Dressage (from the Old French word ‘dresser’ meaning to ‘prepare’ or ‘train’) is a riding discipline which dates back to classical Greek horsemanship. Xenophon, a Greek military commander born around 430 BC, is believed to have written the earliest comprehensive work on training horses. The military during the Renaissance wanted horses to perform movements intended to evade or attack the enemy in battle, while European aristocrats demonstrated their highly-trained mounts’ talents during equestrian pageants. In 1572, the Spanish Riding School was established in Vienna, Austria, developing some classical ‘haute école’ Dressage training techniques and principles that are still used today.
The sport of Dressage was first seen at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, contested solely by military officers. It was not until 1953 that civilian men and women became eligible to compete.
Some of the objectives of the sport of Dressage include creating a balanced, responsive and flexible horse with free-flowing gaits. Competitions range from walk/trot tests for beginners through Training, First, Second, Third and Fourth levels, to Prix St. Georges, Intermediare and finally Grand Prix, the pinnacle of training which encompasses the difficult Olympic and World Championship tests.
In a Dressage test, horse and rider are judged on how well they can perform a series of prescribed movements. Most tests are performed in a 20 x 60 metre arena. Each movement is scored from 0 to 10 with 10 being excellent, 5 being sufficient, and 0 indicating the movement was not performed. The total points are added and then divided by the total possible scores to give a percentage. Movements at the lower levels include walk-trot-canter and circles; at the higher levels, horses are required to show collected and extended gaits, lateral work such as half-passes, one-tempi changes of leg, pirouettes, and difficult collected movements such as passage and piaffe which must show “regularity, cadence,
collection, self-carriage, balance, activity, elasticity of back and steps.”
There is no specific breed of horse necessary to be a ‘Dressage horse’, only a type. Dressage horses are often warmbloods capable of the energy, presence, natural extravagant movement and correct gaits necessary to achieve high scores. The horse should ideally have good conformation, specifically a nice top-line with sufficient length of neck, a back that is neither too long nor too short, strong hindquarters with well-angled hind legs capable of stepping under and carrying weight during collected movements, and a croup that is not higher than the withers. Even perfect conformation will not guarantee that a horse will excell in dressage, however; conversely, many horses with less-than-ideal conformation have gone on to do well in the sport.
A few of the world’s top modern dressage horses include:
2000 Dutch Warmblood stallion
Rider: Edward Gal (NED)
First horse to score above 90 in competition, triple gold medalist at 2010 WEG
2002 Dutch Warmblood gelding
Rider: Charlotte Dujardin (GBR)
Holds Grand Prix (87.46%), Grand Prix Special (88.022%) and Grand Prix Freestyle (94.30%) world records
Olympic individual gold Brazil 2016, team & individual gold London Olympics 2012
1983 Hanoverian gelding
Rider: Isabell Werth (GER)
Four Olympic gold medals; four World Championship medals
1983 Oldenburg gelding
Rider: Anky van Grunsven (NED)
Individual gold, 2000 Sydney Olympics
Individual silver, 1996 Atlanta Olympics
2002 Dutch warmbood gelding
Rider: Laura Graves (USA)
Individual silver medalist, Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special, 2018 WEG
4th individually 2016 Rio Olympics
1997 Dutch Warmblood gelding
Rider: Adelinde Cornelissen (NED)
Individual silver, 2012 London Olympics
Individual bronze, 2014 WEG