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Dressage is a beautifully complicated dance between horse and rider. Dressage is a truly amazing discipline. It helps to strengthen the bond between horse and rider and it teaches the horse to listen, to have rhythm and collection. Dressage is “defined by the International Equestrian Federation as the highest expression of horse training”, where “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements”.
There are many moments in which horse and rider perform in dressage. The very first movements that any dressage horses learn are the extended and collected gaits. An extended gait is when the horse lengthens his strides “through great forward thrust and reach.” A collected gait is when the horse shortens his strides and brings his hindquarters “more underneath himself and carries more weight on his hind end. The tempo does not change; the horse simply shortens and elevates his stride.” The more complicated movements are called the Piaffe, which is a trot in place, Passage, which “is a very collected trot, in which the horse has great elevation of stride and seems to pause between putting down” his hooves. The Flying Changes, where the horse changes his canter lead every couple of strides or every stride. The Pirouette, which is a turn on the haunches performed at the canter. At the higher levels in dressage you might be required to do a double canter Pirouette. The Half-Pass which is when “the horse goes on a diagonal line, moving sideways and forward at the same time, while bent slightly in the direction of movement.” Every movement that horse and rider team perform are scored from a range from 1 to 10.
There are ten different levels in dressage and three different test in each level. The first levels are called the basic levels which consist of Introductory Level, Training Level, and First level. The reason for the basic levels is to confirm “that the horse has developed the ability to lengthen his strides without losing rhythm or tempo. The balance need only be level but not on the forehand.” The intermediate levels consist of Second Level, Third Level and Fourth level, “from these levels on, the horse must be reliably on the bit. The purpose of the Introductory levels is to verify that the horse now shows that through additional training he accepts more weight on his hindquarters (collection) and can elevate the forehand sufficiently to execute balanced, medium gaits and transitions. Self-carriage is required. Walk turns on haunches, simple changes (through walk), and lateral movements are an integral part of the development within this level.” “Plus the ability to execute more difficult trot and canter lateral movements with the addition of correct flying changes and that his movements are straight, enabling him to develop toward canter pirouettes and straight flying changes on a diagonal line every 4th stride.” Then there are the FEI (Federation Equestrian International) levels, which consists of Prix. St Georges, Intermediate I, Intermediate II and Grand Prix. At the FEI Levels, the horse and rider are expected to “have successfully exhibited all the required movements at the lower levels.” “Prix St. Georges continues pirouette and flying change work.” The “Grand Prix Level dressage is the highest level of dressage.” “This level is governed by the FEI and tests the horse and rider to the highest standards.” “As with the previous levels of dressage, the horse and rider are judged on correct execution of movements, the willingness of the horse and the effectiveness of the rider’s aids.” The Musical Freestyle is also performed at these levels.
Almost any horse can do dressage, although the best horses for dressage are warmbloods. Warmbloods are excellent for dressage because of their amazingly huge strides. Their long strides allow them to have absolutely stunning extended gaits and half-passes with amazing reach.
Dressage tack is slightly different than the average all purpose English saddle. A dressage saddle has a longer, straight flap and is usually black in color, although sometimes brown dressage saddles are used. The longer flap on a dressage saddle helps give the rider a longer leg which in turn helps the rider to be able to give more precise leg cues. The dressage bridle, like the saddle, is usually black in color. Dressage bridles tend to have a thicker nose band and some dressage bridles are a double bridle. In the higher levels of dressage it is required that the horse’s mane and tail are braided. The rider is required to wear very formal attire. Their breeches are always white and their coats are longer than any other coats in any other discipline. Dressage rider’s gloves are also white, although in the lower levels of dressage black gloves are acceptable. Spurs are necessary in the higher levels of dressage so that the rider can maintain a steady leg.
The typical dressage arena is 20 by 60 meters, although some smaller dressage arenas are 20 by 40 meters. Every dressage arena has letters placed around the ring, this is to help the rider remember where to do certain movements. For example, you might be required to do a canter pirouette at “X” or a 20 meter circle at “B”. The picture below shows a 20 by 60 meter dressage ring with the letters.
Dressage is a very fun and rewarding discipline. Dressage can help with any other discipline that you chose to do. It teaches your horse patience, collection, impulsion, suppleness and contact. I hope your dressage career will be successful, and may the bond between you and your horse grow ever stronger.
Here is a video of Andreas Helgstrand on Blue Hors Matine, Olympic dressage champions.