Dressage, originating from the French word for “training” is an exquisite equestrian technique. Dressage competitions can be watched from beginner level through the Olympics. Additionally, many riders use dressage as a training technique, even if their specific competitive event is in a different area.
Also called “horse ballet,” dressage is the art of movement. Horses and their riders will perform a series of technical movements on a flat surface. Riders implement a series of aids, which are cues to tell the horse which figure to perform. In high-level dressage, aids should nearly indistinguishable, yet the horse should respond fully and immediately. By responding to the aids, dressage teaches horses obedience while also improving physical strength and maneuverability.
Though dressage is now an Olympic sport, as well as a training technique for horses competing in other equestrian sport, it originated in early Greek training techniques for military horses. In battle, it is absolutely essential that horses are obedient, athletic and able to respond to the must subtle cues. Battle horses were trained with dressage to optimize performance.
Dressage was used for battle horses in the early days for strength and responsiveness. Carrying heavy knights, these horses were able more durable in combat. In later uses, as militaries developed the Calvary, swifter horses such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds were trained in dressage.
There are numerous movements in dressage that range from low difficult to complex movement. In dressage competition, each movement is judged on a scale of ten. The rider is not graded on each movement, but rather as an overall addition to the score. Judging is based upon the grace of the movements themselves, the ease of transitions between movements, both the obedience and suppleness of the horse as well as the aids used for each movement.
The horses are judged on their level of relaxation. Excellent dressage horses should be comfortable performing the moves. Some indications of this are tempo, tension and foam around the horses mouth. A horse that is comfortable will have foam around its mouth that forms from chewing on the bit with attention. Tension is visible in the stiffness of a horse. A horse that is tense will have stiff movements and a lack of suppleness. A tense horse will also have a constantly swishing tail its ears will appear pinned back.
Tempo is the rhythm to which the horses feet hit the ground. A good dressage horse should have three specific tempos. The horse should walk to a four beat tempo, trot to a two beat tempo and canter to a three beat tempo. The rhythm of the footfalls should be so consistent than the audience can tap along to the beat.
Dressage features a variety of movements that each horse and rider perform. The categories for these movements are extensions, lateral movements, pirouettes, flying changes, piaffes and passages. When a horse lengthens his stride and stretches his body, this is the extension. The change should be noticeable but graceful.
Lateral movements involve the horse, or parts of the horse’s body, moving sideways. The shoulder-in is a lateral movement in which the horses forelegs cross and the body bends while the hind legs stay in place. The travers is a similar movement in which the hind legs change tracks and cross while the forelegs remain straight. In the half-pass, horses perform a flying leg change while mid-canter.
In a pirouette movement, the horse will, in the middle of a canter, turn in place. The move is performed in a very small area. When this movement is performed perfectly, the tempo of the movements will not change, but the horse will change direction in place with elegance and smooth movements.
The flying leg changes involves alternating the lead hooves, front and back, in an almost skipping motion. Without skipping a beat, the horse will change from canter-right to canter-left and back. The movement involves a great deal of agility and balance, as well as timing and grace.
A piaffe movement is executed when the horse trots in place. The horse will trot along to the beat with careful cadence. The feet diagonal from each other will raise and come back down to the ground in an even rhythm while the body of the horse is supple and balanced.
The passage is an elevated trot. The rhythm of this movement must be perfect and the movements graceful. Alternating hooves work in unison to pronounce the cadence. The resulting movement appears as if the horse is floating, as the body stays in a straight line.
The training scale is a plan for training designed for training any horse, but is particularly helpful in dressage. The training is seen as a progression and has been illustrated in a pyramid or tree design, where training skills build upon each other. On the bottom of the tree or pyramid is the rhythm aspect. As previously discussed, each speed of movement should have a specific tempo that never wavers. The regularity of the gait should be audible, and the body of the horse should appear completely level.
The next step to a perfectly trained dressage horse is relaxation. Relaxation is visible in both the candor of the horse and in the body positioning. Additionally, a horse that is relaxed will not react to external situations. Horses in distress will run, kick or bite. A horse that is fully relaxed will not exhibit any of these behaviours.
Following relaxation is contact. Contact is best understood as the horse’s power in pushing. The horse pushes forward without the constant use of the reigns from a rider. This is an essential step in dressage training as it increases the obedience of the horse and responsiveness to the rider.
Impulsion is the pushing power and forward thrust of the horse. This includes elements of elasticity and suppleness in the positioning of the horse. Impulsion cannot be achieved without the previous steps in the scale.
Straightness deals with the body positioning of the horse. As the hind legs are in line with the forelegs, the horse’s body creates a straight line no matter which direction the horse is traveling.
Collection is the final step in training. Collection is when horses shift their weight to their back end, created greater strength and smoother moves. Collection is measured by gaits and is difficult to achieve because of the great strength required to execute the maneuvers.
Dressage competitions begin at amateur level all the way to the Olympics. Some dressage competitions are even set to music and become a sort of choreographed dance. This form is known as Kür and allows a bit more freedom of moves. The scores are judged on technicality and artistic pattern of the movements.
Dressage is judged based upon the ability of the horse, the grace of the movements and the harmony between rider and horse. It takes a long time for horses to master dressage. Most horses are not prepared for the Grand Prix level until at least four years. At any level, however, dressage is helpful for any rider and horse hoping to improve their harmony and increase the strength and athleticism of the horse.
Dressage attracts riders from all walks of life, across various professions, abilities and economic status. Dressage is a wonderful tool for training for any rider. Combing the artistic movements of ballet with the strength of muscles, dressage will improve the riding ability of any horse, and increase its grace and obedience.