What is Dressage?

No, we aren’t talking about articles of clothing; dressage is a French term that is most commonly translated as meaning "training."
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Dressage is an exciting competition to watch and it involves years of training. Almost all breeds of horses are welcomed in dressage, making it widely available to riders throughtout the world.

In equestrian sports, dressage is defined by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) as “the highest expression of horse training” in which the “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.”


Since early history, mankind has mounted horses for military purposes. These animals, formerly wild and unpredictable, had to be obedient and maneuverable, so a system of training was developed. The earliest known dressage was documented by the Greek writer Xenophon, and it has been built upon throughout the ages by riding masters from both military and civilian backgrounds.


Since horses in the past centuries were primarily used for military purposes, it only makes sense that the evolution of the dressage horse has followed the evolution of the military horse. During the Middle Ages, heavy warhorses had to carry knights in full armor, but those modes of combat changed. As cavalry riders became lighter with less armor, so the horses used as their mounts became lighter. The hot-blooded breeds, such as the Arabian and the Thoroughbred, were bred lend their swiftness and greater maneuverability to the colder-blooded heavy horses needed by armored knights. The resulting “warmbloods” became the breeds most commonly successful in dressage today.


While there are numerous dressage competitions, the most well-known of these is most likely the Olympics, and it is from the Olympic standards that other tournaments have sprung. The modern Olympics began in 1896, but it was not until the 1900 Paris Games that equestrian events first appeared. During the 1912 Stockholm Games, the “military test” was introduced, which eventually evolved into the separate Olympic disciplines of dressage, eventing, and stadium jumping.

The riders were, at first, all male and predominantly military. The United States Cavalry at Ft. Riley collaborated with schools in Europe to exchange ideas and instructors, and a trend began that would eventually bring dressage not only to the military, but to civilians in the United States. This became of utmost importance in 1948, when the US Cavalry was disbanded and the focus for dressage shifted from military to civilian competition. This is also when the sport began to really take off.


Women and men became quite passionate about dressage competition, and the first women were allowed to compete in the sport during the 1952 Olympics. Eventually, a growing enthusiasm for the sport would see 81 pioneers of dressage come together in 1973 to found the United States Dressage Federation (USDF).


Dressage is a very popular sport, with events held throughout every year instead of just during the Olympic games. Let’s now examine what a typical dressage competition entails.


As of today, competitive dressage involves nine progressive levels, each of which incorporates multiple tests. The five “national levels” in the US are the Training Level and First through Fourth Levels. The highest levels are written by the FEI, including the following levels: “small tour” (Prix St. Georges and Intermediate I), Intermediate A, Intermediate B, and “big tour” (Intermediate II, Grand Prix, and Grand Prix Special).

Special tests are also written for musical freestyle events, sport horse breeding, and performances that incorporate multiple horses and riders. The tests are revised every four years by the USDF, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), and the FEI. Competition takes place in a regulation-size arena, with specific apparel and equipment regulated by the USEF.


In dressage, the rider’s “aids” are his or her weight, legs, and seat, all of which are used to influence the horse. The rider shifts his or her hips and weight to ask the horse to move in different directions and step into different gaits.


During competition tests, there are quite specific regulations about what tack and equipment can and cannot be used. Horses are not permitted to wear boots or wraps on their legs, or any training devices like draw reins or a martingale. An English style saddle is required, but a dressage saddle is preferred.

Only certain types of bits are allowed to be used, depending on the horse and rider’s level. From Training through Second Level, a simple snaffle bridle, which only has one rein attached to the bit, is required. At Third and Fourth level, the rider can choose to use a double bridle with two reins, which offers the rider the ability to use two bits to achieve more finesse in his or her ride.


  • Rhythm with energy and tempo
  • Relaxation with elasticity and suppleness
  • Connection: the acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids
  • Impulsion: increased energy and thrust
  • Straightness: improved alignment and balance
  • Collection: increased engagement, lightness of the forehand, self-carriage

A horse competes individually at each level, and each level consists of several tests. These tests involve variations of patterns of the same movements for that level, based on the competency required by the horse and rider. Movements for each level are prerequisites for the next level, and every test has a score sheet on which the judge assigns a score and often a comment for the movement performed.

The culmination of training levels are the dressage competition tests, which check the progress of the horse. The tests are ridden in an arena that is either 20 meters by 40 meters or 20 meters by 60 meters, with letters to mark certain points within the arena.


Dressage is an exciting competition to watch, and it involves years of training. Almost all breeds of horses are welcomed in dressage, making it widely available to riders throughout the world.