So you want to do dressage?

So you have just bought a horse, been given a horse, inherited a horse, whatever the case may be, and you want to start riding dressage...

Adele Severs

Published 18 Dec 2022

This article first appeared in Equestrian Life magazine, for more like this check out our current digital issue.

Brett Parbery and DP Weltmieser.

© Stephen Mowbray

By Brett Parbery

History tells us that dressage principles originated at a time when horses were used in battle. Whole cavalries of mounted soldiers would carefully prepare their horses for battle, with the result often swinging to the army who could best execute their battle plan with the most impact. For this, it was quickly realised that a well-prepared, well-trained and obedient cavalry was a sure-fire way to a swift victory. Then, as human nature often is, the competitive side of dressage was born as it became a sport to try to have the best educated horse within the cavalry, I suppose simply for bragging rights. At that time, the dressage tests consisted of movements that were predominantly required in battle and included exercises such as collected and extended gaits, pirouettes, rein back, flying changes and jumping small obstacles.

From my research, it appears that the Germans are responsible for establishing the sport of dressage. As competition amongst cavalry officers grew in popularity, the use of a standard size area was required with the 60m x 20m international arena that we compete in today being the exact dimension of the courtyard between most German cavalry barracks. This courtyard was often used for morning exercise and for the marshalling of riders before ceremonial occasions. As for what appears to be the use of random letters to mark specific points around the arena, there are a few stories that seem to have more foundation than others. The one I choose to believe is that of some old markings being found on the walls of the Royal Manstall of the Imperial German Court in Berlin. These markings were apparently set out around a courtyard, which was somewhat larger than the usual size, in the configuration that we know today. The letters marked the spot where the horse of the person bearing the title, was to be groomed and tacked up. They are listed as follows:

A Ausgang (Exit)

K Kaiser (Emperor)

F Furst (Prince)

P Pferknecht (Groom)

V Vassal (Servant)

E Edeling/Ehrengast (Honoured Guest)

B Bannertrager (Standard Bearer)

S Schzkanzler (Chancellor)

R Ritter (Knight)

M Meier (Steward)

H Hofsmarshall (Lord Chancellor)

As for the letters along the centreline, i.e. D, L, X, I, G and C, there is no explanation to their origin.

In Australia, dressage competitions are usually governed by the individual state branches of Equestrian Australia, however state-governed riding associations such as adult riding clubs and pony clubs also have their own dressage competitions. Equestrian Australia levels begin at preliminary and progress to novice, then elementary, medium and finish at advanced. 

The dressage tests after advanced, namely Prix St George, Intermediate I, Intermediate II, Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special, are set by the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale), based in Switzerland, and are ridden internationally, with the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special being ridden at the Olympics and World Championships. As dressage itself is quite a dry sport and not openly attractive to the paying public, a commercially minded Dutchman by the name of Joep Bartels developed a concept 25 years ago of allowing riders to create their own routine, choreographed to music. This concept took off in Europe and quickly spread around the world. Now the final of the World Cup, World Equestrian Games and Olympics, is the Grand Prix Freestyle (or Kur) and is by far the most popular and well-attended event in dressage. 

There you have it in a nutshell … an albeit brief description of dressage. 

Now, you have just bought a horse, been given a horse, inherited a horse, whatever the case may be, and you want to start riding dressage. Firstly, there are some fundamentals that apply to the sport of dressage, that have to be established in the early years of training … note the word years! 

Dressage is a test of obedience, but a dressage test cannot be won on obedience alone. The horses should give the appearance that they are effortless in carrying out the movements of the dressage test and the riders, should ultimately have the appearance of doing nothing to produce the test. This obedience and harmony is what we are aiming for and this is what the judges are educated to reward. So to produce this, we need to follow a training system which guides us in systematically training our horse. There is such a system and it is called the Dressage Training Scale, and guess who created it … yes, the Germans. 

Everything that you learn in dressage can be categorised to a part of the training scale. For me, the more I have learnt the more my training scale has expanded. Over the years I have trained with some of the best riders in the world in both Germany and Holland, and here for your eyes only, is my current version of the training scale:

RHYTHM/TEMPO CONTROL – to maintain tempo and regularity in all gaits both on straight and curved lines. Once you feel that you can safely keep a rhythm, then part of your training can include trying to alter the rhythm, making things faster and slower, but this is only acceptable as training when it happens on your control. This is called tempo control and works on the principle that any gait in any dressage movement should theoretically be able to be sped up, or slowed down. The concept of tempo control only really applies to horses who have a comfortable understanding of the rhythm required for each gait.

RELAXATION/SUPPLENESS – to establish relaxation of the horse both mentally and physically. A mental relaxation that shows no anxiety or tension. Clear signs of anxiety or tension are mouth problems, aggressive tail swishing, an obvious resistance to the riders aids. A physical looseness of the horse to work through its entire body, showing no signs of tension or resistance. True suppleness will appear like the horse is ‘swinging’ and flowing through its body and not just moving its legs. 

CONTACT/CONNECTION – to create a comfortable steady contact to both reins where the horse displays a positive tension in the reins, while having a respectful submissiveness to every rein aid. The horse, however, must be round in its frame and body and working ‘over the back’. Connection refers to the connection developed from the hind legs, over the back, to the hand and should give the appearance that the horse is moving as one, not appearing to be moving in parts. 

IMPULSION/ENERGY – is the forward desire of the horse to move energetically forward in all gaits without becoming fast. It is a forward thinking state of mind producing an active energy in all four legs, particularly from the horse’s hindquarter. Impulsion can be created by many things, e.g. the horse gets a fright or it becomes fresh at a show or on a trail ride, but it is only useful in dressage when it can be created by the rider from the driving aids, i.e. the rider’s lower legs placed on the girth. The horse must respond to the driving aids immediately, showing a respectful reaction to the rider’s driving aids.  

STRAIGHTNESS/BALANCE – is measured by the footfalls of the horse and should be aligned by the inside front and hind feet. On a straight line the horse should be straight, but on a curved line the horse must display flexion and bend to match the arc of the curve. If the horse cannot maintain straightness by nature, it must understand some basic lateral exercises, i.e. shoulder in, travers, renvers and leg yield, to enable it to be straightened by the rider in all gaits. Balance refers to the equal distribution of weight over all four feet, left and right, in all gaits and on straight and curved lines. As training progresses towards collection, the centre of balance should shift slightly back within the horse’s body towards the hind legs.

COLLECTION – is the combination of all facets of the training scale and is the development of an upward self carriage of the horse, commonly described as an ‘uphill’ way of going. It is created by the hind legs of the horse having greater bend in all joints and stepping further forward underneath its body to become more load bearing, allowing the horse to move the centre of balance back through its body, taking weight off the forehand. The horse will then start to carry itself in front with its poll becoming the highest point. If done correctly and ridden from the hind legs through to the hand, the collected paces should show an enhancement of the natural gaits where the horse appears to be lighter on its feet and moving in an effortless cadence. 

So, here you have the German Training Scale with a twist of Dutch. In my travels I have found that most dressage experts operate from this framework, however it is the emphasis on separate components which will differ between individuals and their system. Nevertheless, whatever you choose to do, I would suggest keeping an open mind and a rounded approach in developing your training system because in true reality at the end of the day, it is your horse that will tell you which part of the system it is lacking most.

Personally, I have found this framework to be very useful in many ways. Every little exercise you learn, can be attached to the training scale in one or more ways. It becomes particularly effective when problem solving. Sometimes you will be training away and feeling like you are beating your head up against a brick wall and not getting anywhere for your efforts. If this happens, I suggest taking a look at ‘your’ training scale, and checking that you are happy your horse is strong in all parts. If you find a glaring problem, then set about finding exercises or techniques to help you improve that weakness in your system.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a series of Dressage Tests at each level, starting here in Australia at Preliminary, and finishing at Grand Prix. The tests themselves give you a guide as to what you should be training in order to move up through the levels. On every test, next to the individual movement, is a list of directive ideas that are set out to guide the riders and judges in both riding and scoring the test. I always suggest to people that I train, that they should become very familiar with both the test they want to ride, and the directives given on how to ride the test. It’s not just about remembering the test so that you don’t make a mistake. It’s about giving the judges what they want to see, and being able to hide your weaknesses and show off your strengths.

When it comes to the description of each and every individual movement in dressage, I think you cannot beat the FEI Dressage Handbook. It is like the bible of dressage, describing in very clear detail the definition of each movement, what should be looked for and how it should be judged. In later articles I will be describing each facet of dressage training throughout the levels, defining each movement and explaining how I go about training them in accordance with ‘my’ training scale. I am hoping that the next time you read one of my articles, I too can have an expanded training scale and give you more food for thought.