What you need to know about Dressage

September 27, 2010

The word dressage means "training" in French, and according to the FEI, it is considered the most artistic of equestrian sports. You can liken dressage to ballet; an elegant demonstration of athletic ability.


Andreas Helgstrand and Blue Hors Matiné during their silver-medal winning freestyle performance at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen.

Dressage is the groundwork for many other disciplines. Riders work on communication with the horse through the use of "aids" or training cues such as leg, hand contact, seat etc. Competing in dressage is the ultimate test of a horse and rider's communication, and the Games will test these athletes at the highest level.

What is a dressage test? At the Games, horse and rider will complete what is called a "dressage test", or a series of required movements, in front of five judges. The test takes place in a flat, 60 x 20 metre arena that is lined with a low rail. Along this rail, letters are placed to represent a location at which a movement or change of pace is to be performed. Also along this rail sit five judges, at different locations, to score the riders on their performance.

There are three tests that will be performed at the 2010 Games; the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Special and the Grand Prix Freestyle. These tests are the highest level tests in dressage. The Grand Prix is completed by all riders; it serves as the team competition and the first individual qualifier. The team with the best three riders after the Grand Prix will win the team competition.

After the Grand Prix, the top 30 riders move on to the Grand Prix Special, which is a test using the same movements arranged in a different pattern. The top 15 riders after the Grand Prix Special move on to the Grand Prix Freestyle, which is the final individual competition.

The Grand Prix Freestyle is a choreographed test that the rider performs to music. The athlete is free to choose his or her own music, form and manner of presentation. The goal of a musical freestyle is to be artistically and visually pleasing while still performing required movements set by the FEI.

What does a dressage test look like?

During the test, riders take their horses through several different gaits as well as movements. The riders have memorized the dressage test and perform it from memory once they enter the arena.

The main gaits riders use include the walk, trot and canter. The walk is a marching pace with four beats and equal intervals between each beat. The trot is a two-beat pace where alternate diagonal legs move at the same time and are separated by a moment of suspension. And the canter is a three-beat pace, where the horse leads with one of their front legs.

Within each of these gaits riders can change the horse's impulsion and length of steps or strides. For example, within the walk riders may have to perform an extended walk, where the horse must cover as much ground as possible without losing the regularity of the step. Or, a rider might have to perform a collected walk, where the horse still maintains forward movement but their steps cover less ground and are higher. These changes are performed at all three gaits and don't show a difference in momentum but rather a change in distance between the horse's hoof prints.

Riders must also complete specific movements during their dressage test. At Grand Prix level, these movements include: lateral movements, where the horse moves sideways across part of the arena; pirouettes; where a horse will turn 360 degrees in place at the canter; flying changes, where the horse will change leads over-and-over at the canter; piaffe, where a horse trots in place showing optimal suspension, and many more.

So how is it judged?

The five international judges that surround the dressage arena are responsible for scoring the horse and rider based on the accuracy and efficiency of how they perform each required movement of the test. They score each movement on a scale from zero to 10. Zero meaning the movement was "not executed," five meaning "sufficient" and 10 meaning "excellent."

In addition to movement scoring, each judge also submits "collective marks" for the horse and rider. Collective marks are awarded when the athlete finishes the test. They include the freedom and regularity of the horse's paces; impulsion, or forward movement; submission, or the horse's acceptance of the bit; and the athlete's position and seat during the entire ride.

Riders can also receive penalties during their test. Making an error on the dressage test, entering the arena before the judge signals the rider with a bell, stepping out of the arena during the test or carrying a whip into the arena are all examples of penalties. The rider will receive a two-point penalty for the first error, a four-point penalty for the second error and the third error results in elimination.

Once the test is finished and the judges have completed their score sheets, their scores produce a percentage. The horse and rider with the highest percentage win.

How can I tell which horse and rider are the best?

Understanding a dressage test is one thing, but knowing which horse and rider performed it best is more complicated. Being good at dressage is sort of like being a good dancer, and anyone who has been dancing knows that some people just have more "moves" than others. In dressage, it is crucial for the horse and rider to perform the movements and pace changes as accurately as possible, but it's also important to perform them with style.

When a horse and rider perform a beautiful dressage test it will look effortless and elegant. The rider will be discrete about cueing the horse, but his or her cues will also be effective. The horse will be supple to the rider's aids (hand, leg and seat cues) and move with energy and flexibility. The relationship between horse and rider is really the driving force in how well a Dressage test will go.

As a spectator, you will be able to compare how each horse and rider has performed because they will all perform the same test up until the musical freestyle.