What to Know About Dressage

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 17, 2022
5 min read

Dressage is a French term derived from the original “dresseur,” which means “to train.” One of the many disciplines of equestrianism is riding a horse for dressage. This article looks into the unique discipline of dressage, its rules, and other important aspects of the sport.

Equestrianism is a sport involving a rider and a horse. Dressage is one of the many disciplines in the equestrian sport, with some other popular sports including racing and jumping. Dressage is played both as an individual event and as a team event. In dressage, the rider and the horse are judged on how they carry out certain movements in a progressive course that gradually increases in complexity. The sport involves multiple levels of difficulty — from beginner (known as the training level) to the fourth level.

More than 25 countries participated in the 2020 Summer Olympics held in Japan. Recently, the Olympic committee added a musical freestyle ride that added intrigue and interest to the event. With the increasing precision and spectacle offered by dressage, equestrian sports have seen an upsurge in popularity.

Dressage demands high precision and synchronization between the horse and the rider. The objective of dressage is the blossoming of the horse’s strength and ability, driven by its communication with the rider and comprehension of the rider’s wishes.

Dressage training is hard on the rider and the horse. The rider trains the horse to complete coordinated and fluid movements throughout the course. As the horse’s familiarity with its rider increases, it becomes calmer, more balanced, and increasingly confident in its ability to complete the various movements. 

As the two progress from the initial to the more advanced levels, the horse can complete movements by identifying the imperceptible signs of the rider. A well-trained and keen dressage horse gives the impression of carrying out the movements of its own will rather than as a consequence of its rider’s cues.

In dressage competitions, the horse and rider complete a series of “figures” or “movements” in a course 20 meters wide and 60 meters long. The riders have a preset time limit to complete the movements. There are 12 markers around the arena indicating the points at which the movements should begin and end. Other markers indicate the points where the change of pace or leads must occur. Dressage calls for three specific horse movements, which involve:

  • A four-beat walk without the legs in suspension. In this, the horse typically moves the left hind leg first, then the left foreleg, the right hind leg, and finally, the right foreleg.
  • A two-beat trot, which includes a moment of suspension of the legs between every diagonal beat. In this, the horse places the right hind and left foreleg simultaneously, and then, after a moment of suspension (where all four legs are above the ground), places the left hind and right foreleg simultaneously. It’s called a two-beat trot because the legs touch the ground on two occasions in each stride.
  • Three-beat canter followed by a moment of suspension. In this, the horse first lands the right hind leg. The second contact involves the left rear leg and right foreleg simultaneously, and the final contact involves the left foreleg.

These three movements are vital to understand, as they help the horse balance when they move around the course. Trainers focus on keeping their horses happy and making them perfect these movements. The rider, for their part, must sit on the saddle in a way that helps the horse balance the weight when it carries out the different gaits.

The horse and its rider typically train very hard to build a deep bond based on mutual trust and instinct to carry out the specific movement when the rider bids the horse. Once the rider and the horse are comfortable with these movements, a new rider can learn them from the trained horse.

The International Federation for Equestrian Sports (Fédération Equestre Internationale), headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, governs the dressage rules. The rules lay out details for every aspect of the sport, including the equipment used for horses and riders (bits, cavessons, whips, jackets, etc.) and the code of conduct when the rider rides a horse. Some of the general rules are as follows:

  • Bits are mouthpieces placed inside the horse’s mouth. Dressage rules permit using snaffle bits, consisting of a single bar that runs from one side of the horse’s mouth to the other. This is attached to large rings on either side outside the horse’s mouth. The bit and snaffle apparatus helps the rider communicate with the horse.
  • Dressage competitions typically stipulate that horses wear nosebands — long bands that run along the bridge of the nose. Nosebands apply pressure above the horse’s cheekbone and below the jaw. They prevent horses from opening their mouths and altering the bit’s position. The noseband must be leather or a similar material. Other materials like nylon can be used as a secondary component but should not come in direct contact with the horse's skin. Although most major competitions require horses to wear nosebands, riders can get an exception from the judges.
  • Most competitions don’t allow the use of bandages, blinders (used to prevent the horse from looking behind or to the sides), martingales (used to control the horse’s head movement), or additional reins (like draw reins and side reins) to aid horse movements.
  • While riders can use whips during warmups, the length of the whip should be less than 120 centimeters (47.2 inches). Riders can’t use whips in the championship classes of main competitions.
  • Riders can use readers, who read out the movements that riders carry out, except in the final rounds. Riders are not permitted to give verbal or vocal cues to their horses.
  • Riders are judged on a scale of 1 to 10. Riders can’t carry out movements under judges they’ve trained with.
  • Riders should wear protective headgear at all times. Certain competitions may not ask riders to wear jackets. In such competitions, they have to wear warm-colored shirts with sleeves, which should be left open at the neck.
  • Dressage began as a training of cavalry horses in the 1600s, which grew in popularity as a sport
  • Men and women compete against each other in dressage
  • Women have won all the gold medals in individual Olympic events since 1998
  • The sport involves horses of several breeds worldwide