Go to any local dressage show across the country, and you’ll see a variety of entries- kids on ponies, newbie riders on first horses, retirees on solid schoolmasters, and pros riding highly trained animals. You see, in dressage, there’s a place for everyone.
But the coolest thing about dressage is the doing, not the watching.
And no, you don’t need a big, fancy Warmblood with a hard-to-pronounce German name. In fact, you can more than likely learn and appreciate basic dressage with your current horse. All he needs is a four-beat walk, two-beat trot, and three-beat canter. How simple is that? Many riders enjoy dressage on their Quarter Horses, Arabians, Paints and Appaloosas, as well as the more traditional “Baroque” horses, such as Lipizzans, Andalusians, Lusitanos, as well as the ever-popular Warmbloods.
“Dressage is really growing at the grassroots level,” says Linda Schultz, director of marketing for the United State Dressage Federation. “Dressage isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey. Each day is about doing a little better than the day before, and I think that’s something every horseman can appreciate.”
Even if you’re not interested in competing, training for dressage will add new depth to your riding and improve your discipline de jour, be it endurance, trail riding, reining or jumping. The structure of the sport improves horse and rider fitness and suppleness. And with training, your horse will become more responsive as you build a stronger mental and emotional relationship. The result is simply a well-trained horse.
The sport of dressage is misunderstood as often as it’s mispronounced. What might be perceived as a fancy-smancy spectacle is actually just good horsemanship and training.
“The concept of dressage-and John Lyons promotes this as well-is about the partnership between the horse and the human,” says Schultz. “Dressage isn’t about forcing a horse to do things. It’s about developing a relationship and a trust with that horse and progressing together. It’s about lifelong improvement. “
The pronunciation of the word “dressage,” just for clarification, starts with “dress” and rhymes with “massage.” On the surface, the word dressage is French and roughly translates to training. Beyond semantics, dressage is a term used to describe a systematic and internationally recognized training system and the competition used to test the horse-and-rider’s progress.
With ancient roots in Europe, dressage is often associated with Olympic competition and the Spanish Riding School of Austria. The origins are thought to begin with the intense training of military horses, which had to be obedient, responsive and strong in order to save their riders’ necks during battle. Now, that’s incentive for training your horse!
Today, dressage is more recreational in nature. In the United States, the sport is promoted by the United States Dressage Federation (USDF), which is in association with the national governing body, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Internationally, dressage is sanctioned by the Fédération Equèstre Internationale (FEI), the international governing body of equestrian disciplines. These federations oversee competitions, create and enforce rules, and dole out awards.
Break Out the Breeches
• Find a reputable dressage instructor, someone who’s enthusiastic and open-minded about whatever breed or type of horse you ride.
• Go to a local or regional dressage show, and make sure to watch both the upper and lower level tests.
• Don’t be intimidated by the word or the idea. “Dressage” rhymes with “massage,” which feels good. So just jump in and try it.
• When training, focus on geometryby making your circles round and your lines straight.
• Take your time, build the relationship with your horse, and enjoy working your way up through the pyramid.
• Educate yourself further about all aspects of the sport through books, clinics and DVDs.
The Training Scale
In dressage, there’s always something for you to work on with your horse. Training and advancement is based on the training scale, also know as the “pyramid of training.” The scale originated in Germany and was meticulously translated by committee into English, a fact that shows just how particular the dressage crowd is about the sport.
The base of the scale is the foundation of dressage training, and each element of the pyramid builds on the last. Moving through the pyramid takes time and conditioning. The pyramid, starting from the bottom and working up, includes:
·Rhythm (with energy and tempo);
·Relaxation (with elasticity and suppleness);
·Connection (acceptance of the bit through acceptance of
·Impulsion (increased energy and thrust);
·Straightness (improved alignment and balance); and
·Collection (increased engagement, lightness of the forehand, and self-carriage).
When setbacks in your training arise, you can look to the pyramid to search for holes in your program. For example, imagine your horse is struggling with his connection to the bit, putting his head in the air and pulling on your hands. In this case, you can go back to the pyramid and make sure that your horse first achieves relaxation and rhythm. Working on relaxation and rhythm will help him work nicely on the bit and in connection with your hands, legs and seat when he’s ready. The training scale also helps gauge where you are in relation to the levels of dressage.
Moving Through the Levels
If you’ve seen advertisements for dressage horses, you’ve probably read things like “Showing First Level, schooling at Second…” For the uninitiated, the jargon sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo. However, it’s not that complicated. The sport of dressage is broken into specific levels, starting with Introductory tests and culminating with Grand Prix.
Intro Level (originally designed for walk-trot Pony Club kids), includes the walk, trot, halt and gentle transitions. Training Level comes next, adding the canter and slightly more demanding transitions. The numbered levels start at First Level, working up through Fourth Level. First through Fourth Level are overseen by the United States Equestrian Federation, meaning they’re “national” tests unique to the United States; you won’t find these particular tests at international competition.
Top Hat & Tails Come Later… Much Later
International-level dressage riders compete in top hats and shadbellies (the equestrian equivalent of a tuxedo). The costuming seems intimidating, but it’s completely unnecessary-especially if you’re competing at a local dressage show. The point is to look tidy and conservative, and to not distract from your horse’s performance. (No bling in the dressage ring, please!) Here’s what you do need to dress the part:
• A hunt cap, helmet, derby or, yes, a top hat. Hunt caps and helmets are the most common headwear in the lower levels of dressage. Riders graduate into derbies and top hats as they graduate through the levels. Choose either navy blue or black.
• A white blouse or show shirt. No one ever actually sees much of your shirt, so you can choose between a traditional hunt blouse and one of the many mock-neck equestrian sports shirts on the market. Long sleeve, short sleeves or no sleeves, take your pick.
• Stock tie. Either a ready-tied or traditional version will do. Ask your tack-store clerk to show you how to tie your stock tie if you go the traditional route. Men and boys wear regular neckties.
• Stock pin. A stock pin is like a fancy safety pin that holds your stock tie in place. Choose any kind that suites your own personal style.
• Light-colored breeches. White are traditional, but any light color works, including beige, tan, gray, cream or light green. Most dressage riders prefer the stick-on feel of a full-seat breech, but knee patches are just fine, too.
• Conservative, dark-colored dressage or hunt coat. Black is the most traditional color, followed by navy blue, although any dark coat is appropriate. Dressage coats have one vent in the back and four buttons; hunt coats have two vents and only three buttons. Buy what you prefer, or wear what you already own.
• Tall dressage, dress, or field boots. Dressage boots look like a traditional dress boot worn by hunter riders, but the ankle and calf is reinforced with boning to prevent slouch or stack around the ankle. Dress boots offer more mobility in the ankle. Field boots, the kind with laces at the ankles that are popular for English classes at breed shows, are also acceptable. Half-chaps with field boots are discouraged but sometimes allowed at small schooling dressage shows. Check with the show secretary for more information.
• Gloves, preferably white. Gloves finish the picture for a well-turned-out dressage rider. Black gloves are acceptable for the lower levels, but if you’re investing in a new pair, go with the traditional white for showing and wear your black gloves at home.
A Notable Difference; Saddle Selection at a Glance
It’s perfectly acceptable to compete at dressage schooling shows in an all-purpose, hunt seat, or jumping saddle. However, once you’ve sat in a proper dressage saddle, you may never go back to another saddle.
Dressage saddles are designed with a longer flap-the part of the saddle that goes under your leg-than forward-seat saddles. The long flap accommodates the long leg required to cue a dressage mount. A dressage saddle also has a deep seat, meant to give the rider added security, while also maintaining contact with the horse’s back. Some blocking in the knee roll helps hold the rider’s leg in place.
Most dressage saddles are black, although brown is also an acceptable color (just avoid a fashion faux pas by making sure your bridle, girth and saddle colors match). Dressage girths are shorter than regular English girths.
Price and brand are less important than fit and quality when purchasing a dressage saddle, says tack-store owner Sandy Klein.
“I don’t think it matters whether a saddle is new, as long as it has decent leather, puts the rider in a decent position, and is comfortable,” Sandy says. “Just stay away from the inexpensive saddles made in India and Pakistan.”
You also want to find a saddle that fits your seat and your horse’s back. Expect dressage seats to run small compared to your forward-seat saddles, so if your instructor suggests you need a 17-inch seat instead of a 16-inch seat, don’t let it negatively affect your self-image.
The international levels of dressage, sanctioned by the FEI, start after the Fourth Level with Prix St. Georges. Intermediare-I and Intermediare-II come next. They are followed by the granddaddy of them all, Grand Prix. Only the very best horses and riders make it to Grand Prix, which is the Olympic- and World Cup-level of competition.
So, here’s the range of difficulty: Training level requires the walk, trot and canter, changes of direction, and large circles in both directions at the trot and canter. Grand Prix requires piaffe (a highly collected trot in place) and flying changes of lead every stride.
The scope of dressage goes from the very basics to the seemingly impossible. The good news: you can start with the basics, and you have at least 10 years between now and the seemingly impossible.
Show Your Stuff
Dressage shows offer you the opportunity to test your progress. Just like most equine disciplines, the dressage world offers events for competitors of all levels of experience, starting with casual schooling shows held at local barns, all the way up to formal USDF- and internationally sanctioned events.
Before you compete, consider going to a dressage show as a spectator. Watching will give you an idea of the pace and atmosphere. You’ll figure out how and when to enter the arena, and the nuances of saluting the judge. For your first outing, you’ll probably want to get your feet wet by entering a schooling show or a small sanctioned event held by your local dressage club.
Most people start at Intro or Training Level, depending on their level of comfort with the canter. In dressage, no one tells you at what level to ride or when to move up to the next level. There’s no such thing as “getting demoted” to a lower level or “pointing out” of a level and suddenly finding yourself in a higher one you’re not sure you’re ready for. Those decisions are for you to make-although your instructor might have some influence on you, too.
Studying dressage is all about learning. For information about the sport and to further your education, check out these books and DVD. USDF’s Ultimate Guide to Dressage by Jennifer O. Bryant
Author Jennifer Bryant is editor of the USDF Connection magazine and an active participant in the sport of dressage. If there was a textbook for American dressage, this would be it.
Dressage from A to X, by Barbara Burkhardt
This book covers it all, including showing, training and nutrition.
Centered Riding, by Sally Swift
This classic, originally published in 1985, uses image and analogy to help the reader become a better rider.
USDF’s On the Levels, DVD
This DVD goes through actual tests and dissects the required movements of each level.
Dressage shows have an entry window created by set opening and closing dates, meaning you’ll have to plan ahead. Because shows are scheduled right-down-to-the-minute in advance, there’s no day-of-show entering. Once you’re entered, you’ll receive your ride times-one of the many wonderful things about dressage. Instead of waiting around all day for your classes, you know almost exactly when you’ll enter the arena (unless the show runs late). You’ll have to be on time, warmed up and ready to ride.
And, just a note about the atmosphere at dressage shows. It tends to be quiet and serious-much more golf than football. So, don’t expect a cheer and whistles from the crowd when you’re done riding, and warn your family and friends to use their golf claps.
Each level of dressage has multiple tests. For example, Training Level offers four tests, with each test progressively harder than the one before it. You’ll want to be familiar with your test before a show. But another plus is, at the lower levels, you can also have a reader who calls out each movement as you’re riding. Dressage tests are ridden in specifically sized arenas with letter markers to help guide you.
Each movement of an individual test is scored from 0 to 10, with 10 being high. The judge scores each movement individually, with a scribe taking down notes and comments for the judges. At the end of the ride, the show office tallies the scores and computes a percentage for the ride. For example, scoring a 160 out of a possible 260 results in a 61.54%.
Now, wait, you may be thinking. Isn’t a 62% a D? Not in this sport. In dressage, scores of 5 equal a good or average, and 10s are perfection-and nearly impossible to obtain. A final tally in the 50%-60% range is absolutely admirable.
After scores are tallied and posted, you’ll collect your test. In exchange for your entry fee, you get this little paper full of tidbits of wisdom from the judge. Take it home, review your scores, and use them to train and improve for next time. You and your horse will keep climbing the pyramid, and that’s what dressage is all about.