Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 4/2/98; 2:00:00 PM.

A Guide To Dressage

Dressage, literally "the schooling of an animal," is a systematic and sequential method of training a horse and rider from the very first step of basic work to the polished elegance of the finished pair. The object is to produce a mount that is a pleasure to ride, confident, willing and Gymnastically able to do the tasks required of him.

The Background of Classical Horsemanship

Although dressage has its roots in classical Greek horsemanship (400 B.C.) and was influenced by the knights in shining armor of the Middle Ages, it was not until the Renaissance that dressage was recognized as an important equestrian pursuit. The great riding masters of this period developed a logical training system which has changed little over the last hundred years.

One of the earliest bastions of dressage was the military, which recognized its value as a training method for the cavalry. In fact, when dressage was made an Olympic sport in 1912, it was only open to military riders, and remained so for another 40 years. Today, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna is perhaps the most familiar institution dedicated exclusively to dressage.

The Competitors

Dressage participants defy categorization. Riders will include teenagers and senior citizens; professionals and housewives; computer analysts and stock brokers. Some have dedicated their lives to the sport and some consider dressage an all consuming hobby. All share the love of horses and the pursuit of perfection that is dressage.

A dressage horse can be any breed, sex, age, color or size. Exceptional basic paces (walk, trot, and canter) together with a good temperament and sound conformation are what riders look for. He should have athletic paces, be light on his feet and have the scope to take short, sprinting strides as well as free, long and swinging ones.

Competition - The Measure of Progress

Guidelines for developing a horse in dressage are established by tests, compulsory series of movements designed to monitor correct progress of horse and rider, which gradually increase in difficulty through each level.

Levels for competition in the United States are Training Level (the most basic), First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Levels. The most difficult International levels are Prix St. Georges, Intermediare, and the highest, Grand Prix.

There is a dress code for competitors: White breeches, tall black boots, white shirt with stock tie, dark jacket and black cap, derby or top hat. The very elegant outfit of top hat and dark tailcoat is exclusively for tests above Fourth Level.

Dressage competition takes place in a low rectangular arena 20 meters by 60 meters. No one knows where the "letters" came from or the reason for the peculiar sequence, but they mark precise points in the ring at which movements are performed. A test is performed individually before one to five judges, with each movement being scored from 0-10, with overall impressions also graded. These marks are totaled for percentages and official placings. It may seem surprising that the winning scores may be only 65%; however, with each movement being scored against a standard of 100% perfection, the greatest dressage rider in the world today can only hope to earn a score in the 70% range.

Building Horse Power

Beginning dressage asks that the horse move freely forward in each gait with absolute purity of rhythm. He is asked to move on straight and widely curved lines, with equal suppleness to the left and right. Changes from gait to gait, transitions, require balance and obedience.

All of dressage is built on these basics. Each level and each test within the level places progressively more difficult and complex demands on the horse, but always within the framework of the basic gaits and in movements natural to the horse at liberty.

At each level the frame of the horse changes. At the beginning he takes only light contact with the bit and is encouraged to carry himself long. Gradually he is collected, indicating a simultaneous willingness to accept more weight on his hind legs and to come into the bridle, bringing his face more near the vertical. He becomes more compact, lowering his hindquarters, raising his back, lightening his forehand, arching his neck. Ultimately it is the lightness and strength of carriage which permit total freedom and grace of movement, exemplified in the Grand Prix figures.

The Movements and Figures

If the gaits are the foundation, the movements are the building blocks of dressage. Called school figures, each leads logically to the development of the next most difficult. The 20 meter circles of Training Level lead to 10 meter circles and eventually 6 meter circles called voltes. Lateral movement (the horse moving forward - sideways) begins with leg-yield at First Level. This prepares the horse to do shoulder-in (Second Level), which is the first step to half-pass (Third Level).

Lengthening and shortness of the stride in each gait lead to collected, medium and extended walk, trot and canter. These "accordion" movements help develop the very collected movements of the International levels: the piaffe, a beautiful cadenced trot in place; the passage, a slow suspended (floating) trot; the pirouette, a complete revolution of the horse cantering in place with his hind feet.

A favorite of spectators is the flying change of lead at the canter. The highest test levels require flying changes every fourth, then third, then second stride. Intermediare 11 and Grand Prix tests require these changes at every stride.

The Communication Between Horse and Rider

The rider communicates his desires to the horse by means of aids. These are not tricks, but a subtle combination of influences which stimulate the horse's natural physiological and psychological responses. The rider uses his seat, legs, back, weight, hands and mind in varying degrees to ask the horse to do his bidding. The more accomplished the rider, the more he is able to communicate with the horse in complete rhythm and harmony, to the point that the aids become almost invisible.

When the horse is working with the rider, not just for the rider, has achieved a harmony with him, and can perform movements that demand great athleticism, then dressage is a source of great excitement and wonderful memories for rider, judge and spectator.


What to look for in a test

The judge looks to see that the horse is willing, relaxed, supple, fluid and attentive at all times during the test. Any show of resistance, tension or stiffness is penalized.

The horse should appear to perform the movements of his own volition, with no obvious prompting from the rider.




The halt must be square and completely immobile.

The walk should be cadenced, four-beat gait with no shuffling or jogging.

A backward movement where the horse should step evenly with front and hind legs a specific number of steps.



The horse shortens his frame and stride, becoming more elevated with increased suspension between steps.

Extended Gait


The horse stretches his legs and body to lengthen the stride, maintaining the same rhythm.



The horse moves obliquely or diagonally forward. The horse should be very straight with neither the hindquarters or the shoulders leading.



A collected elevated trot but moving trot. This movement is elegant, the horse appears to float with his steps suspended in the air.

Flying Changes


When a horse canters the inside front leg lands last in every stride, notably farther ahead of the other three legs.

Shoulder In


The horse is slightly bent around the inside leg of the rider, and its inside leg pass and cross in front of the outside leg. The horse is looking away from the direction of moving.



The ultimate collected trot on the spot where the legs are lifted in even cadenced steps with the highest elevation possible.



A Pirouette is a highly developed and difficult form of lateral movement executed on a very small circle with a diameter approximately equal to the length of the horse. It can be performed in all gaits.

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