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What is Dressage?

Updated on February 6, 2012

Dressage is the systematic training of a horse to make him supple, balanced and obedient to his rider. The term dressage, a French word meaning simply 'training', is also used to denote the competitive sport in which horses attaining a high degree of training may partake. While the average horse will not reach competition standard, dressage is none the less an integral part of his education for, by improving his natural carriage and gaits, it makes him not only more pleasant and safe to ride but also a more effective performer, whatever his sphere of activity.

The origins of dressage can be traced back to the 16th century when systems of training were evolved by the great European court riding masters. These early masters, who often used barbarous methods to achieve their ends, were succeeded in the 18th century by the more enlightened and humane Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere (known as 'the father of classical equitation') whose principles are still followed at the most famous survivor of the royal riding schools of the Renaissance, the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Dressage at this level becomes haute ecole (high school) and includes the spectacular airs (leaps) above the ground such as the capriole, in which the horse leaps high into the air, kicking out with his hind legs. These leaps, and indeed all dressage activities, are based on actions natural to the horse at liberty.

Competition dressage involves the riding of a test, lasting some seven minutes, comprising a set sequence of movements. These include work at walk, trot and canter; lateral work, which requires the horse to move forwards and sideways at the same time; and the rein-back, wherein the horse moves backwards a prescribed number of paces; at top international level the passage and piaffe (cadenced variations of the trot) and the pirouette will also be performed.

International dressage is judged under the rules of the Federation Equestre Internationale and tests are of three standards: medium, advanced and grand prix. An international arena measures 60m x 20m. Each judge awards marks for each individual movement.

A dressage test is included in horse trials, but horses are not required to perform to such a high standard as those in 'pure' dressage.


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