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Dressage - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Close up of Dressage Horse's face, flexing from riders signal. Dressage Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

The discipline of Dressage is based on the innate gracefulness of the horse in all of his motions. The successful competitive horse must be full of music. We are to be delighted when viewing the harmony between horse and rider. Yet if the horse does not enjoy his work, the rider will have no joy.


The discipline of Dressage began in Greece during classical times. The riding masers of the Renaissance developed a training system that has changed very little and is still the basis of the discipline in the modern world.

More is asked as the horse becomes mentally and physically ready but the basis of the training is a step-by-step progression from simple to complex movements. Dressage creates a unity, a dancer gliding beneath a rider, an art form that harmonizes the free, powerfully agile movements of the horse willingly and gracefully bearing the weight of his rider.

The horse and the rider identify each with the other, harmony within and without.


Schooling begins a long road which must be traveled patiently. It begins with gymnastics because the horse’s muscles must be strengthened to carry with ease his own weight combined with that of his rider. The hind quarter take the load, with hind legs reaching near the center of gravity, well under the body. In this way the forelegs of the dressage horse can rise freely and take long strides.

The back is arched to form an elastic bridge while the neck is carried proudly and freely from the shoulders. The burden of the rider has in this way been removed and the horse regains the ease of motion belonging to it naturally, easily performing movements and leaps in the same manner as the natural wild horse. Two creatures, man and horse, have become one.

The rider can now move while riding, as though he were moving only his own body, as the trained and developed horse responds to his sign language.


A clean refined head, eyes that dance with enjoyment of motion, eagerness with utter obedience. A back not too long, permitting the hind legs to reach well under the body, to bring the strongest limbs under the center of gravity of horse and rider provides balanced support.

The dressage horse needs natural balance, nimble and agile, so that after training he will readily regain, under the rider, his original freedom of movement. He should also have intelligence coupled with attentiveness, and sound organs and limbs because difficult lessons require great physical effort.

This is an age old Olympic equestrian discipline-sport, but it can also provide great training for any horse you want to be obedient, supple and willing to respond to you. A good riding horse of any breed, is a partner that responds to your body signals while staying in balance and moving with proper energy. Dressage training is the training of the horse’s mind and body as a working unit, and every horse of any kind can benefit from this training.


There are various levels to achieve: Training Level; Levels One through Four; Prix St. George; Intermediate Levels I and II and Grand Prix. Competitors begin with unofficial levels and progress to official competitions. At the Olympic Games, the level is Grand Prix, the highest.

A test for each level is written so there is a way to consistently measure performance. Judges look for accuracy in the transitions from gait to gait, the quality of each gait and the suppleness and responsiveness of the horse as well as the rider’s aids and the aids given should be practically invisible. The horse should appear calm, responsive and smooth, with ears forward to turned listening to the rider.

Competitors are marked from 0 to 10 but a flawless performance and the mark of 10 is a rarity and cause for excitement. Following the test, individual movement scores are added and a final score is totaled as a percent of the ideal total that could be achieved for that particular test. The highest percent score wins the class.

Freestyle, usually the highlight of competition, is a ride choreographed for the horse and consists of required movements while achieving pleasing and technically correct movements.

Pas de Deux is a program created by two riders presenting their horses to best advantage, in a highly artful way to music.

Quadrille tests are for teams of four horses and riders with or without the requirement of music.


Extensions: The horse lengthens his stride on demand. This movement is most exciting at the trot. When done correctly, the horse seems to float across the arena.

Lateral movements: The horse shows its suppleness by going forward first and either moving sideways or moving parts of its body sideways.

Pirouettes: As dramatic upper level movement, the horse turns in place at a canter.

Flying Changes: Highly trained, the horse appears to “skip” across the arena at a canter switching the leading front and hind hooves.

Piaffe: A highly cadenced trot-in-place. The horse springs lightly from one diagonal pair of legs to the other with an even rhythm and a definable moment of suspension. It is the highest degree of competitive collection demanded of the horse.

Passage: The horse appears to float and springs from one diagonal to the other while maintaining its body in a perfectly straight line. This movement is an extremely collected trot in slow motion.

Dressage Gaits and movements preformed at the Olympic Games: collected and extended walk, trot, and canter; trot and canter half-pass (almost a sideways movement); passage (a slow-motion trot); piaffe (a “trot in place”); one and two tempo changes (where the horse appears to skip as it changes leads in the canter); canter “zigzags”; and pirouettes (a 360-degree circle, in place, at the canter)

Dressage and classical style riding throughout the world is today as popular as at any time in history. The complete harmony, of balance and communication between horse and rider, has been sought throughout the centuries, and attaining it provides a feel for the rider that cannot be explained, only felt and enjoyed. Dressage is truly a high blend of discipline, sport and art!

Dressage horse and rider waiting their turn. A nice extended trot. The stillness of the horse as the rider salutes.

Article © HorseShowCentral.com Photos © Jolene Bertrand - Avalon Photography

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Thoroughbred Horses, the Warmbood horse, the Sport Horse, or the famous Lippizan Horse, Alter Real, and Andalusian in the discipline of Classical Dressage

Other Horse Breeds also show in specific breed horse shows and compete in dressage, such as the Arabian, the Morgan and even the Quarter Horse as well as other Spanish horses breeds.

Dressage is included in the discipline of the Three Day Event - Eventing and also of interest to those who compete in dressage is the discipline of Show Jumping or information about Hunter Jumper horses

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