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What is Dressage ~ From Lipizzan Horses to Dressage in the Barcelona Olympics ~ Our Experiences
Dressage equestrian event ~ 1992 Barcelona Olympics
The Art of Dressage
Dressage is just that...an extremely beautiful art form. Dressage riding and dressage horse training combines years of practice for both rider and horse in order to execute these seemingly effortless and yet extremely difficult feats of strength and endurance. It can almost be likened to watching a ballet.
Our first experience with seeing this type of horsemanship was in Houston, Texas many years ago. We heard that there was to be a performance of the famous Lipizzaner horses and we eagerly purchased tickets. We truly did not know what to expect and as we looked down upon the horses and riders, we thought that not much was happening on the field.
It took a while with the help of an announcer on the public address system to understand the fine moves being made by the Lippizzan horses in conjunction with their riders to fully comprehend what we were viewing. At that point we became enthralled!
When we had a chance to view some Olympic games in Barcelona back in 1992, we signed up to get equestrian tickets and ended up getting to see more dressage. We were thrilled!
Lipizzan Stallion and rider performing
Surprisingly there are only several thousand Lipizzaner horses in existence world-wide.
These are a special breed of horse which were developed in Slovenia and in fact have become their national animal symbol. An image of this magnificent breed is even inscribed upon one of their coins.
Like other warm-blood horses, a term designating that these were bred specifically for sport such as dressage and show jumping purposes, these special horses could quite possibly have become extinct during many different wars throughout history were it not for concerned individuals who went to extra-ordinary lengths to protect them.
During WW2, General Patton did just such a thing and it was even memorialized in a 1963 Walt Disney film titled Miracle of the White Stallions.
While the Lipizzaner horses do indeed look white, it is actually their hair which gives that appearance. Their skin is typically grey.
During the Lipizzaner show that my husband, mother, niece and I were watching, we became more attuned to enjoying some of the movements that the horses with their riders were performing.
Much of what they do is counter intuitive and not the normal pace, trot nor feat that a horse would ordinarily do.
Horses performing dressage moves
Riding horses was not something that I grew up doing. In fact I have only been atop a horse a few times in my life so I am far from an expert.
These are some of the different things that horses trained in dressage end up performing and they make it look truly effortless. Once we learned some of this via the announcer, watching the Lipizzaner horses and riders became even more fascinating.
- Half-pass or Side pass This is where a horse moves forward and side-ways at the same time! When a group of them are doing it at the same time, it is an amazing site to behold.
- Piaffe A horse doing this is lifting its knees up and down from left to right but staying in place. It is highly cadenced and wonderful to watch.
- Passage This is where the horse looks like it is actually dancing! This is an exaggerated form of the Piaffe where the horse lifts it's legs very high up off of the ground in a trot mode while moving forward.
- Pirouette Just like a human ballerina, the horse spins around doing half or full circles with it's back legs making small circle movements staying mostly in place and the front legs doing most of the whirling movements visible to a crowd.
- Counter Canter Here the horse's head, front legs and body is slightly bent in one direction while actually traveling in the opposite direction. Like I said at the top...hardly the normal way of how a horse would travel!
- Flying Change Here is where the horse actually appears to be skipping!
- Extended Trot This is just what it sounds like. The horse's legs are really stretched out in the front and the back as it trots in an elongated form.
- Capriole The horse has literally jumped up in the air with all four legs and then gives a kick with the back legs.
- Levade and Pesade Another move that the Lipizzaner stallions did was to literally look like they were just about standing upright with only their two back legs on the ground. They could hold that pose for an amazing length of time! The Levade is the hardest as it is performed at a 30 degree angle! The horse's back legs must have tremendous strength! The Pesade is at a 45 degree angle which is slightly easier considering gravity.
- Courbette Here is another move the horses do on their hind legs. They balance with their front legs in the air and then jump forward which appears as hopping.
- Reinback This is where the horse walks backwards.
- Serpentine The horses follow a weaving pattern that extends the length of the arena in which they are performing.
You can get some idea from this, the difficulty of what dressage entails. At Olympic events the horses trained in dressage are expected to make frequent changes between some of these movements such as the pirouette, extended trot, half-pass, piaffe, reinback, serpentine and the passage.
The video below shows many of these moves. It takes a while to fully comprehend what they are doing but watch their legs and movement fore-armed with the descriptions of movements above. I think you will be amazed as we were when seeing this for the first time.
Spanish Riding School Vienna Philharmonic...and the Lipizzaner Stallions
My husband and I were so fortunate to be able to attend some of the Olympic events in Barcelona, Spain back in 1992. In addition to the Opening Ceremonies, we were given equestrian tickets, men's diving and gymnastics. We gave up the gymnastics tickets in order to take a tour of the city since it was our first visit to Barcelona.
Scenery from Barcelona to El MontaynaClick thumbnail to view full-size
As it turned out this was a preliminary competition in dressage and not the finals, but it mattered not to us.
We were driven by bus for one hour out of Barcelona into the country-side to El Montayna where it was set up for the equestrian competitions.
This was actually fun as we got to see more of the surrounding landscape.
We had a tour director that spoke English so we were able to hear about some of the sites we were passing.
One of the houses viewed from the road outside of Barcelona was her grandmother's home. It was built 100 years before our American Declaration of Independence!
Hiking towards the equestrian venue after being dropped off by bus.Click thumbnail to view full-size
There were security officials on horseback outside of the Olympic equestrian venue monitoring the crowds.
We had to pass through security to get onto the grounds where there were loads of tents set up where one could get refreshments; use Porto-potties, access first aid if necessary, and secure a spot on the bleachers which had been set up to watch the dressage competition.
Passing through security...
Once on the grounds we were free to move about and go where we wished. There was a constant milling of crowds in the tent areas as the day was hot and the shade was a welcomed respite. We certainly did our part to support the bottled water industry that day!
Tented area for Olympic Dressage 1992Click thumbnail to view full-size
The bleachers were built up around the show ring and were out in the open. The people who had thought to bring hats and sunscreen lotion were smart!
We sat next to a couple from California who were knowledgeable about horses and in particular, dressage. They were able to explain many of the technical details that were being judged that day. It had been many years prior when we had seen the Lipizzaner stallions performance.
People in bleachers watching the Olympic dressage event in 1992Click thumbnail to view full-size
It was wonderful getting to see the carefully controlled movements of horse and rider competing down below us.
The judges were set up in a series of three wooden huts at one edge of the ring where the competitors would do their maneuvers right in front of them.
The dressage event would be graded on a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being the best.
Many qualifying events would have been held leading up to the Olympics which is the final challenge for the best competitors from around the world showing off their years of training...all hoping to get those coveted bronze, silver and gold medals. Click HERE to see who won those 1992 equestrian events including those of dressage.
Dressage Olympic event outside Barcelona, Spain 1992Click thumbnail to view full-size
Getting to view a dressage event at anytime makes for a most memorable memory. It is just about the highest form of horsemanship that a person is ever likely to see. Best wishes to those competing in the upcoming London Olympics as well as Olympic games long into the future!
Have you ever viewed a dressage event?
Location of Barcelona, Spain
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© 2012 Peggy Woods