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Understanding Dressage - Tips For Non-Riders

Updated on March 6, 2013

What is dressage?

Dressage has been in the news lately. The scandal surrounding Ann Romney and the lame horse has been used against him, with comments like people would 'rather have a president who does not know what dressage is'.

The vast majority of horse people don't know what dressage is, even though it's an Olympic sport. A recent article by a roller derby competitor confused dressage with stadium jumping.

At the most basic level, dressage is a test of how well trained a horse is. It exists as an independent sport and is also one of the three phases of eventing (horse trials). Dressage competitors perform a 'test' - a series of movements within an arena of set size. (Normally, for competition, the arena is marked out only with very low fences or even lines on the ground, with major penalties if the horse puts a hoof outside of it).

Why is it called dressage? Dressage actually comes from a French verb 'dresser', which is usually translated as 'to train', but literally means 'to lift'. So, dressage is just training.

Because dressage shows a repeat of horses and riders doing the same movements, and because it is very hard for a layman to assess the scores, dressage is not a popular spectator sport except amongst other riders. Olympic dressage got something of a rap, ignored amongst the other competitions.

Some years ago, a movement started to change the format of the Olympic team and individual dressage competition. The standard, as at all international dressage competitions, was two tests, the 'Grand Prix' and 'Grand Prix Special'. The push was to change the format so that the final round would be a Freestyle round, with the horses performing individually choreographed tests to movement. Previously, only the medalists would do a freestyle, as part of a gala.

This change in format has now been implemented. With luck, this will increase the appeal and appreciation of dressage just as a similar move did for figure skating.

How is dressage judged?

Dressage scores are awarded as a percentage, with a higher score better. (In horse trials, the score is reversed...everything in horse trials is a 'penalty' from a perfect score).

The dressage score consists of a score out of ten for each movement and then four collective scores. To make the overall percentage, the scores are weighted. Some movements are worth more than others.

Each score is given on the following chart:

0 - Not executed

1 - Very bad

2 - Bad

3 - Fairly Bad

4 - Insufficient

5 - Sufficient

6 - Satisfactory

7 - Fairly good

8 - Good

9 - Very good

10 - Excellent.

A horse does not move up to the next level (see below) until it can get a 6 in all areas.

Of the four collective scores, three are assessments of the horse and one is the only direct score given to the rider.

The rider is judged on her (most commonly - dressage is a female-dominated sport) seat, position and correctness.

The horse is judged in three areas. The first is the horse's gaits, which is basically the way it moves. A dressage horse should go forward freely and have good 'tempo' or rhythm to the gaits. The second is impulsion, which is a very technical term. A horse demonstrates impulsion when it is stepping under itself with its hindquarters and moving forward from the back end. When done right, the arched neck and vertical head is actually a sign of impulsion, not a goal in itself (sadly, too many judges pay too much attention to the head and it's a common short cut to force the head into position without correctly riding the rest of the horse).

The final collective score is submission. There has recently been a campaign to change what it is called as some people think that 'submission' might be read by outsiders as a desire for a machine-like horse that only does what it is told. True dressage submission, however, is not broken, mechanical responses. The horse should be paying attention to its rider and listening to the aids, yes. It should be obeying the cues given by the rider. However, an element of submission is how much the horse demonstrates confidence and trust in its rider. A good dressage horse looks like he is having fun...and a good judge looks for that 'spark' that indicates the horse is not just doing what he is told, but showing genuine desire to please.

What are the levels of dressage?

Dressage has a series of levels that can seem to be a little confusing, especially at the upper and lower ends of the scale. The scale is:

1. Introductory.

2. Training.

3. First.

4. Second.

5. Third.

6. Fourth.

7. Intermediare I

8. Intermediare II

9. Prix St. George

10. Grand Prix

Yes, it does get very French at the top there. The four numbered levels are in the middle. Before them fall introductory and training, which are for novice horses. Introductory tests do not even include a canter and the horse is not expected to show high levels of impulsion. It's my firm opinion that any English trained horse should be able to perform a training level test to a reasonable level...really, if your horse can't walk, trot and canter circles on both reins, you have a lot of work to do.

In general, most dressage people feel that almost any horse should be able to get to second level, but if you want to go past that, you need something bred for the sport.

What Kind Of Horse?

So, what kind of horses are used in dressage?

As I already said, any well trained English horse should be able to do a training level test. (The exception being gaited horses that do not trot well, and I have more to say on that later).

Up to second level, you are likely to see all kinds of horse and pony. At the higher levels, the majority of the horses are specially bred sport horses and most come from the European Warmblood breeds. My trainer's horse, for example, is a Hanoverian. Many dressage riders swear by Trakehners. Occasionally, you may see a hunter type Thoroughbred cross or even a pure Thoroughbred. I used to know an Appendix Quarter Horse who, if it had not been for soundness problems, could easily have gone to fourth level.

Youth in dressage may ride small Warmbloods or sport ponies. New Forest ponies often show particular talent for dressage and in the early 1990s one was competing in Grand Prix. In England it is common to cross larger ponies with Thoroughbreds to make small sport horses and some of these work well as dressage horses.

Every so often a truly weird horse makes it into the higher levels. There have even been Shires competing at fourth level. At the Olympics, though, you are likely to see pretty much all specially bred Warmbloods.

A good dressage horse needs the following qualities:

1. A willing mind.

2. A degree of intelligence that allows him to understand the higher level movements.

3. Flexible, elastic movement with good reach.

4. A slightly 'uphill' build (point of shoulder a little higher than point of hip), which makes creating impulsion easier.

Dress and Tack

Most dressage riders ride in a dressage saddle, although you can go through about first level without really needing one.

A dressage saddle is longer and straighter than a normal English saddle and has unusually long girth straps. The girth buckles are thus located below the rider's leg rather than between the leg and the horse, which many believe allows for more precise aids. The saddle places the rider's leg in a straighter, deeper position than is normal in mainstream English riding. Higher end dressage saddles are gendered - you will see men's and ladies' saddles on offer. These more expensive saddles are designed to give better support to the pelvis. The highest end competitors generally have their saddles custom made.

There are rules about the bridle and bit that can be used. Sadly, it is not legal to perform dressage in a bitless bridle. (I regret this because some horses, because of old injuries, are physically unable to take a bit). Up to second level, the horse should wear some kind of snaffle bit. At third and fourth, the double bridle may be introduced and a double bridle is required above fourth level. The double bridle has two bits and two sets of reins...this is not for 'control' or brute force, but rather for finesse. If you watch the Olympics, you will see the riders using both reins.

The horses are not allowed to wear boots or wraps. Sometimes you will see colored wraps on the legs used at a gala, when the horses are not competing, and it is common to put white wraps on at clinics or demonstrations to allow watchers to see the horse's legs better.

Martingales and other training devices are not allowed.

In most cases, the mane is braided, the tail braided or pulled. The tail is usually banged (trimmed level a few inches below the hock). Rarely, you may see ponies with full manes and tails - these are generally ponies of breeds that are not allowed to be clipped or trimmed for breed competition and are doing both.

Riders wear white or cream breeches and a light shirt and tie. Jackets are black or navy blue, and must be worn unless the show steward grants a jacket waiver (i.e., if it's so abysmally hot that people would roast). White or black gloves and black boots up to the knee finish the look for the lower levels. Youth wear short boots. Long hair is placed in a net or a bun.

Traditionally, Grand Prix riders wear white breeches, a tailcoat and a top hat. However, the FEI rules now state that judges are not permitted to mark down for the use of a safety helmet at all levels, and more and more upper level riders are wearing safety helmets in competition. This trend was accelerated by the high profile accident of a rider named Courtney King-Jones.

Dressage riders generally avoid bling - the most you might see is some color at the edge of a white saddle blanket or possibly a colored browband. Plain is the order of the day - you want the judge looking at your horse, not your tack.

That horse just went sideways?

Higher level dressage includes some specialist movements. Most of these come either from the natural display behavior of stallions or from movements used by cavalry horses on the battleground. The Grand Prix movements are as follows:

Passage - the horse trots extremely slowly, barely moving, with extreme elevation.

Piaffe - the next step past passage, in which the horse literally trots in place.

Half pass - The horse moves at about a 45 degree angle, both forward and sideways, staying parallel to the outside of the arena with slight inside bend.

Pirouette - the horse rotates within its own length around its hind quarters at the canter.

Changes - the horse changes canter leads every one or two strides. It actually looks as if the horse is skipping.

There are a large number of precursors to these movements. You might also see a horse do shoulder-in, where the shoulder is angled inwards and the horse moves at an angle. Haunches in and haunches out do the reverse, angling the rear end of the horse's body off the direction of travel in either direction. These are sometimes called travers and renvers. A turn on the haunches is a pirouette performed at walk and trot. All of this 'fancy stuff' serves the overall purpose of creating a more flexible and willing horse. It can also have its uses. For example, if you have a horse trained to do a turn on the forehand...rotating on its front end within its own length...closing a gate becomes a lot easier.

Both collecting and extending the gaits is also an important element of dressage starting fairly early.!

One of the fun parts of dressage is freestyle to music. At the Grand Prix level this is traditionally referred to by the German term 'kur'. Usually, however, you would talk about 'X level Freestyle'.

In a freestyle, the horse and rider pair have to perform certain required movements, but they can do them in any order. The routine is choreographed and then performed to music. There are people who actually make money choreographing freestyle routines for riders who aren't as good at it themselves. The music isn't always nice discreet classics, either. High level riders have done routines to country and rock and roll.

Freestyle has a time limit and riders are marked down for exceeding it. It is scored differently from regular dressage. The score is split into two sections. Technical Execution covers the required movements and how well they are done. Artistic Impression includes the gaits, impulsion, submission and rider scores as well as the choreography of the routine. Each of them counts for half of the score. Sound a lot like figure skating? That's because it is a very similar system.

Do the horses sometimes spook at the music? Likely, but most horses I have dealt with actually enjoy music and appreciate an opportunity to dance to it. I know one who would even try to change gaits when music came on to one that fit the rhythm and tempo of the music better and get mad if asked not to.

Is there abuse in dressage?


One of the negative things about dressage as a sport is that it can take five or six years to get a horse to Grand Prix. This is offset by the fact that dressage horses often have long careers - it is far from unheard of for Grand Prix horses still to be competing into their late teens and working as schoolmasters to teach young riders into their twenties.

Sadly, some people don't want to wait that long, and it has been increasingly common to rush horses recently. This is combined with judges who are either unable or unwilling to reward correct work over obvious short cuts.

The biggest problem in dressage is a training technique called "rollkeur" or "hyperflexion". The horse is often ridden in the warmup with its head literally between its knees, causing it to set its head in the ring. This looks like a horse moving with correct impulsion, but isn't...and does not require months of conditioning and years of training to achieve. It is often achieved by the use of "draw reins," which run from the rider's hand through the bit and then down between the forelegs to the girth.

My personal theory is that the problem is exacerbated by riders who also don't want to put in hours of conditioning work. Riding a specialist bred, Grand Prix dressage horse is extremely physically demanding. Even if you ride regularly, trust me, if you get on a horse like that when you are not used to it, you will be feeling it the next day. I speak from experience. The fashion in dressage right now is for huge, powerful horses, and they are often ridden by small women.

The best thing to help the horses would be to start actually looking at appropriate mounting. If a 5'3 woman feels she has to get a seventeen hand horse in order to get anywhere, then there will be problems.

Also, there are bad horsemen in every sport.


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    • sgiguere profile image

      Stephanie Giguere 

      5 years ago from Marlborough MA

      Another great article! My mother is working on 4th level with an extremely talented Appendix Quarter horse. They are beautiful to watch.

    • renee21 profile image


      6 years ago

      This was very informative. I love all horse events and dressage is the most beautiful!


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