Dressage as a Competitive Sport.

Competitive Dressage...is in equestrian-sports the sport that seeks to test and measure the degree and proficiency to which a horse has been trained. Think of it as competitive horse training, with competitions held at all levels from amateur level to the Olympics level.

As we have described in The History of The Horse, since early history horses were used in warfare by the Calvary. These horses needed to have strength, maneuverability, discipline and athletic ability. In order to accomplish this, a set of exercises were developed for the horse as far back as 350BC and was built upon through the ages.


The Calvary men and their horses were tested periodically to assess the progress of the horses for their use on the battle field.

These exercises, tests and methods for teaching the exercises developed into a system of training

As the cavalry started to lose it’s significance in warfare even as far back as the 18th century, the interest in this system of training shifted from exclusively military men to civilians. The tests themselves, started to measure the horse's ridability rather than only the horse’s military purpose for battle.

Much the same way as other equestrian-sports such as 'cutting' developed from the need to use the horse to work large cattle ranches, the sport of dressage developed from the use of the horse as a military mount.

In 1912 the equestrian-sport of dressage as we know it now, was included as part of the Olympics. It was not until the 1950’s that Dressage gained interest in the US. It was not until 1973 that the United States Dressage Federation was founded to promote this equestrian-sport.

Definition of Dressage in Equestrian-Sports

As defined by the USDF “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“.

The American Heritage dictionary defines dressage as --[French, preparation, training, dressage, from dresser, to set up, arrange, train, from Old French drecier, to set up, arrange; see dress.]

The French Cavalry started to use the term to mean “the training of the horse”

The equestrian sport of Dressage is described by the United States Equestrian Federation in Chapter DR subchapter Dr101 the following way:
1. The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of thehorse. As a result it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible but also confident, attentiveand keen thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider.
2. These qualities are revealed by:
a. The freedom and regularity of the gaits;
b. The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements;
c. The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating in a lively impulsion;
d. The acceptance of the bridle with submissiveness throughout and without any tenseness or resistance.
3. The horse thus gives the impression of doing of his own accord what is required of him.
Confident and attentive he submits generously to the control of his rider remaining absolutely straight in any movement on a straight line and bending accordingly when moving on curvedlines.

With these definitions in mind, the use of the term ‘dressage training’ is a redundancy when used in any fashion other than when referring to the equestrian-sport of Dressage.

Equestrian-Sports...Dressage Competition

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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 and are regulated by the Federation Equestre Internationale or FEI and include the Prix St Georges thru Grand Prix Level tests.

Equestrian-Sports.....Starting out in Dressage

At the beginning levels the sport of Dressage can be a wonderful way to learn the basics of riding and horsemanship. It can help you to acquire a good feel , good balance ,a good seat , and the basics of communicating with the horse (the aids). It can lead you into the sport of Dressage itself. and into the world of showing and competition. Or it can be fulfilling in itself... as it is for me as a trainer.

As a beginner, finding an instructor who can communicate well with you is important. But even more important is finding a tried and true "schoolmaster". A schoolmaster is a horse that has been trained in the sport of dressage and knows it’s job …well. Remember horse-riding-tip #4 novice riders in any equestrian-sport should be mounted on an experienced older horse.

In order to understand some of the basic concepts of the sport of dressage it is useful to know some of the terminology that is used. These terms will be used by an instructor to teach you the basics of riding. A glossary of dressage terms is useful to have even if you will probably not understand the meaning of some of the words until you have experienced them on a horse.

It is also helpful to know the layout of a dressage arena and some of the history behind its use.

Equestrain-Sports ........Why Dressage?

At the lower levels any horse and rider can benefit from learning the basics of dressage. Developing the horse’s “natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider” is a benefit to horses of any equestrian-sport.

  • Introductory and training level is like grammar school.
  • 1st through 2nd level is like elementary school.
  • 3rd level through Prix St Georges is like high school
  • FEI level can be thought of as getting your Master’s degree.

At the FEI level and beyond dressage as a sport, can turn into an art form. You need only watch the musical freestyles of the world championships to understand this. Even if you have no knowledge of dressage, you will be captivated by the beauty and harmony of horse and rider, dancing their way through a musical free style or a Grand Prix test.

The training of the horse can move beyond a test of the technical ability of horse and rider. With the mastering of the training principals, a deep understanding of the horse, a bit of passion and self expression………dressage transcends the sport to become an an art form.

Quote for a Dressage Day

“As a result of the appropriate gymnastics
and training of the horse,
the appearance and the movements
of the horse will be more beautiful.”~ Colonel Alois Pohajsky

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