Dressage is a French term meaning “training” and its purpose is to develop the horse's natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider. If you are a history buff, you might be interested in reading more about the beginnings of dressage that date back to Xenophon in Greece and include a long line of riding masters, both from the military and the famous riding schools which developed during the Baroque era.
Currently, competitive dressage involves nine progressive levels incorporating multiple tests within each level. Special tests are also written for musical freestyle, sport horse breeding and performances incorporating multiple horses and riders. Tests are revised every four years by the United States Dressage Federation, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and the International Equestrian Federation (FEI).
Competition occurs in a regulation size arena with specific apparel and equipment all regulated by USEF. Judges are licensed by the USEF and the FEI and are assisted by scribes who write down the judge's scores and comments during the test.
Success in dressage is dependent on the rider's position and ability but because of the goal of the training, many horse breeds can be quite successful.
Watching dressage can be very exciting, especially the musical freestyle rides or tests at the FEI (highest) levels. If you would like to continue learning about dressage, visit the bookstore or join USDF to obtain special member rates to the annual convention and other educational opportunities throughout the year.
HISTORY OF DRESSAGE
Dressage is one of the Olympic equestrian sports. The modern Olympics commenced in 1898 with equestrian events, and the “military test” first included in 1900 which evolved into the separate Olympic disciplines of dressage, eventing, and stadium jumping.
Horses have been used as mounts for the military since early history. As the horses had to be obedient and maneuverable, a system of training was developed, first documented in the writing of the Greek Xenophon. The system of training was built upon throughout the ages, with many well-known riding masters, military and civilian, writing books expounding their methods.
As the equine in the past centuries was used primarily by the military, it only stood to reason that a test of the military horse be the standard during the inception of the modern Olympics. The military test included obedience and maneuverability (or what would become dressage) and the ability to jump obstacles.
By 1912, the equestrian disciplines as we know them (dressage, jumping, and eventing) were included. However, the riders continued to be all male and predominantly military for a few decades. The United States Cavalry at Ft. Riley exchanged ideas and instructors with the schools in Europe and started the trend that brought dressage training not only to the military but to civilians in the United States.
After the US Cavalry was disbanded in 1948, the focus for dressage shifted from military to civilian competition and sport and began to gain momentum. Women as well as men became passionate about dressage and in 1952 the first women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. The growing enthusiasm for the sport, supported by increased access to knowledgeable military and foreign trainers, finally brought together 81 pioneers of dressage in 1973 to found the United States Dressage Federation.
EARLY DRESSAGE HORSES
Heavy horses carried the knights of the middle ages in full armor. As modes of warfare changed, the type of horse changed with it, giving way to the lighter horse used for the cavalry. The hot blooded breeds, such as the Arabian and Thoroughbred, were introduced to add swiftness and greater maneuverability to the cold blooded, heavy horses of the armored knights. The resulting “warmbloods” formed the basis for most of the breeds most commonly successful in dressage today.
Separate studbooks in principalities throughout Europe were maintained by the local lord or prince, with the result that many of these warmblood bloodlines can be traced back through a surprising number of generations. Arabian and Thoroughbred lines have continued to be used to further refine the warmblood that we know today: a leggier, elegant horse, sometimes with extravagant movement. These modern-day warmbloods predominate in international dressage competition.
National level dressage competition is governed by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). USEF creates the five levels of “national” tests: Training Level, First Level, Second Level, Third Level and Fourth Level. International level tests can also be ridden at national level competitions.
USDF develops Introductory Level tests and specialized tests for musical freestyle, and sport horse breeding and tests for multiple horses and riders known as quadrille and pas de deux.
Like any sport, watching dressage is more interesting the more you know about it. Dressage tests used at shows are divided by graduated levels, from the most basic walk/trot to the Grand Prix test that is the same test that is used in the Olympics. The tests are divided into separate movements, and the judge gives a score for each movement. The score sheets are then totaled to determine class results. It will help you understand what is going on if you can get a copy of the test you are watching, plus here are some additional thoughts:
- 1. Less is More
In dressage, the less you see the rider do, the better, because that means he is communicating with his horse quietly and his horse is attentive -- they are working as a team.
2. Good Figures
Circles are round and lines are straight, a precept true in geometry and dressage. A 20-meter circle should go from one side of the arena to the other, a 10-meter circle only half way across. A horse should not weave on a straight-line movement.
3. Tempo and Rhythm
Rhythm is the repetition of footfalls. A sound dressage horse has only three correct rhythms – a four-beat walk, two-beat trot, three-beat canter. Tempo is the speed of repetition of strides. Every horse should have a consistent tempo throughout the test that is controlled by the rider, a tempo so obvious you could sing a song to it.
Horses, like people, have good days and bad days and days when they are just feeling a little too good. Naughtiness in horses can be exhibited in bucking, rearing, tossing of the head, or even jumping out of the dressage ring.
During a test, the horse needs to remain calm, attentive and supple. If the horse gets tense, he gets rigid through his neck and back, which can exhibit itself in stiff movement, ears that are pinned back and a tail that swishes constantly and doesn't hang arched and quietly swinging.
6. Rider Seat and Position
The rider should sit upright quietly and not be depend on his whip, spurs or voice to have a nice test. Riders who use their voice have points deducted off their test score for that movement.
7. Whipped Cream Lips
When a horse is relaxed in his jaw and poll (the area just behind his ears), he releases saliva, you might see white foam around his lips and mouth. That is a good sign as it means he is attentively chewing on his bit and comfortable in his work. The amount of white foam varies from horse to horse.
8. Horses and Flight
Horses have two main mechanisms for protection from danger: they run and they kick. Remember to always allow plenty of room for the horses at a show and never approach any horse without first alerting the rider that you are doing so.
9. Scary Stuff
Horses have the strangest aversions: plastic grocery bags can remind them of Satan's minions and an opened umbrella can cause bolting to three states over. Again, use caution at horse shows and think before you toss away noisy garbage, open an umbrella or put on and take off plastic rain ponchos or blankets in the stands.
Focus is important during any test, from Training Level to Grand Prix, so remember to be courteous and follow the rules by staying about 15 meters (45 feet) feet back from the competition ring and remaining as quiet as possible during rides. If you have any questions about where you may stand or sit, check with the ring steward.
Dressage competition tests act as a check on the progress of the horse as it moves up the levels. Tests are ridden in an arena that is either 20 meters X 40 meters or 20 meters X 60 meters and has letters that mark certain points of the arena. Where the letters originated from is not certain, but an article in the British Dressage magazine (June/July 2000), states that in the old Imperial German court, the walls of the stable yard were initially marked with letters indicating where each courier and/or rider’s horse was to stand awaiting it’s rider. Eventually, the royal stable yard was used for schooling, training and exercising of the horse, hence the current use of the letters in the dressage arena.
|E||Edeling/Ehrengast/Guest of Honour|
|S||Schzkanzler/Chancellor of the Exchequer|
|Standard Arena||Small Area||Metric Conversions|
|60 meters = 196.85 feet
40 meters = 131.2 feet
20 meters = 65.61 feet
Feet to meters:
multiply feet by .3048
Meters to feet:
divide meters by .3048
Each horse competes individually at each level. Each level has several tests that involve variations of patterns of the same movements for that level. Tests involve movements based on the level of competency required by the horse and rider. Movements for each level are prerequisites for the next level. For example, if your horse cannot perform a 20 meter trot circle, as required in Training Level, he should not be ridden on a 10 meter circle, which is smaller and more difficult and which is required at the Second level.
Every test has an associated score sheet created with a series of boxes, where the judge assigns a score and often a comment for the movement performed. There are also four marks given at the end of each test called the Collective Marks: Gaits, Submission, Impulsion and Rider’s Seat and Position. Some of the test movements and all of the Collective Marks have coefficients associated with them which means they are worth two or more times the points assigned, the reason for this varies.
Each movement is scored on a scale of 0 (not performed) to 10 (excellent). Total points for the test are added up and noted as a percent to the total possible number of points for that test. A percentage of 65% or higher is generally thought to mean the horse is ready to move up a level.
Collective Mark Categories
|Gaits||The freedom and regularity of the horse's movement Impulsion--the horse's desire to move forward, elasticity of steps, roundness|
|Impulsion||The horse's desire to move forward, elasticity of steps, roundness|
|Submission||The horse's attention and confidence, harmony with rider, lightness of movements, and acceptance of the bit|
|Rider's position and seat||Correctness and effect of the aid|
JUDGING AND SCRIBING
For each test, there is also a Directive. The directive states the purpose of the test and the overall concept the judge is looking for when judging a ride. During a test, the judge sits at the letter C (and B E H or M if there is more than one judge for the test) and is assisted by a scribe who writes the judges comments on the test so that the rider has a better understanding of why they got the particular mark they received.
In addition to the regular tests, riders may also ride freestyle to music, quadrille with a total of four horses and riders or a pas de deux with two horses and riders. Each of these types of tests has specific guidelines. There are also special classes where young horses and breeding stock are shown in-hand and are judged for their potential as a dressage sport horse or, in the case of breeding stock, capable of producing dressage sport horses.
Anyone can volunteer at a schooling show to scribe. Schooling shows are not recognized as official shows but are a great way to practice riding tests or to learn to scribe for a judge. Once you have scribed at a schooling show and at the lower levels, you may ask to scribe at a recognized show and perhaps even the FEI levels of competition. The USDF provides an excellent free resource, the USDF Guide for Scribes.
TACK & EQUIPMENT
For the horse and rider during competition, there are specific regulations about the tack and equipment that may and may not be used. We discuss general guidelines here; and updated rules and regulations are available in the USEF Rulebook.
In competition, horses are not permitted to wear boots or wraps on their legs nor any training devices such as a martingale or draw reins. An English style saddle is required and a dressage saddle is preferred. Normally, a plain white pad is used under the saddle but riders may use colored trim on saddle pads and have begun to use beads and other colored trim on the brow band of the bridle.
Only certain types of bits may be used in the horse's mouth. From Training through Second Level, a simple snaffle bridle is required. A snaffle has only one rein attached to the bit. At Third and Fourth Level, the rider may choose to ride in a double bridle that has two reins and offers the rider the ability to use two bits to obtain more finesse in his ride.
Horses are turned out as neatly as the rider for dressage. The mane, or hair that runs down the neck of the horse, is normally braided. The sides of the tail may be clipped and the end of the tail cut evenly across the bottom (or banged) to add a polished look.
Riders are dressed formally in competition, traditionally with white or light colored breeches, a light-colored shirt and tie or choker with a black or navy blue colored jacket. Gloves may be white or black. For riders at the FEI levels, a shadbelly (tailcoat) is traditional. Except for very young riders, boots are black and come up to the knee.
Except for very young riders, long hair is always tied up or in a hairnet with lower level riders usually in a black velvet helmet or derby style hat and FEI level riders usually in a top hat.
The dressage tests performed at the Olympic Games are the highest level: Grand Prix.
Gaits and movements performed at this level include passage (a slow-motion, very elevated off the ground trot, pronounced like massage), and piaffe (the trot in place); one and two tempi changes at the canter where the horse appears to skip as it changes the leading leg in the canter, and canter pirouettes (a 360-degree circle, in place, at the canter).
Tests ridden at the Olympic Games are scored by a panel of five international judges. Olympic team medals are won by the teams with the highest, second highest, and third highest total percentage from their best three rides in the Grand Prix test. Once the team medals are determined, horses and riders compete for individual medals. The team competition serves as the first individual qualifier, in that the top 25 horse/rider combinations from the Grand Prix test move on to the next round. The second individual qualifier is the Grand Prix Special test, which consists of Grand Prix movements arranged in a different pattern. For those 25 riders, the scores from the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special are then combined and the resulting top 15 horse/rider combinations move on to the individual medal competition-the crowd-pleasing Grand Prix Freestyle.
For their freestyles, riders and horses perform specially choreographed patterns to music. At this level, the freestyle tests may contain all the Grand Prix movements, as well as double canter pirouettes, pirouettes in piaffe, and half-pass in passage. For the freestyle, judges award technical marks for the various movements, as well as artistic marks. In the case of a tie, the ride with the higher artistic marks wins.
For more information about the United States Equestrian Team, visit their Web site.
Content courtesy of USDF Website.