Dressage is a captivating equestrian discipline that combines technical execution and artistic expression. Rooted in ancient traditions, dressage competitions showcase elegance, precision and harmony between horse and rider.

Most riders associate dressage with advanced horse and rider combinations performing intricate movements, but riders of all levels can participate in dressage competitions.

Cross-training in dressage can also benefit riders from other equestrian sports. Dressage training aims to improve communication between horse and rider while enhancing the horse’s natural movement and athleticism.

Dressage doesn’t have to be complicated. This guide is here to help riders and spectators understand everything they need to know about the discipline. Keep reading to learn more about dressage history, competition, movements, levels, training, and horses.

What is Dressage?

Dressage is both a sport and an art. This training method develops the horse’s rideability, balance, and strength. Dressage horses and riders perform specific movements to showcase their training in competition.

According to the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) , the international governing body for equestrian sport, “The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education.”

“As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider.” [7]

History of Dressage

The word dressage comes from a French term that means “training.” Initially developed by militaries to train cavalry horses, dressage traces back to ancient Greece.

Dressage later evolved into an art form during the Renaissance, with the competitive sport emerging in the 19th century. [1]

Xenophon: Forefather of Modern Equestrians

The ancient roots of dressage originated with the writings of Xenophon, a Greek military commander born in 430 BC. Xenophon wrote On Horsemanship, the earliest surviving work on the training of horses. [1]

In ancient times, militaries needed to produce obedient, responsive horses to ride in battle. Countries refined their training programs over centuries, eventually founding military riding schools. These forms of equestrian military training are the earliest predecessors of modern dressage fundamentals.

Classical Dressage

The Renaissance gave rise to classical dressage, a new approach to riding as a sophisticated art. Some military schools transitioned to well-known centers for classical riding, where riders perfected their craft and performed exhibitions for nobles. [9]

These riding schools developed more advanced dressage movements. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna is the most famous riding school dedicated to preserving classical dressage traditions. [9]

Competitive Dressage

Dressage first appeared at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Only military officers could compete in the sport, which was initially based on obedience tests used by the military. [2]

By 1936, dressage competitions included most of the modern movements seen today. The sport grew in popularity after the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games when women and civilian men became eligible to compete. [2]

The 2024 Paris Olympic Games will include the equestrian sports of dressage, jumping, and eventing. Dressage has been part of every Olympics since 1912 and is already confirmed for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

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Dressage Organizations

Dressage governing bodies develop rules and regulations for competition. These organizations also accredit officials, provide educational opportunities, and promote dressage at the national and international levels.

FEI

As the international governing body for horse sports, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) establishes regulations for all international dressage events and championships. The FEI also approves equestrian programs at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Dressage is one of seven recognized FEI disciplines. Disciplines recognized by the FEI include:

  • Dressage
  • Jumping
  • Eventing
  • Para-equestrian
  • Endurance
  • Vaulting
  • Driving

USEF

The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) is the national governing body for equestrian sport in the United States. The USEF recognizes all international disciplines governed by the FEI and 11 additional national disciplines.

Other national disciplines recognized by USEF include:

  • English Pleasure
  • Carriage Pleasure Driving
  • Hunter
  • Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation
  • Parade Horse
  • Reining
  • Roadster
  • Saddle Seat
  • Western
  • Western Dressage
  • Western/Reining Seat Equitation

US Equestrian trains, selects, and funds the United States Equestrian Teams representing the country at international dressage championships, including the Olympic Games. USEF also licenses national dressage competitions and accredits national officials.

USDF

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) is a national membership organization dedicated to dressage. USDF recommends rules and regulations for recognized dressage shows to USEF.

This organization promotes growth of dressage and guides development of the sport in the United States. They provide educational opportunities, award programs, certifications, and training for dressage officials, professionals, and amateurs.

Group Member Organizations

Group Member Organizations (GMOs) are local clubs affiliated with the USDF. These clubs help organize clinics, competitions, and educational programs in specific areas. Most GMOs also offer unrecognized schooling shows.

Equestrian Canada

Equestrian Canada (EC) is the national governing body for equestrian sport in Canada. EC establishes rules and regulations for national dressage competitions in the country and nominates Canadian teams for international dressage championships.

The EC Dressage Committee leads the strategy for dressage programs, services, and sport development in Canada.

Dressage Competition

Dressage shows allow riders to showcase their horse’s training in competition. These events consist of tests that include movements of increasing difficulty as athletes move up the levels. Judges score movement combinations based on their performance to determine a winner.

Memberships and Rules

Most recognized dressage combinations require memberships with relevant organizations to participate. The rules and regulations associated with dressage competitions can also vary depending on the type of competition.

Always check with your national governing body and local member organization for entry requirements. Licensed officials and show volunteers can help answer questions on competition day.

National Competitions

Riders need an active USEF and USDF membership to compete in recognized USEF/USDF shows. Horses also need USEF and USDF registration numbers to participate.

National dressage competitions include open, amateur, and Jr/YR divisions based on rider status. All riders, including professionals, can compete in open divisions.

Youth riders can compete in Jr/YR divisions until the calendar year they reach age 22. Only adult riders who ride as a hobby can compete in amateur dressage divisions.

International Competitions

Athletes and horses must register with the FEI to compete in international events. All horses competing at these events also need an FEI or national passport approved by the FEI. Riders require approval from their national federation to participate in an international competition.

A CDI, or Concour de Dressage International, is an international competition recognized by the FEI. These competitions have the strictest regulations. International Championships sometimes have additional rules.

CDIs are given star ratings from CDI1* to CDI5* based on the level of riders participating, amount of prize money in contest, which classes are offered, and which affiliated organization is hosting the event. Multiple CDI star levels can run at the same event, but all have slightly different rules and entry requirements.

Other types of CDIs include CDI-Ws and CDIOs. A CDI-W is a qualifier for the FEI World Cup Dressage series, while a CDIO is a Nations Cup with team competitions. The FEI also offers CDIs for youth riders and young horses.

Schooling Shows

Show fees can get expensive. Riders new to the sport can participate in schooling shows that don’t require membership to enjoy the sport while minimizing financial commitments.

Many schooling shows also have relaxed rules and equipment requirements.

Judges at these shows typically provide more feedback to the riders than those at higher level events, making them a great learning opportunity for horses and riders who are new to competitive dressage.

The Dressage Arena

Horses and riders perform dressage tests in a standard-sized arena during competition.

There are two different dressage arena sizes:

  • Standard Dressage Arena: 20m x 60m (approximately 66ft x 198 ft)
  • Small Dressage Arena: 20m x 40m (approximately 66ft x 132 ft)

Dressage competitions only use small arenas for some introductory level tests, para-dressage tests, eventing tests, and schooling shows.

Arena Letters

A traditional dressage arena consists of white railings lining the outer border and letters marking specific locations along the perimeter. Theories suggest these letters originated from locations in the Imperial German Court and German cavalry barracks. [9]

Riders enter the arena at A, which marks the center of the nearest short side. In competitions with a single judge, the judge sits at C, which marks the center of the opposite short side.

Starting clockwise from A, a small dressage arena has the following letters around the perimeter:

A  K  V  E  S  H  C  M  R  B  P F

Mnemonic devices can help new riders memorize the major letter locations that mark the endpoints, corners, and midpoints, such as:

All King Edward’s Horses Can Manage Big Fences

Small arenas only mark these major letters. Standard dressage arenas include the “in-between” perimeter letters R, S, V, and P.

Dressage arenas also have “imaginary letters” in the middle of the arena. These include the following letters marking points along the centerline from A and C:

D  L   X   I  G

Most dressage tests begin and end with a halt on the centerline. Many of these tests require halts at X, located at the center of the arena.

Dressage Tests

Dressage tests are a sequence of required movements performed at specific letters in the arena by horses and riders during competition.

Tests include patterns and movements that match the skill level of horses and riders competing at different levels, increasing in difficulty as combinations advance. Every test has a directive stating the purpose and overall concept for the level.

Riders perform their test before a licensed dressage judge, who scores the ride based on their performance.

Dressage Freestyle

The dressage freestyle is the most exciting event for spectators. Riders design their freestyle choreography based on compulsory movements and perform the test to music of their choice. The end result resembles a synchronized dance between horse and rider.

Grand Prix Freestyles are the highlight of international championships, but freestyle events are included at all levels of dressage. Most governing bodies require riders to earn a minimum qualifying score before riding a musical freestyle.

National-level competitions also permit freestyle routines with multiple riders. A pas de deux has two riders, while a quadrille has four.

Dressage Scoring

Every test has a score sheet for judges to provide comments and score each movement performed on a scale from 1 to 10.

  • 10 = Excellent
  • 9 = Very Good
  • 8 = Good
  • 7 = Fairly Good
  • 6 = Satisfactory
  • 5 = Marginal
  • 4 = Insufficient
  • 3 = Fairly Bad
  • 2 = Bad
  • 1 = Very Bad
  • 0 = Not Performed

Half points are also allowed in dressage scoring.

Collective Marks

National level tests also include scores for five collective marks:

  • Gaits
  • Impulsion
  • Submission
  • Rider’s Seat and Position
  • Rider’s Correct and Effective Use of Aids

Judges assign collective marks at the end of the test based on the overall ride.

International-level tests include a single collective mark for general impression.

Artistic Marks

Freestyles have additional scores for artistic marks:

  • Rhythm, energy, and elasticity
  • Harmony between rider and horse
  • Choreography
  • Degree of difficulty
  • Music and interpretation of music

Total points for artistic presentation contribute to 50% of the final score. Most riders receive significantly higher final scores for freestyles than regular dressage tests.

Final Score

Riders earn a total percentage score for their ride based on the points earned divided by the possible points available in the test. All scores are added and divided by the number of judges for the final result in competitions with multiple judges.

The highest percentage score wins the competition. Scorers break ties based on collective or artistic marks if applicable.

Most amateur riders aim to score between 60-70%. Scores over 70% are considered very good. Team riders need scores over 75% to be competitive at international championships.

Scoring over 80% is rare, but highly talented young horses competing in the lower levels and top international Grand Prix riders occasionally break this barrier.

Consistent scores above 65% indicate a horse and rider may be ready to advance to the next level. Conversely, regularly scoring below 60% may be a sign more training is required before a team competes at that level again.

Dressage Judges

Dressage judges are licensed officials qualified to evaluate dressage competition performances.

Judges are responsible for preserving high standards for the sport, advocating for horses, promoting good sportsmanship, and providing valuable feedback for competition riders.

One or two judges typically judge tests at national shows. One judge sits at the letter C. The second judge sits at B, E, H, or M.

CDIs require five judges from different countries, but lower-level tests at CDIs may use three judges. The Olympic Games, World Cup Finals, and other international championships have seven judges.

Judge Licenses

Qualification requirements differ depending on the level of competition. The USEF licenses dressage judges at three levels. All judging programs require extensive experience and training.

All judges need qualifying scores as riders to apply for the judging programs. National judges can only officiate at competition levels they qualify for based on their licenses.

  • Senior ‘S’ Judge: All USEF and FEI level classes at national competitions
  • Registered ‘R’ Judge: USEF Fourth Level and below or equivalent at national competitions
  • Recorded ‘r’ Judges: USEF Second Level and below or equivalent at national competitions

Judge Education

The USDF L Education Program prepares candidates interested in the USEF ‘r’ program and provides dressage participants insight into judging. L program graduates frequently judge unrecognized schooling shows for local GMOs.

FEI Judges

USEF can recommend national judges to enter the FEI judging program. The FEI licenses international dressage judges from 2* to 5*. Only FEI 5* judges can officiate at the Olympic Games and World Championships.

Show Staff

Judges are part of large teams that help dressage competitions run smoothly. Other dressage show staff, officials and volunteers include:

  • Technical Delegates
  • Ring Stewards
  • Scribes
  • Runners
  • Scorers
  • Show Managers
  • Announcers
  • Veterinarians

Dressage Movements

Dressage teaches the horse to perform movement sequences that demonstrate athleticism and rideability in competition. Riders also use movements as training exercises to develop the horse’s ability and paces.

Gaits

Dressage movements involve variations within your horse’s natural gait. Horses must perform three basic gaits in competition:

  • Walk
  • Trot
  • Canter

Gait quality significantly impacts dressage scores. While some horses have more natural abilities, you can improve any horse’s movement through correct training.

  • Working Gaits: Horses perform a working trot and working canter at the lower levels. In working gaits, horses stay on the bit as they move forward with even strides and reasonable balance.
  • Free and Stretchy Gaits: The free walk is a relaxed, energetic gait that allows horses to stretch on a long rein. In a stretchy trot, the horse lowers the head and neck and stretches over the topline at the trot.
  • Medium Gaits: The medium walk is a clear, unconstrained gait that maintains light, steady contact. Medium trot and medium canter show a moderate lengthening in stride.
  • Collected Gaits: Collected gaits require horses to carry themselves in an uphill balance and maintain impulsion (forward movement) while shortening stride length.
  • Extended Gaits: Horses cover as much ground as possible in extended gaits while maintaining a regular tempo and balance in a lengthened frame.
  • Passage: Passage is a collected gait performed at the highest levels of the sport. Passage is a very elevated and cadenced trot with pronounced engagement and joint flexion. This gait includes a prolonged moment of suspension.
  • Piaffe: Piaffe is another gait performed at the highest levels, which involves a highly collected and elevated trot with minimal forward movement. Horses appear to trot on the spot with lowered hindquarters, free forehand, and active steps.
  • Rein Back: In a rein back, the horse steps backward while remaining straight and moving legs in diagonal pairs.
  • Halts and Transitions: Judges also score halts and other transitions in dressage tests. Nearly every test begins and ends with a halt. Horses should stand square, straight, and motionless at the halt. Transitions include any change between or within gaits.

Canter Leads

Horses canter on a left or right lead based on which front leg moves independently and lands last in the footfall sequence of this three-beat gait. Dressage horses typically canter on the inside lead unless performing a counter canter or lead changes.

  • Counter Canter: in counter canter, the horse canters on the outside lead. For example, a horse tracking or turning left will maintain a right lead.
  • Simple Change: the simple change is a change of lead through the walk. The rider transitions to the walk from the canter on one lead and promptly transitions back to the canter on the other lead.
  • Flying Change: a flying change allows horses to change leads on command while staying in the canter. The hind leg and front legs change simultaneously during the moment of suspension.
  • Tempi Changes: are sequences of flying changes performed every fourth, third, second, or every stride.

Lateral Movements

Lateral work describes sideways motion in dressage movements.

  • Leg Yield: in a leg yield, the horse keeps a straight body while moving forward and sideways. The poll and jaw are slightly flexed away from the direction of travel.
  • Shoulder-In: the shoulder-in is a three-track movement that displaces the horse’s shoulder to the inside. The inside hind leg and the outside foreleg should follow the same track.
  • Turn on the Forehand: the turn on the forehand moves the horse’s hindquarters around the front hand. During this movement, the front legs should follow a smaller circle than the hind legs.
  • Turn on the Haunches: similar to a walk pirouette, a turn on the haunches involves moving the horse’s forehand around his hindquarters. The forelegs cross while the inner hind leg steps up and down.
  • Travers: also known as haunches-in, travers displaces the horse’s hindquarters to the inside. The horse maintains a bend in the direction of travel while following four tracks.
  • Renvers is the inverse movement to travers. Riders move the forehand inside and bend the horse towards the outside of the arena.
  • Half Pass: the half pass is an advanced lateral movement where the horse bends around the inside leg in the direction of travel and moves across the arena with the forehand slightly leading. Upper levels include half pass zig-zags, steep half passes with changes of direction.
  • Pirouette: a pirouette is a turn on the spot around the hind leg. The front feet and outside hind foot move around the inside hind foot. Horses perform canter pirouettes in a highly collected canter.

Geometry

Accurate riding and precise geometry are also critical for dressage movements. Tests require riders to perform frequent changes of direction and bend.

  • Turns and Circles: these movements are simple geometry exercises that develop bend, suppleness, balance, and engagement. These exercises also challenge the rider’s accuracy.
  • Volte: a volte is a small circle of six, eight, or ten meters in diameter. Small circles require more balance than large circles to perform correctly.
  • Serpentine: a serpentine is a series of half circles touching the long side of the arena connected by straight lines across the arena. Riders change direction over the centerline, forming an “S” shape.
  • Loop: a loop is a shallow serpentine performed along the long side. Riders leave the wall, ride to a designated marker, and return to the wall.
  • Diagonal: riders can change direction by riding a straight diagonal line between two letters on opposite long sides. These lines vary in length and angle depending on the letters they connect.
  • Centerline: the centerline is a straight line between A and C, which divides the dressage arena lengthwise into two halves. Riders enter the arena at A and ride down the centerline to begin a test.

Airs Above the Ground

Also known as the haute école movements, airs above the ground are high-level classical dressage movements. Although not seen in modern competition, these movements are still taught at the Spanish Riding School and other centers for classical riding.

  • Levade: in the levade, the horse balances on his hind legs with his hocks lowered close to the ground while elevating the forehand with the forelegs lifted and drawn in.
  • Courbette: to perform the courbette, the horse remains balanced on his hind legs while jumping forward several times before allowing the forelegs to return to the ground.
  • Capriole: in a capriole, the horse leaps into the air with his forelegs tucked under his chest while kicking his hindlegs behind him. All four limbs land on the ground at the same time.

Dressage Levels

Dressage competition levels guide horse and rider development and ensure both human and equine competitors are performing movements appropriate for their training experience.

National Levels

USEF and USDF created national levels to guide horse and athlete combinations from their introduction to the sport to the international level. National competitions in Canada and the United States use the USEF/USDF tests.

Introductory level

According to the USDF, the purpose of this level is to, “introduce the rider and/or horse to the sport of dressage, confirming that they are beginning to develop an understanding of correct dressage basics. The horse should be ridden freely forward in a steady tempo and clear rhythm, accepting contact with the bit. An understanding of test accuracy and geometry should be demonstrated.” [3]

Movements Introduced:

  • Free walk
  • Medium walk
  • Working trot
  • 20m circle
  • Working canter

Tests:

Training Level

The goal of this level is to “confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, by showing suppleness both laterally and longitudinally, moving freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, and readily accepting contact with the bit. Correct geometry and lines of travel should be shown.” [3]

Movements Introduced:

  • Stretchy trot circle
  • Change of bend on a shallow loop
  • Canter-trot transition on the diagonal

Tests:

First Level

Once horses and riders are at this level, the aim is to confirm, “the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed improved balance, lateral suppleness and throughness, as well as the thrust to perform lengthenings of stride. The horse should be on the bit.” [3]

Movements Introduced:

  • 10m half circle at trot
  • 15m circle in canter
  • Lengthening of stride in trot
  • Leg yield
  • Lengthening of stride in canter
  • 10m circle at trot
  • Change of lead through trot
  • Shallow loops at canter

Tests:

Second Level

In second level, dressage tests are designed to assess whether, “the horse demonstrates correct basics, and now begins to accept more weight on the hindquarters as the collected and medium gaits develop. A greater degree of straightness, suppleness, throughness, and balance are required to perform the movements with ease and self-carriage.” [3]

Movements Introduced:

  • Walk-canter transitions
  • Collected and medium trot and canter
  • 10m circle at canter
  • Shoulder-in
  • Rein back
  • Travers
  • Half turn on haunches
  • Simple changes
  • Counter canter in serpentine

Tests:

Third Level

By third level, dressage tests aim to confirm, “the horse demonstrates correct basics, while maintaining consistent uphill balance and self-carriage. Increased engagement facilitates clear differences in collected, medium, and extended gaits with well-defined, balanced transitions. Movements should be accomplished with harmony and ease due to the increased balance and collection. The horse must demonstrate a greater degree of throughness, suppleness, straightness and bending.” [3]

Movements Introduced:

  • Extended gaits
  • Trot half pass
  • Single flying change
  • Renvers
  • Release of reins at canter
  • Canter half pass
  • Rein back to trot

Tests:

Fourth Level

In this intermediate level of dressage, the tests are designed to show that the, “horse demonstrates correct basics, and has developed sufficient throughness, suppleness, balance, and impulsion to perform with ease[…]. The horse has established consistent self-carriage and lightness through improved connection, engagement, and collection. The movements and transitions are performed with greater straightness, impulsion, and cadence.” [3]

Movements Introduced:

  • Collected walk
  • Very collected canter
  • Walk pirouettes
  • Multiple flying changes on the diagonal
  • Counter change of hand in trot and canter
  • Tempi changes every fourth stride
  • Working and partial pirouettes in canter
  • Tempi changes every third stride
  • Working half-pirouettes in canter

Tests:

Materiale and Developing Levels

While the FEI offers young horse classes, USEF created additional tests for young horses transitioning to international levels. These include:

Horses 5 years of age and younger can compete in materiale classes which provide training experience in a competition environment without the pressure of riding through a test. Judges evaluate basic gaits in these classes.

Dressage Seat Equitation

Most dressage tests judge the horse and rider as a combination. USDF and USEF also offer dressage seat equitation classes that only evaluate the rider’s correct position, seat, and use of aids.

These classes are a good option for riders who want feedback on their equitation or those with horses that aren’t competitive in traditional dressage classes.

International Levels

The FEI creates international-level tests for CDIs and international competitions. However, national competitions and championships in North America also include international levels that use FEI tests.

Senior FEI levels include Prix St. George, Intermediate, and Grand Prix. The FEI also creates tests exclusively for horses and riders of certain ages.

Prix St Georges

Prix St Georges, also called PSG, is the first international level for senior riders. This level is part of the Small Tour at CDIs. The PSG builds on the movements introduced at Fourth Level, adding increasingly complex demands that require more mastery of the basics.

Movements introduced:

  • 8m volte at trot
  • Half canter pirouette
  • Canter zig-zag with two half passes
  • 5 flying changes every 4th stride
  • 5 flying changes every 3rd stride

Test:

Intermediate I

Intermediate I, also called I-1, is the next level above Prix St Georges. Riders typically ride both the PSG and I-1 in the small tour division at CDIs. Small tour divisions sometimes include the Intermediate I Freestyle.

Movements Introduced:

  • Canter zig-zag with three half passes
  • Full canter pirouette
  • 7 flying changes every 2nd stride

Test:

Intermediate A/B

The FEI created Intermediate A and B to expand the medium tour at CDIs and ease the jump between Intermediate I and Intermediate II. These tests introduce easier versions of some movements seen in the Grand Prix. [8]

Movements Introduced:

  • 7-10 steps of piaffe with 2m forward permitted
  • 7 flying changes every stride
  • Rein back to canter
  • Canter zig-zag with four half passes
  • 9 flying changes every stride

Tests:

Intermediate II

Intermediate II, or I-2, is the last step before the Grand Prix. This level builds on the movements introduced in Intermediate A and B, but doesn’t include some of the most challenging patterns featured in the Grand Prix tests.

Movements Introduced:

  • 8-10 steps of piaffe with 1m forward permitted
  • 11 flying changes every stride

Test:

Grand Prix

Grand Prix is the highest level of dressage. Riders at the Olympic Games and other international championships compete at the Grand Prix. It takes many years of training to reach this level, which features the most challenging movements in the sport.

The Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special, and Grand Prix Freestyle make up the big tour at CDIs. International championships include all three tests. World Cup events typically include the Short Grand Prix and Grand Prix Freestyle.

Movements Introduced:

  • Piaffe 12 to 15 steps
  • 9 flying changes every 2nd stride
  • Canter zig-zag with five half passes
  • 15 flying changes every stride

Tests:

Youth Rider Levels

The FEI offers tests for youth riders in different age groups. These riders can compete in CDI-Ys and youth championships against their peers.

FEI Youth Level Rider Age Range Equivalent National Level
FEI Pony Riders 12 to 16 years Second Level
FEI Children 14 to 18 years Third Level
FEI Young Rider 16 to 21 years Prix St George
FEI U25 16 to 25 years Intermediate II

 

Young Horses

The FEI also offers young horse levels that allow horses to compete in championships against others in their age group. 4-year-old classes are only held at national competitions to give young horses positive experiences.

Judges score young horse tests differently than other FEI tests. Horses don’t receive marks for movements. Instead, the judges give scores for trot, walk, canter, submission, and perspective based on the potential for future development exhibited by the horse.

The USEF describes the movements in these tests as equivalent to certain national levels to help riders determine if these tests are appropriate for their horse and their training progression.

Young Horse Level Equivalent National Level
FEI 4-Year-Old Horses First Level
FEI 5-Year-Old Horses Second Level
FEI 6-Year-Old Horses Third Level
FEI 7-Year-Old Horses Fourth Level

 

Every horse is different. Not all young horses mature quickly enough to compete at these levels. That doesn’t mean they won’t go on to successful dressage careers. Training should always prioritize your horse’s welfare over competitive milestones.

Dressage Training

The fundamentals of dressage training stay the same as combinations move up the levels. Trainers often follow a system based on the dressage training scale or training pyramid. This pyramid summarizes the basics dressage riders focus on to bring out the best in their horse.

Dressage Training Scale

Derived from training manuals used by the German cavalry, the Dressage Training Scale provided the foundation for judging competitive dressage. [7] This scale consists of six interconnected elements of training:

  • Rhythm: regularity and tempo
  • Suppleness: elasticity and freedom from anxiety
  • Contact: connection and acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids
  • Impulsion: engagement and the desire to go forward
  • Straightness: ideal alignment and equal lateral suppleness on both reins
  • Collection: balance and lightness of the forehand from increased engagement

The first training phase focuses on rhythm, relaxation, and contact. This part of training accustoms the horse to the rider and aids. A young horse’s early education centers on these elements, which are also essential for every horse’s warm-up during daily work.

The second phase of training introduces gymnastic work to improve flexibility and strength. Suppleness, impulsion, and straightness develop thrust from the hind legs. Straightness allows horses to use their back correctly and move freely. [8]

Eventually, horses develop more carrying power in their hind legs through impulsion, straightness, and collection. Transferring weight to the hindquarters enables the horse to elevate the forehand and achieve the collection needed to perform the advanced movements.

The dressage training scale can seem complicated, but the right guidance can help you understand how simple basics can help you and your horse advance.

Finding a Dressage Trainer

Working consistently with a trainer you trust is essential for you and your horse to develop safely and effectively together. Look for someone with the experience to help you achieve your goals who always puts the horse first.

Your local dressage organization is an excellent resource for connecting with other riders in your area and getting recommendations for a program that could fit your needs and level of experience.

Dressage Tack

You can start riding dressage with any safe, well-fitting English tack. However, dressage competitions have specific tack and equipment requirements. The right tack can also help riders advance by supporting the correct position and aids.

Dressage Saddles

Dressage saddles have a deep seat and long, straight flap to encourage the proper leg and seat position. Some dressage saddles have knee rolls for extra support.

Saddle preferences vary significantly between riders depending on their conformation and level. The best saddle is the one that fits you and your horse.

Ill-fitting tack can lead to training and health problems in horses, so work with a qualified saddle fitter to find the right saddle. Remember to schedule regular adjustments. Your horse’s muscling will change as his training progresses.

Dressage riders typically use large square saddle pads. Half pads help absorb shock during riding. Check with your saddle fitter to see if your horse needs a half pad and determine the best material.

Dressage Bridles

Different levels of dressage competition have different rules for bridles. There are two basic types of dressage bridles: snaffle bridles and double bridles.

A snaffle bridle has a single snaffle bit and one set of reins. Snaffle bridles must have a simple cavesson, drop, or flash noseband. Some new anatomical designs are also allowed in dressage shows.

Riders competing at Third Level and above can use a double bridle. These bridles are mandatory in certain types of competitions.

A double bridle has two sets of reins and two bits: a bradoon and a curb. These two bits help advanced riders refine their rein aids. The bradoon is a small snaffle, which establishes a consistent, elastic contact. The curb bit helps balance the horse on their hindquarters.

Horse Leg Protection

Horses can’t wear leg protection in dressage competitions. However, boots and bandages can help protect your horse’s legs during training.

Some horses can accidentally kick themselves while performing dressage movements. Brushing boots protect your horse’s legs from this type of injury.

Big movers are also predisposed to overreach injuries during extensions. Bell boots protect the back of the heel during training.

Bandages are popular with dressage riders. Use a breathable liner under your bandages to provide strike protection.

Always use breathable products and remove leg protection immediately after training sessions to limit the risk of your horse’s tendons and ligaments overheating. Studies suggest lower leg temperatures increase significantly during exercise in horses wearing bandages or boots. [6]

Competition Turnout

Your horse’s turnout significantly impacts the first impression you make on the judge in the competition ring. Spend time thoroughly cleaning your tack before your show.

Black tack and white saddle pads are traditional, but the USEF permits more colors. Check with a licensed official to determine if your competition tack is dressage legal.

Recognized competitions also require braided manes. Clean tack, neat braids, and a well-groomed horse demonstrate respect for the judge and allow them to focus on your performance.

Dressage Rider Equipment

Like horse tack, rider equipment can help or hinder your training. While specialized dressage equipment can help support your effectiveness in the saddle, safety is the most important consideration when investing in riding attire.

Helmet

Dressage riders traditionally wore top hats in international-level competitions until several high-profile incidents, including U.S. Olympian Courtney King-Dye’s traumatic brain injury in 2010, increased safety awareness in the sport. [10]

USEF introduced the first protective headgear rules for dressage riders in 2011. By 2021, helmets were mandatory at all FEI dressage events, including the Olympic Games. [8]

One scientific literature review found equestrian sports caused some of the highest rates of severe brain injury. The authors reported helmet use reduced the risk of head injury by 40% – 50%. [11]

While many perceive dressage as safer than some equestrian disciplines, horses are horses, and accidents still happen. Experts and amateurs alike agree it’s best to invest in a helmet, wear it for every ride, and replace it every five years. Your brain is worth it.

Breeches

Dressage riders typically wear full-seat breeches. These breeches have a grippy material covering the entire leg and seat, giving a more stable feel in the saddle.

Knee-patch breeches have a grippy patch just at the knees, and are a popular option for jumper riders. However, some dressage riders also prefer the free feel of these breeches.

Gloves

Gloves are required in dressage competitions. Gloves protect your hands from rubs and give you a better grip on the reins, which helps you maintain steady contact with your horse.

Boots

Dressage boots are significantly stiffer than field or dress boots. The stiffness helps stabilize your lower leg and supports a long leg position. Some stiff boots have softer leather inside, allowing the rider to better feel their horse through the material.

Unlike field boots, most dressage boots have inside-front zippers. Zippers on the back of the boot could interfere with leg aids.

Competition Attire

Riders wear short dressage coats when competing at the national level and tailcoats at the international level. Black and navy are the most common colors for competition jackets, but increased diversity in attire colors is becoming more accepted within the sport.

Wear a collared show shirt made of breathable material and a stock tie under your coat. Men can wear regular ties in competition.

White gloves and breeches are traditional, but you can now wear any light or dark color. Bright colors and patterns are not allowed.

Dressage Horses

Every horse can do dressage and benefit from training that develops their rideability, strength, and suppleness. Still, some horses have more talent for the upper levels than others.

Even the most talented dressage horses need more than good training to succeed in the competition ring. All horses need proper management, basic care, and nutrition to be at their best for their owners.

Dressage Breeds

Warmbloods dominate the sport of dressage. Many warmblood breeds have dressage breeding directions that promote developing horses specifically for the top levels of the sport.

The World Breeding Federation of Sport Horses, or WBFSH, ranks studbooks based on the FEI rankings of the top six performing horses from each studbook in dressage, jumping, and eventing.

2023 WBFSH Studbook Rankings for Dressage:

Iberian breeds are popular with classical dressage riders. The Lipizzaners used by the Spanish Riding School are descendants of Iberian horses. Several PREs and Lusitanos have also competed in dressage at the Olympic Games.

Managing Dressage Horses

Top performance isn’t possible if you don’t prioritize your horse’s mental and physical health. Competition horses often have intense lifestyles. But all horses, including dressage horses, must be allowed to be horses.

Try to limit stall confinement and maximize turnout time. Studies show free exercise and social contact with other horses during turnout decrease stress and increase willingness to perform in competition horses housed in single stalls. [4]

Dressage training can involve a lot of repetitive movements, which increases the risk of repetitive strain injuries in dressage horses. Give horses time off to recover from intense training sessions to reduce these risks. [5]

A varied training schedule benefits your horse’s mental health. Just because dressage riders compete in a box doesn’t mean you never have to leave it. Riding outside the arena and taking your horse on hacks can help prevent them from getting ring sour.

All horses need quality veterinary care and routine farrier maintenance. However, dressage horses and other equine athletes may need extra support to stay at the top of their game. Build a trusted team of professionals and stay proactive about your horse’s welfare.

Feeding Dressage Horses

Nutrition is critical to your dressage horse’s management program, keeping your horse healthy and performing at their best.

All horses need a balanced forage-based diet that meets their nutritional requirements and supports digestive health. Providing free choice forage has many benefits for your horse’s physical and mental health.

While performance horses have higher energy and protein requirements than horses at maintenance, most can get enough from high-quality forages. However, some dressage horses may need additional protein and energy sources.

The best diet for your dressage horse depends on their age, breed, training program, competition schedule, and health history.

Want to know if your dressage horse’s diet is missing anything? Submit your horse’s diet for a free evaluation and consult with our expert equine nutritionists to develop a nutrition plan worthy of a 10.

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