What Is Dressage And How Do You Get Started

In this article I wanted to share exactly what dressage is and provide you with the tools and education on how you get started.

Dressage is something that I have loved ever since I was a little girl. The magic of seeing a horse and rider dance together is truly a beautiful thing to watch. It requires an incredible relationship between horse and rider and many years of training. Both the horse and rider are athletes, and I remember a coach once saying to me dressage is like training a ballet dancer or gymnast, but you can’t talk to them. It takes years of trust and clear communication to help build that gymnast strength and confidence up.


Where it began

Dressage itself is a way of training and riding your horse. The actual word “dressage” is French and evolved from the verb dresseur meaning to train. There are many different equestrian disciplines of horseback riding from classical dressage, western riding, through to jumping, reining and eventing to name a few. Dressage itself is an Olympic discipline and it is enjoyed all around the world through the various levels with Grand Prix being the highest level that is performed internationally and Grand Prix musical freestyle being the real crowd pleaser as this is where the movements are performed to music.

When riding a dressage test the horse and rider are judged on how they perform a series of movements that are in accordance with the level they are competing in. The degree of difficulty of each level increases from training level through to FEI (Federal Equestrian International) levels, which are the same tests performed in every nation worldwide.

The dressage tests are performed in a 20 meter x 60 meter arena with a smaller arena being used at some levels. Within the test there are separate movements that flow from one movement to the next, each movement is marked from 0-10. 10 being excellent, 5 sufficient and 0 no movement was performed. At the end of each test, the dressage judge also gives four general impression scores for the performance. All the points are then added and divided by the total possible score to give a percentage mark for that test performed by horse and rider.

According to the United States dressage federation (USDF ) “Dressage became an Olympic Sport in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm with only military officers eligible to compete until 1953 when the rules evolved to allow both civilian men and women to compete. The growing enthusiasm for the sport, supported by increased access to knowledgeable military and foreign trainers, finally brought together 81 pioneers of dressage in 1973 to found the United States Dressage Federation.” Today dressage is worldwide with both men and women competing on a level playing field within the sport.


What is CDI Dressage?

CDI is an acronym for Concours Dressage International, which is a dressage competition recognized by the FEI. CDI competitions (“international” shows) have several additional requirements above those necessary for competing in USEF/USDF recognized shows (“national” shows).

Many top level riders will compete internationally to be able to get to more CDI events and gain more exposure at these bigger competitions. For example, New Zealand riders will often head to Australia for the extra CDI level competition as there aren’t many CDI level competitions within New Zealand’s calendar season.


How To Train A Dressage Horse

When teaching any horse the object is to have the horse respond to our aids. Stop, go, left, right, back and so on. All horses in order to ride safely need to have an understanding of basic aids and in the training of a dressage horse the understanding of these aids are built through movements and layers added upon them as strength develops. Not all horses will make it to the top level grandprix. However the dressage training of the horse no matter their breeding is to help the horses build balance, symmetry and strength so that it can use its body properly, the actual training of dressage and its foundations will help all horses.

Ideally, when training dressage, the horse must have three free balanced, elastic and regular gaits which are: a four beat walk with no moment of suspension, a two-beat trot with a moment of suspension between each diagonal beat and a three beat canter with a moment of suspension following the 3 beats. It is the goal of a rider to help develop a happy horse and maintain these 3 balanced gaits through the systematic training of dressage. By helping to develop a horse’s flexibility, responsiveness to aids, and balance the riders helps make the horse stronger and more pleasurable to ride.


What are some of the dressage movements

The discipline of dressage is like ballet on horseback. The horse and rider work together to perform movements that seem effortless and that flow gracefully from one to the next. This form of riding takes a high level of athletism and good communication between horse and rider.

Just like ballet for humans or any sport there are some physiques that will naturally find it easier than others. Within the dressage test there are movements that are speed changes within each gate and then there are movements that are lateral that requires the horse to move in a direction while maintaining existing gate and balance. Then there are movements that require the horse to sit more and use their hind legs more. Some horses have an ability to “lengthen” easily, while others naturally have an ability to “sit” easily.


What are the levels of competition?

There are various levels in which you can compete dressage and most competitions will cater for all levels. The highest level being Grand Prix level, which can be seen at the Olympics and World Equestrian Games. When you compete, you are competing against yourself, as well as others taking the test. The goal of the competition is to always improve your own score and get a good idea of where your training sits and a measure of what you can improve on by using the judge’s feedback.

Each level has various movements in which are appropriate for that level, here is a brief summary of what gets introduced as you move up the levels within New Zealand Dressage tests.

Intro: walk, trot, canter and 20m circle

First level: 20 meter circles, 5-metre loops in trot and give and take of the reins

Second level: sitting trot movements introduced, leg yield in trot, 15 meter canter circle, 10 meter trot circle, change of lead through trot, rein back, lengthened strides in trot and canter

Third level: half turn on haunches, collected trot, collected canter, medium trot, 10 meter canter circle, shoulder-in & travers, counter canter

Fourth level: collected walk, trot circles 8 meter , extended walk, extended trot, extended canter, half piroutte in walk, trot half pass, canter half pass

Fifth level: 8 meter canter circle, single flying change, half volte 3-5 meter in collected canter, three flying changes every fourth stride.



What do dressage scores mean?

When the judge is scoring your dressage test, they are wanting to give you a 10 for excellent according to the description of that movement. However, 10s are very rare. Overall scores of 70% or over for a dressage test are considered very good, scores of 60-70% are considered good. With often scores over 65% being a qualifying mark to enter national level competitions. If the horse and rider are consistently scoring 65%+ at any level of dressage competition this indicates that horse and rider are generally ready to move onto the next level.


What are judges looking for during a Dressage test?

When you enter a dressage competition each level test has a purpose. It is this purpose that the judges use as a baseline for scoring your performance. For example in the New Zealand Dressage Test book for 2013, the purpose of Level 1 test is ” to confirm that the horse has developed and maintains a rounded natural outline without restriction, moves freely forward without collection but with active hindquarters whilst maintaining a steady rhythm and contact with the bit without tension or resistance.”

As you move up the grades the purpose of each higher level test changes as the demands of the movements grow and the horse’s strength, balance, symmetry and ability to carry more weight on hind legs all improve.


What to expect at a dressage competition

When riding a dressage test, you will be scored by a judge sitting at the end of the arena behind the marker C. In some competitions there will be 3 judges with the other two being down the long side of the arena behind E and B. The judges will give you a score on every element of the dressage test as you ride. The look to how well the horse is moving for the purpose of that level in which you are riding. They will also look for obedience, suppleness and accuracy.

Before you enter the dressage arena, you will hear a bell or in some cases the car horn toot. This is the judge letting you know you can now enter the arena to perform your test. You will then enter and salute the judge, after halting and saluting the judge, you will ride the movements of your test using the letters around the arena as your guide.

You will be asked to ride at different gaits and variations of speed within the gaits. When starting out and at the lower levels you don’t need to remember the test, you can have a caller on the side of the arena call it out for you. It’s a good idea though to know your test in the case for some reason it’s windy, the caller is late or you just simply can’t hear them. Then once you have finished the movements of the test you will halt, salute the judge, and leave the ring. At the end of the dressage competition, you will receive your scorecard, with a final score. Use this time to take a look at the judges comments and find areas in which you wish to improve on for next time.


Training your horse for competition

When training your horse, it’s important to train them slowly and in accordance with their personality. Just like humans, they learn differently and they all take different amounts of time to build strength and suppleness. So the best place to start is to get a dressage trainer who can help you on the ground teach your horse the right aids and help you communicate and build your relationship together. Understand the Dressage Pyramid Of Training, will also help you with your training and what you are trying to work on.

While you are training learn your tests and the movements required. Practice riding your test and mastering each movement. Practice the test and improve your horses response to the aids giving. But be patient with your approach and listen to your horse as you are training. Also be sure to mix your training up so you aren’t in an arena all the time. I love to use video to see how my riding looks. Its a great way to self- analysis and pick things up in between your lessons with a trainer.


Training yourself as well as your horse

Dressage is a team sport so as much as you focus on your horses training and getting it in balance to improve their posture and strength, be sure to work on your own suppleness, stamina and stability and don’t forget about the importance of the right mindset. Taking just a little bit of time to work on your own wellbeing can really make a big impact on the time you spend in the saddle. Have a look at our free guide to get some useful stretches and tips to get you started today.


Benefits of Dressage

Dressage is the foundation of most horse riding disciplines. It is the basic training of aids and all horses can benefit from a foundation of dressage training. Choosing to focus in on one discipline will allow you to master the art of that discipline further. It was for this reason I fell in love with dressage, I was doing eventing at the time and my jumping only improved as my dressage improved.

If you compete in dressage you will find the challenge comes in trying to improve your score by mastering the elements of what dressage is all about and the purpose of the test level you are competing in. Each movement when you ride has a description of what a 10 would look like, so when we ride its important to know the description of each movement and what the judge is looking for. This understanding will also help you with your everyday training and being able to progress through the levels.

The main thing to remember no matter what discipline you do it’s about doing what you love and enjoying spending time with your horse. So if dressage isn’t your thing, understanding a little bit about what dressage actually is it will help you enjoy your riding more if you have clearer communication with your horse and an understanding of the basic aids and then able to build your relationship with your horse more clearly.


Want to learn more about dressage and how to get started, check out these articles

What is the Dressage Pyramid of Training

How to apply the dressage pyramid of training to your training at home


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Dressage Horse training system

We have created a simple training system with our sister site Dressage Horse Training   that is built upon the pyramid of training also known as the training scale.

Learn how to structure your weekly training and see it applied to various horses from young green broke, through to Grand Prix.

The secret to success is following a simple and proven system. So whether you are figuring out how to get started with dressage or a more advanced competitive rider, we cover everything you need to help you with your training at home. No matter where in the world you are based.

Learn how to master the art of dressage horse training, improve your dressage scores and make dressage easier to master.

To get started, check out these articles



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