What is Dressage?

Mary McMahon

Dressage is a considered by many equestrians to be the most advanced form of riding, as it requires years of training on the part of both horse and rider. During a routine, horse and rider will perform a series of complex maneuvers in a ring while they are graded by judges on their form. To the untrained eye, dressage resembles dancing, especially when performed by a highly trained horse and rider team, as they appear to move effortlessly and in a relaxed fashion through the ring while carrying out complex and physically demanding tasks. The rider communicates with the horse in a series of subtle motions and shifts in weight that are almost imperceptible to the observer. In addition to being recognized as an Olympic sport, dressage is practiced by men and women all over the world, and, like other Olympic equestrian sports, men and women compete on the same field.

Horses may not wear bandages during dressage.
Horses may not wear bandages during dressage.

The term is French for “arrangement,” or “training.” Dressage has its roots in European riding, and probably originates in the training of military horses. Military horses needed to be supple, powerful, well collected, and highly trained, all traits which are highly valued in dressage horses. All horse breeds can be used, although Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, Lipizzans, Andalusians, and Lusitanos are favored. Lipizzans are particularly famous, as the pure white stallions have been dressage horses of choice for centuries.

Dessage requires years of training on the part of both horse and rider.
Dessage requires years of training on the part of both horse and rider.

In a nod to the highly disciplined nature of dressage, both horse and rider are expected to be well turned out for competition. The horses are impeccably groomed, with neatly braided manes and trimmed flowing tails. They wear minimal tack, and training devices such as martingales are not permitted. Horses also are not allowed to wear any leg coverings such as hoof bells or bandages. The light dress required allows the judges to inspect their physical condition and observe the ways in which they move. Riders are also neatly turned out, in white breeches and dark coats with top hats, and are expected to have a neat physical appearance along with their horses. The two are judged separately as well as together, and must appear as a polished pair.

During a routine, the horse will perform a number of complicated physical movements including both an extended and collected walk, trot, and canter, along with lead changes, figure eights, pirouttes, and half passes. Haute ecole dressage horses, those trained to the highest level, also perform movements like the piaffe, a trot held in place so that the horse appears to be dancing. In some schools of dressage, horses perform caprioles, levades, and other mid-air movements that require immense physical control.

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