Dressage: The Ultimate Guide
Originally published by the FEI | July 2021
The Tokyo 2020 equestrian schedule begins this weekend with Dressage, as athletes from around the world compete for glory in the Individual and Team competitions. The first round begins on Saturday, with the Team final on Tuesday (July 27) and Individual medals to be won on Wednesday (July 28). If you are new to the sport or interested in finding out more about this most elegant and graceful of disciplines, here’s everything you need to know about Dressage…
How the Discipline Got Its Start…
Given its balletic nature, it may seem surprising that Dressage originated with military equitation. Whilst the Ancient Greeks trained their mounts in some of the manoeuvres still used in Dressage today, it was during the late Renaissance that the discipline was refined and codified.
The founding of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna in 1572 was a key point in the development of Dressage. All movements and tests stem from the principles that evolved there.
It wasn’t until the 1912 Stockholm games that Dressage became an Olympic sport. Only members of the military competed until 1952, when civilians of both sexes were allowed to participate. Now Dressage is one of three disciplines, along with Jumping and Eventing, that will be on display at Tokyo.
What Happens in Competition…
In Dressage events, riders compete by executing a series of tests in a ring marked with different letters of the alphabet at key spots. Each test requires a unique combination of movements performed from one letter to another in a pattern. The end result is often said to look like ballet on horseback.
The tests become increasingly more difficult as the tiers of competition increase, culminating in the Grand Prix level, which consists of three tests, the highest of which is the Grand Prix Freestyle set to music. The Grand Prix tests are what spectators see at the Olympic Games and other major international competitions.
In the Grand Prix Freestyle test, the rider performs their own choreography, which must fit within a certain time limit and contain specific movements that can be done in any order, similar to freestyle competition in gymnastics or figure skating.
Like freestyle programmes with these other sports, degree of difficulty plays a role in scoring, as well as performing the movements correctly and expressively. Points may be deducted as penalties for mistakes or a disobedient horse. The rider’s partnership with the horse is also a key scoring criterion.
It’s worth noting many Dressage terms are defined in our Jargon Buster!
Judges positioned at the ringside assign numerical marks for each element of the Dressage test. In the lower levels, there is typically one judge per ring, and multiple rings may be operating simultaneously. At the upper levels of competition, there are several judges per ring, each one with a scribe to help mark scores, so the judge can stay focused on the test at hand.
The marks are given on a range of 1 to a perfect score of 10, and the collected marks at the end of the test are the cumulative result of all these individual scores, given as a percentage, or fraction of 100. In general, scores of over 70 percent are considered very good.
This from Germany’s Isabell Werth & Bella Rose at the 2019 FEI European Championships is about as good as it gets!
Judges often add notes too, which can be used to help improve for the next test. As riders move through the levels of Dressage in competition, their judges look for different things. As well as the criteria mentioned above, some of the factors considered include:
- Suppleness of the horse
- Rhythm (and musicality in Freestyle)
- Rider’s seat
- Ability of rider to use tack, aids, and cues properly
- Impulsion and energy
- Bend and straightness
- Smoothness of transitions
- Precision of movements
- Adherence to the test specifics
- Frame, uphill carriage, and topline
- Clear difference between extended, medium, and collected gaits
- Clean, square halts
The FEI is the highest governing body for Dressage tests, including the Olympics, and also ensures that the health and safety of all competing horses is protected.
How the Tokyo Competition will Work…
The FEI Grand Prix test, in which all athletes must participate, will take place on July 24 and 25 and is a qualifier for both the team and individual competitions. The qualification ranking will be decided by the results of all three team members.
Athletes compete in six groups, with three groups competing on each day. The composition of the groups is based on the FEI World Ranking list position of the athlete/horse combination.
The top eight teams in the Grand Prix (and those tied for eighth place) will qualify for the FEI Grand Prix Special on 27 July, which is also the second individual qualifier from which the top 18 will go through to the Freestyle Final on 28 July.
During the period between the Team Qualifier (Grand Prix) and up to two hours before the start of the Team Final (Grand Prix Special), the Chef d’Equipe may substitute an athlete/horse combination. However, the substitute combination will not be entitled to compete in the FEI Grand Prix Freestyle.
The Freestyle to Music is a standalone competition to decide the Individual champion.
The Dressage Tests are the FEI Grand Prix, the FEI Grand Prix Special and the FEI Grand Prix Freestyle.
The best Dressage riders in the world compete internationally, and the FEI governs competition rules for the most prestigious events: the Olympic Games, the Pan American Games, the FEI Dressage World Cup™, FEI World Equestrian Games™, the FEI Dressage Nations Cup™, and the FEI European Dressage Championships.
In 2021, the undisputed top Dressage rider in the world is Isabell Werth of Germany, who holds both the No.1 and No.2 spots in the FEI rankings, having accumulated the highest scores on two different horses, Weihegold Old and her Tokyo 2020 partner Bella Rose. She is the most decorated Dressage rider of all time, and her extraordinary skills will be on display at Tokyo this summer. Werth’s countryman, Jessica Von Bredow-Werndl holds the third position.
Germany has dominated Dressage, but other countries that produce consistent winners include the Netherlands and Great Britain, whose Charlotte Dujardin won the Individual gold in both 2012 and 2016 with Valegro.
Types of Horses Used…
There are hundreds of breeds and crosses ridden in Dressage, especially at the lower levels of competition. Riders looking to compete in this discipline will be happiest and most successful if their horses naturally perform the movements of Dressage without fighting their conformation.
At the elite tiers, there are a few breeds that stand out. These include the Dutch Warmblood, Hanoverian, Westphalian, Oldenburg, Holsteiner, Andalusian, and Lusitano.
If you intend to compete in Eventing, which is made up of three components–Dressage, Jumping, and Cross Country–you may wish to look at breeds that can handle the demands of all aspects of the discipline. The Trakehner, Irish Sport Horse, Selle Français, and various Thoroughbred crosses add scope and speed to their ability to perform in the Dressage arena.
Training and Equipment
To get started training in Dressage, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, but there are two pieces you should have: a Dressage bridle with a snaffle bit and a Dressage saddle. You’ll also want a saddle cloth that’s appropriately sized for Dressage and a good pair of riding gloves.
You can ask around your stables or at the local tack shop for a trainer who specialises in Dressage. Another good way to find a trainer is to attend some Dressage competitions in your area and see whose students score well. If you’re able, watch the riders in the warm-up ring as well to see how trainers work and which ones have a good rapport with their students.
Once you start competing, you will need some other gear:
- Riding helmet
- Riding jacket (AKA shadbelly)
- Riding shirt
Your trainer can advise you about clothing and equipment that meets your riding level and local rules for competition. You can often find good second hand equipment at local tack sales, if you’re not sure if Dressage is right for you, or if you are still growing and aren’t ready to make a large investment in gear.
Some Dressage riders also prefer to use a body protector or airbag jacket. This is essential if you wish to compete in Eventing, where there are more falls.
Your horse’s mane will need to be braided into buttons before every show. You can learn to do this on your own or hire a professional braider to do it for you.
This Discipline Might Be Ideal for You If…
If the thought of doing choreography on your horse appeals to you, Dressage might be perfect for you. Dressage athletes usually like riding with great precision and are musically inclined as well.
Since Dressage scoring is more subjective than that for Jumping, which is completely quantitative, it helps to have a thick skin and understand that each judge scores a little differently.
The ability to appreciate training that involves large amounts of repetition is essential.
Some Dressage riders perform the same few tests for years before being able to move up a level. So, people who enjoy small increments of progress and don’t need immediate huge results are well suited for this discipline.
Your horse must be tolerant of repetition as well, and it helps if your mount is equally musical too. Since there will be judges alongside the ring, as well as spectators in the audience and decorations on the course, like flower pots and banners, your horse shouldn’t spook easily.
Your horse should also have good manners when it comes to other equines, as they’ll be in the warmup ring together prior to competing and will have to pass close by each other on the way to the arena.
Whilst many showjumpers start as youths, Dressage is a discipline where latecomers can blossom. There are competitions around the world for riders of all ages, and adult beginners are quite normal.
Want to Learn More?
One of the best things you can do is watch some international Dressage competitions to see the discipline performed at the highest level. Be sure to cheer for your country in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Then, catch the return to FEI Dressage Nations Cup action afterward in September on FEI TV, which also has a terrific catalogue of the best recent Dressage performances to peruse at your leisure.