An Equestrian Art Form

Often called ballet for horses. Originated from the training of warhorses who had to respond to subtle commands from warriors who literally had there hands full (shield and sword).

An olympic event

A competition showcasing undetectable communication between horse and rider.
One of those sports that are notoriously boring for people who don't do it to watch. It's really impressive when you see the training, discipline, and money that's behind it all, but going to a dressage show is comparable to watching grass grow, watching paint dry, or watching other people play golf.

And it's pronounced 'dres-SAH-jeh', not 'dress-ij'. If you're ever caught saying the latter by people in the know you could be crucified.

Dressage comes from the French word meaning training.

The most popular form is grand prix dressage which is what most people see on TV. However, it is not limited to the difficult and complex riding. Anytime a person gets on a horse to train him, that person is practicing dressage.

Dressage may be a phase of a combined training event or a competition of its own. As mentioned above, it is considered to be the most artistic of the equestrian sports. Of course, this does not tell you a whole lot about what it is... In a nutshell, it is a test of horse's training and the communication between horse and rider. While dressage has been around for a long time as a method of training horse and rider, the testing aspect of it originated, along with most other horse sports, from military training where it was used as a test of how well a horse and rider could present themselves at formal military functions such as parades.

Esentially, dressage is the act of a horse and rider completing a designated pattern of movements. Before the competition, a "test" is chosen from a standard group of existing tests, typically published by the chosen body of the competition (United States Pony Club, United States Dressage Association, etc). The tests vary from level to level, which lower levels being more basic and advanced levels requiring moves which take years of training.

The test is conducted in a standard size arena, either 20x40 meters or 20x60 meters. The "arena" is really just a small area surrounded with a low fence, typically either chain or wood no more than 4" high or so. Around the arena are letters marking various spots. For example, the entrace is in the center of the short side of the arena and is always marked with the letter C. The judges always sit on the opposite end from the entrance at letter a. Letters E and B mark the halfway width of the long side of the arena. These letters are used to mark positions in where movements should be performed, for example a test may require the horse to trot from H to K and then walk at K.

Every test begins by entering the arena at C and proceeding to X, which marks the center of the arena between E and B. Typically you enter at a trot. Upon halting at X, you will salute the judge. For men it is customary to remove the helmet and lower it to the side. For women it is customary to lower the right hand to the side and nod your head. The judge will acknowledge the salute and the test will begin.

There are several levels of tests, far too much to list here, but I will try to summarize. At lower levels, tests basically involve walking, trotting, and cantering while performing basic moves. You may have to perform circles at the trot or canter, halt at a certain spot, and other basic movements. There are also many specific movements that may be required by the tests, more so as you get to higher levels. Here are some of the more interesting ones.

  • extended gait - the horse lengthens his stride in either the walk, trot, or canter. Note that this is a lengthening of stride, not an increase in speed.
  • free rein - the reins are loosened to demonstrate how well the rider can maintain control without them, and how the horse moves in a more natural gait.
  • counter canter - the canter is done with a "lead", that is, which front leg the horse starts off in the gait. Typically the canter is performed with the inside leg leading. A counter canter requires the horse to canter with the outside lead instead, to demonstrate how well balanced he is.
  • circles, figure 8's circles may be 5, 10, 15, or 20 meters and must be smooth and balanced. Figure 8's should be fairly obvious. Half circles are also commonly used to change direction.
  • rein-back - the horse must stop and back up without losing composure
  • forhand turn/hind turn - the horse pivots in a half circle with either a front or hind leg as a pivot point
  • half pass - the horse must move laterally while still maintaining forward momentum. That is to say, he will move to the side by crossing his legs while either at a trot or walk.
  • shoulder in - The horse will move forward with his body at an angle, with the shoulder inward.
  • flying lead change - while in a canter, the horse must change it's lead foot.
  • pirouette - this can happen at a walk or canter, with the canter being a very high level move. Basically, the horse will pivot around a hind leg while still maintaining it's gait. This is almost impossible to describe without seeing...
  • piaffe - another very high level move, this is esentially a trot in place with no forward movement.
  • passage - basically an animated trot, the horse will lift it's legs up high and pause for a brief second before lowering it. You just have to see it, it is one of the most spectacular movements.

Ok, you get the idea... Each move is broken down and scored on a rating of 0 to 10, with 10 being perfect and 0 being not performed. While there are guidelines for how to judge, there is a subjective element on the part of the judge as well. In addition, there are more general criteria that are judged as well, such as the rider's skill and the horses general movement. There are also three errors that can be had, each one incurring penalty points and the fourth error causing elminiation. Errors may be going off course, performing a movement at the wrong letter, or using your voice during the test. You can also be elminiated immediately for leaving the arena during the test (remember, it is a very low fence that can easily be stepped over), getting 4 errors, lameness of the horse, abusive treatment of the horse, or outside assistance such as a coach yelling things to you.

The test usually ends by returning to the center, halting, and saluting again. At that point the test is completed, and you will typically ride up to the judges and thank them before calmly exiting the arena. The score is tallied by adding together all the individual movement and general scores. Since it is scored on a penalty system, your score is then the difference between a perfect score and your actual score. Any penalties incurred for errors are then added in, and the lowest score wins the competition.

And that pretty much sums it up. There are more rules, I could go on about appropriate attire, training methods, levels of testing, scoring, and so on, but there are books about that if you really want to know...

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