Dressage (French term, most commonly translated to mean “training”) is a highly skilled form of riding performed in exhibition and competition, as well as an “art” sometimes pursued solely for the sake of mastery. Dressage is described as “the highest expression of horse training” where “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.”
Competitions are held at all levels from amateur to the Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games. Its fundamental purpose is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a riding horse. At the peak of a dressage horse’s gymnastic development, the horse responds smoothly to a skilled rider’s minimal aids. The rider is relaxed and appears effort-free while the horse willingly performs the requested movement.
The discipline has a rich history with ancient roots in the writings of Xenophon. Modern dressage has evolved as an important equestrian pursuit since the Renaissance when Federico Grisone’s “The Rules of Riding” was published in 1550, the first treatise on equitation in over a thousand years since Xenophon’s On Horsemanship. Much about training systems used today reflects practices of classical dressage.
In modern dressage competition, successful training at the various levels is demonstrated through the performance of “tests”, prescribed series of movements ridden within a standard arena. Judges evaluate each movement on the basis of an objective standard appropriate to the level of the test and assign each movement a score from zero to ten – zero being “not executed” and 10 being “excellent”. A score of 9 is very good and is a high mark, while a competitor achieving all 6s (or 60% overall) should be considering moving on to the next level.
In classical dressage there are two sizes of arenas, small and standard. Each has letters assigned to positions around the arena for dressage tests to specify where movements are to be performed. Cones with letters on them are positioned on the side-lines of the arena for reference as to where a movement is to be performed.
The small arena is 20 by 40 m (66 by 131 ft) and is used for the lower levels of eventing in the dressage phase, as well as for some pure dressage competitions at lower levels. Its letters around the outside edge, starting from the point of entry and moving clockwise, are A-K-E-H-C-M-B-F. Letters also mark locations along the “centreline” in the middle of the arena. Moving down the centre line from A, they are D-X-G, with X being directly between E and B.
Standard dressage arena, 20 by 60 m [66 by 197 ft]
The standard arena is 20 by 60 m (66 by 197 ft), and is used for tests in both pure dressage and eventing. The standard dressage arena letters are A-K-V-E-S-H-C-M-R-B-P-F. The letters on the long sides of the arena, nearest the corners, are 6 m (20 ft) in from the corners, and are 12 m (39 ft) apart from each other. The letters along the centreline are D-L-X-I-G, with X again being halfway down the arena. There is speculation as to why these letters were chosen. Most commonly it is believed because the German cavalry had a 20 × 60-meter area in-between the barracks which had the letters posted above the doors.
In addition to the centreline, the arena also has two “quarter lines”, which lie between the centreline and the long side of the arena. However, these are infrequently, if ever, used for competition except in a freestyle.
At the start of the test, the horse enters the arena at an opening at A. Ideally this opening is then closed for the duration of the test. However, this is not always logistically possible, particularly at smaller competitions with few volunteers.
Terms used in dressage techniques and language:
piaffe, passage, walk, trot , canter, extended and collected gaits, flying changes in sequence, pirouette, half-pass, Rhythm and regularity (Takt), Relaxation (Losgelassenheit), Contact (Anlehnung), Impulsion (Schwung), Straightness (Geraderichtung), Collection (Versammlung)
The “school jumps,” or “airs above the ground,” are a series of higher-level classical dressage movements where the horse leaves the ground. These include the capriole, courbette, the mezair, the croupade, and levade. None are used in modern competitive dressage, but are performed by horses of various riding academies, including the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Cadre Noir in Saumur. Baroque horse breeds such as the Andalusian, Lusitano and Lipizzan are most often trained to perform the “airs” today, in part due to their powerfully conformed hindquarters, which allow them the strength to perform these difficult movements.
There is a popular belief that these moves were originally taught to horses for military purposes, and indeed both the Spanish Riding School and the Cadre Noir are military foundations. However, while agility was necessary on the battlefield, most of the airs as performed today would have actually exposed horses’ vulnerable underbellies to the weapons of foot soldiers. It is therefore more likely that the airs were exercises to develop the agility, responsiveness and physiology of the military horse and rider, rather than to be employed in combat.