changes every stride, full pirouettes at the canter, piaffe (trot in place) and passage (cadenced, elevated trot) as well as demonstrating extension and collection at all gaits. It is said that it takes an experienced trainer with a talented horse at least seven years to train that horse to the Grand Prix Level.

In order to encourage serious dressage among the younger generation, the FEI has designed two tests for Young Riders (ages 15-21). These tests are roughly equivalent to Second and Third Level in terms of difficulty.

What the Judge is Looking For?

At all levels competitors ride their test in front of a judge, who gives them a numerical score for each movement. At the end of the test the judge also gives scores for his general impression of the horse and rider and their performance overall. Scores range from 0 (not performed) to 10 (excellent). Going off course results in a penalty of lost points. The judge's secretary, or scribe, writes down the scores for the rider, along with the judge's comments. The scorer then adds the scores for each movement together . The winning ride is the one with the highest percentage of possible points for that test. Winning scores are typically in the high 60's or 70's, depending on the level of competition. (NOTE: In eventing, the score the the dressage component is converted and the lowest score is the winning ride for that phase of the competition) Competitors are able to bring the judge's scores and comments home with them so they may work to improve for their next competition.

When scoring the tests, the judge looks for a number of qualities, including accuracy, energy, relaxation, consistency, rhythm, tempo, balance, and submission. The judge also considers the horse's way of moving and carrying himself and the rider's position and use of her body. As training improves and the horse begins to move more expressively, this too becomes a factor in scoring. However, at all times the horse's movements must be technically correct, regardless of the presence he exudes in the ring.

Musical Freestyle

Horses and riders may also compete in musical freestyle at various levels. In this type of competition riders may chose their own music (though vocal pieces are discouraged), movements and choreography. Just like in figure skating, certain elements are required depending on the level. Freestyle rides are judged on use of the music and movements, artistry and artistic expression. However, technical accuracy is still considered in the scoring of these rides.

Pas de Deux and Quadrilles

Two additional types of dressage competitions are the Pas de Deux and the Quadrille. Similar to Synchronized swimming, a PAs de Deux consists of two horses, and a Quadrille four. In these instances, horses perform together - frequently to music - synchronizing their choreography and movement with each other. This type of competition is judged on choreography and synchronization, as well as technical and artistic merit.