Dressage is a French word that means “training” and is an international equestrian sport sometimes referred to as “horse ballet.” The purpose of dressage is to develop a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to listen to his rider’s cues. A dressage horse performing at his peak levels will be calm, supple, and in complete harmony with his rider’s minimal aids. Dressage, is one of the few Olympic sports in which men and women compete against each other.
Classical dressage began as early as the time of the Ancient Greeks in the training of horses for beauty and for war. It was during the Renaissance period, however, that the training of horses became an art form. Places such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna were, and still are, dedicated to this style of riding in complete harmony with the horse.
Warhorses needed to be obedient and maneuverable, and a system of training was created that reflected that need. This training system evolved from the first writings of Xenophon in the 4th century B.C. to the inception of equestrian sports into the Olympic games. Early Olympic tests of military horses included exhibiting the horse’s high level of training and obedience (what would become dressage) and the ability to jump obstacles (what would become show jumping). By 1912, the three modern Olympic disciplines as we know them were distinguished into dressage, show jumping, and three-day eventing. Until the mid-1940’s, the United States equestrian teams were only open to military personnel.
Modern dressage, or competitive dressage, is the sport we see today in international competitions such as the Olympics. At dressage shows, horses and riders perform individual tests, or complete a predetermined pattern of gaits and movements.
Horses are scored for each movement on a scale of one to ten, with ten being “excellent.” There are tests at different levels of difficulty, and competitors train to work their way through each one.
In the United States, there are five levels of “national” tests: Training Level, First Level, Second Level, Third Level, and Fourth Level. The national levels are governed by the United States Dressage Federation (USDF).
Once a horse has worked through the national levels, they move onto the international levels, governed by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI): Prix St. Georges, Intermediare I, Intermediare II, and Grand Prix. The tests performed at the Olympics and World Equestrian Games are Grand Prix level. In addition to the individual tests, riders at the FEI level can also perform musical freestyle routines. These routines are choreographed individually for each horse and set to music that accentuates the horse’s movement. Musical freestyle classes are great fun for the horses, riders, and audience alike
As a horse progresses through the levels, it learns more dressage movements,which increase in difficulty and precision as they move up. At the Grand Prix level, all of these advanced movements are included in the test. (Source: http://www.theinternationalomaha.com/#!dressage-101/c1kyh) These movements include:
- Collected gaits: The horse shortens his stride at the trot or canter, bringing his hindquarters more underneath himself and carrying more weight on his hind end.
- Extended gaits: The horse lengthens his stride to its maximum length at the walk, trot, and canter.
- Flying changes in sequence: Also called “tempi changes,” the horse changes canter leads every stride up to every four strides.
- Half-pass: A movement in which the horse travels in a diagonal fashion, moving both forward and sideways, bent slightly in the direction of travel.
- Passage: A very collected trot, in which the horse picks his feet up very high and seems to pause momentarily before bringing his feet down. This is described as suspension.
- Piaffe: A calm, elevated trot in place. The horse may move slightly forward, but should never move backwards.
- Canter Pirouette: A 360- (full circle) or 180-degree (half circle) turn in place performed at the canter.
In this video, you can watch Elizabeth (Beth) Ball, perform these movements in a recent Grand Prix test in Wellington, Florida. Beth and her horse are based in Escondito (at the same barn as Nicole Bhathal) and she will be performing the morning we are the horse show. If our timing is right, we’ll be able to see them live! The video does not do justice to how magnificent this horse is. The commentator on this video is Axel Steiner, the Vin Scully of dressage. If you like you can meet him on Saturday as well.