The art of dressage means “training” in French, and dates back to the Xenophon in Greece and includes the military, as well as the famous riding schools developed during the Baroque era.
During the Renaissance, dressage was an appreciated art form, and the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, which today is still famous for its Lipizzaner Stallions, has preserved that art. It is also described by some as ballet on horseback. Horse and rider make it appear effortless, but it takes a high level of athleticism, communication, and skill to make these complex moves appear effortless and graceful.
A dressage test ridden to music is called a kur. This can be a very enjoyable experience for the rider, as they get to choreograph their own test using the required parameters provided, and it is also very exciting for the spectator to witness as well.
The modern Olympics began in 1896, with equestrian events first appearing in the 1900 Paris Games. Since horses were primarily used in the military up until that point in time, it was the test of the military horse that was the standard during the inception of the modern Olympics. This test included obedience and maneuverability, or what we now refer to as Dressage. At that point the riders were all male, and most of them were also military. It wasn’t until 1952 that women were allowed to compete in the equestrian disciplines at the Olympics.
For upper level competition, Arabian and Thoroughbred lines are most desirable, as they are bred to be refined with the attributes of a leggy, elegant horse with beautiful movement. These warmbloods dominate the international dressage competitions as we know them today.
A standard size competition arena is about 100 feet X 200 feet, and the perimeter is marked with letters. Before entering the arena, you will want to make sure that your horse is impeccably groomed, mane braided, and the tack must be thoroughly cleaned.
There will be up to three judges evaluating you and scoring you on accuracy, attitude, obedience, suppleness, and your proficiency as a rider. After the rider enters the ring, halts and salutes the judge, you will perform the tasks as described in your test, which consists of riding at different gaits, as well as different variations within the gaits in straight lines and circles, using the letters as your guide. After you have completed your test you will once again halt, salute the judge, and exit the ring. In dressage competition, you are competing against yourself to improve your own score.
Any breed of horse or pony can be ridden for dressage at the lower levels, as long as they are sound, since developing a horse’s flexibility, balance and responsiveness to aids is intended to develop the horse’s natural ability to make him calm, supple, and attentive to the rider. The rider’s core strength, balance and position are key. It is just as important for the rider to work on their own conformation as well as their horses. This will make the cues more clear to your horse, and will result in the ultimate harmonious relationship between horse and rider.
When training your horse for dressage, it is important to train slowly to reduce sore muscles and a reluctant horse. It is also important to allow time for relaxation and fun, so set aside some time for trail riding so that your horse has the opportunity to stretch and use his other muscles as well.
When practicing with your horse in your own ring, you can easily make arena letters to place in the appropriate places to make it easier to memorize for a test. As you train your horse, you will be focusing on using your seat, hands and legs efficiently to cue your horse to move with intention and precision. No matter which discipline you prefer to ride, both you and your horse will benefit from basic dressage training.