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What is Dressage Riding: a Comprehensive Guide

Dressage, as defined by the International Equestrian Federation, is “the highest expression of horse training.” For the purpose of training, a form of dressage is used by all riders, regardless of their chosen discipline. Competitive dressage is a prevalent equestrian sport.

In the sport of competitive dressage, horse and riders train and work together as a team. They perform specific, often strenuous movements to showcase the athletic ability, talent, and discipline of horse and rider, competing against other riders of the same level. Internationally, riders compete from amateur levels up to Grand Prix. The top competitors go on to compete in the World Equestrian Games and even in the Olympic Games.

What is the Purpose of Dressage?

The key fundamentals of dressage riding are to develop a horse’s natural athletic ability, strength and suppleness, rideability, and willingness to perform under saddle as a riding horse. A horse that has been properly trained responds quickly and actively to even the lightest aids given by the rider. When done correctly, this may seem almost imperceivable to the spectator.

For the rider, the purpose of dressage is to become a well-balanced, well-rounded equestrian with a good feeling and understanding of their mount. Therefore, they should communicate and work together with the horse within the horse’s natural gaits and movements. Together with their horse, the rider should work toward achieving whichever goals have been set out in a relaxed and harmonious way.

Which Riders ride Dressage?

No matter their chosen discipline, all riders will use a form of dressage in their daily training. Basic transitions between halt, walk, trot, and canter are all forms of dressage training, as are performing correct and balanced school figures such as turns, circles, and changes of rein. Once the basics are in place, it is only then that one should start working toward progressing to the next level, training and performing more advanced, complex, and physically and mentally challenging exercises and movements.

All riding includes dressage. Showjumping, cross country riding, and even Western riding are examples of this.  Any moment spent with the horse in any form of training can, in my opinion, be considered as dressage. Even during a jumping course, only a small percentage of the round is spent clearing the fences. The rest of the time spent riding from one jump to the next is essentially on the flat.

Dressage takes a great deal of understanding, willingness, patience, compromise, and teamwork from both the horse and its rider. When riding, you can think of your aids as a form of language between you and your horse. A light touch of the rein here, a shift of the weight there, a change of pressure or position of your leg are all-natural aids used by the rider to give the horse signals indicating what you would like him to do.

So, a combination of the seat, leg, and hand all make up the ‘words’ which are then further elaborated and combined to form the ‘sentences’ used for communication with the horse. The more advanced the training, the more complex the language can become, and the more possibilities and movements become available.

Dressage in Various Disciplines

As previously stated, dressage essentially means training. In all forms of riding, the ongoing training of both horse and rider is required at every level and in all disciplines. Additionally, as dressage focuses on communication and understanding between horse and rider and a willingness to perform and work together as a unit, it is an invaluable tool that can be used in every aspect of riding and working with the horse ground.

Below is a list of traits that all horses should ideally possess, regardless of their chosen discipline. In dressage, these attributes are judged and marked individually and specifically.

  • Calmness – this is displayed by a horse who is free of tension and stress while willingly performing what is asked of him by the rider. This indicates that the horse understands the rider’s aids and has the confidence to react and respond accurately.
  • Willingness – the horse wants to perform and to please their rider. The horse should not be performing out of fear or anxiety.
  • Regularity – the horse maintains consistent energy throughout the ride.
  • Rhythm – the horse can maintain a rhythm without speeding up or slowing down throughout the ride and through different movements. Lack of rhythm indicates a lack of balance or strength and can also be a sign of anxiety and a lack of focus.
  • Straightness – most people think of straightness only as the horse’s ability to move in a straight line, but it also indicates balance and equal bend or softness to both sides. Like people, horses have a stronger side, and it is the rider’s responsibility to train the horse in a manner that causes both sides to become equally strong and balanced.
  • Bend – a horse with a relaxed and even bend throughout his body indicates suppleness and relaxation.

Dressage and Show Jumping

If you look at a showjumper, while performing a course of multiple jumps, the horse and rider are required to perform the transition from the walk, trot, and canter. Once in the canter, a correct contact through the rider’s hands and connection between the pair must be established, ensuring clear and quick communication. The horse needs to be between the hand and leg of the rider. In other words, he needs to be in absolute understanding of the rider’s language and have the confidence and knowledge to act immediately. 

During the jumping course, the horse will be required to perform balanced turns, lengthen the stride, collect the stride, and lead changes (also known as flying changes) in the canter. In a speed class, the horse is often required to perform sharp turns followed by energetic acceleration. All of the above are movements performed in dressage.

Dressage and Eventing

Eventing, previously known as combined training, incorporates dressage, showjumping, and also cross country. Riders need to take part and compete in all three disciplines. The marks for all three disciplines are then combined to give a final overall mark. Depending on the event, all three classes can occur in a single day or run on three or four consecutive days. Eventing, much like dressage, has foundations in a comprehensive cavalry test that required mastery by the horse and rider in several types of riding and skill-sets.

Dressage and Western Riding

Dressage and Western riding have a lot of similarities. Both of these disciplines have a strong focus on the proper training of horse and rider, and calmness and willingness of the horse to perform are requirements.

  • The pursuit of ongoing training and progress in a structured and systematic way for both horse and rider.
  • Physical and mental development is of utmost importance before proceeding to a higher level.
  • They use the same size arena, either 20-meter x 40-meter or 20-meter x 60-meter.
  • They adopt the same scoring system.
  • Accuracy and riding correct lines, circles ad corners are requirements.
  • Correct and relaxed bend through the body is required of the horse.

The Origins of Dressage Riding

The term ‘Dressage’ is a French word and translates to mean “training” in the context of equestrian sport. The origins of dressage training lie in the ancestral need for a strong, well-balanced, well-trained, and obedient mount, able to perform all that was asked of him with willingness and apparent ease.

Dressage, as a discipline, has strong foundations in the ancient writings of Xenophon of Athens (commander of the largest of the Greek mercenary armies). Two of his books are titled “On Horsemanship” and “The Art of Horsemanship” and were written roughly around 355 BC. They are considered the earliest literary works on horsemanship and worth some personal research if you are interested in classical training methods and their origins.

Due to his military background and the need for horses as weapons of war, he understood the necessity for agile, strong, willing, and obedient animals. He knew that an animal trained in fear would not correctly execute what was required of him in battle with confidence. He also understood that asking too much of the horse before being mentally and physically prepared is detrimental to the horse and would be counterproductive.

He dedicated many years to understanding horses, physiology, and psychology and eventually put together his findings in his writings. All riders with interest in training need to have a basic understanding of these principles. No matter the discipline.

Dressage as an Olympic Sport

At its inception as an Olympic sport in 1932, only cavalry officers were permitted to enter and compete against each other. After 1952, civilians and women were finally allowed to compete in dressage at an Olympic level.

Initially, the tests were designed to incorporate military combat movements that would test the courage, calmness, and obedience of the horse (all compulsory attributes of any horse intended as a mount for war, who would be into battle). Therefore, collection and extension within the various gaits and canter pirouettes, flying changes, and rein back were included in these early tests—the addition of five obstacles which the horse and rider were required to jump. During one of these obstacles, a barrel was rolled toward the pair.

In modern times, dressage competitions are designed to showcase the horse’s training throughout the various levels, and the ‘tests’ set out for each level follow a particular order. This encourages the horse to master one set of movements in preparation for the next before proceeding on to the subsequent level containing more strenuous and challenging maneuvers.

Starting at the Beginning

The International Federation for Equestrian Sports (French: Fédération Équestre Internationale, FEI) is the international governing body of equestrian sports. They are the leading equestrian body internationally. Other riding clubs and federations generally follow their lead, adhering to their rules and guidelines and keeping their tests at a similar level.

In lower-level dressage tests, the young horse must perform the most basic school figures in the walk, trot, and canter. Once this is achieved with understanding, harmony, and relaxation, only the horse (and rider) can move on to the next level. When taken into account, the tests make a lot of sense. They can assist with the correct training of the horse appropriately without cutting corners and pushing the horse to a level for which he is not ready, either physically or mentally. 

The USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) prints a small section at the top of each test page, outlining the purpose of the particular test and what is introduced in the test. For example, the 2019 USEF TRAINING LEVEL TEST 1 states the purpose as “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit. All trot work may be ridden sitting or rising unless stated. Halts may be through the walk”. What is being introduced in the particular test is “Working trot; working canter; medium walk; free walk; 20m circles in trot and canter”.

Dressage, performed to the higher levels, is often referred to as a type of ballet, a dance where horse and rider move flawlessly together as a team, and dressage is very much about teamwork. Before reaching these high levels, the pair needs to start at the bottom and work their way up, competing and scoring consistently to gain points and progress to the next stage.

Riding a dressage test

When entering a competition, all riders in the class will ride the same test. Tests are made available online or on request from the show-body for riders to download, learn and practice their tests beforehand. In lower-level dressage, the rider may have a “reader” who will read out the test to the rider as they move through the different elements. In higher levels, the rider is required to learn their test by heart, and later in the Freestyle, the riders will receive a list of movements they need to show, and they will have the freedom to set out their tests as they wish and choreograph their unique test to the music of their choice. Here they are awarder marks for artistic presentation and technical execution.

How does a Dressage Test Work?

All riders will perform the same pre-established test at a competition in a standard 20 x 60-meter dressage arena. Each horse and rider pair will be judged on their performance per movement, individual performance throughout the test, and how well they worked as a team. In the lower levels, a single judge sits at the section of the arena marked ‘C.’ In the higher levels, a panel of seven judges is placed in different positions around the arena, ensuring that each movement is judged precisely from every angle. The positions of the judges are as follows; C, E, B, K, F, M, and H.

How to read a dressage test

No matter the club or area. A dressage test is laid out on a table. The first column is the movement number. In the next column, you will see the letters allocating where a movement needs to take place, beginning to end. In the following column is the description, in other words, what you need to do. The directive for that particular movement follows this. Next, you will find a space for the scribe to write the judge’s mark and then a space for any comments.

Preliminary Competition – Young Riders (FEI Dressage, updates in 2021)

Below are the first three movements found in the Preliminary Competition test, Young Riders.

A   X XCEnter in collected canter Halt – immobility – salute Proceed in collected trot Collected trot  10 Quality of paces, halt, and transitions. Straightness. Contact and poll. 
C MXK KTrack to the right Extended trot Collected trot10 Regularity, elasticity, balance, energy of hindquarters, overtrack. Lengthening of frame.   
KATransitions at M and K The collected trot10 Maintenance of rhythm, fluency, precise and smooth execution of transitions. Change of frame. Collection 

How the Test is Marked

When judging a test, the judge will assess each movement separately. For example, the rider will be given a mark for their entry; is the horse straight on the center line and moving actively forward in a relaxed manner? The next movement will receive its individual mark and so forth. The lowest possible mark is zero, meaning the movement was “not executed,” and the highest mark that could be awarded is ten, indicating “excellent.” If a competitor scores an overall mark of 60%, they are considered accomplished enough to consider moving on to the next level.

When riding a test, accuracy activity and relaxation are considered by the judge. Each corner, circle, and line needs to be perfect. So many unnecessary points are lost by riders either cutting corners, not riding straight lines, and not riding correct circles.

Later on, lateral work such as leg-yield and shoulder-in are trained and performed. Finally, once their balance, suppleness, and strength have reached an appropriate level, more complicated movements such as the half pass, flying changes, canter pirouettes, piaffe, and passage are trained and executed.

The necessity to fully accomplish one level before moving on to the next is simple; each movement is essential in preparation for the next. These tests follow a strict guideline that ensures that the horse (and rider) are strong, fit, supple and balanced enough, and mentally fit to move on to the next movement. For example, a gymnast will not simply begin by performing a double backflip, but rather, over the years, follow a strict method and training steps to prepare them physically and mentally for the next step.

A collective mark out of 10 is awarded at the end of the test. Please see below the example taken from the FEI test shown above.

  • “General Impression (harmonious presentation of the rider/horse combination; rider’s position and seat, the discreet and effective influence of the aids)”


All dressage tests have a section for “directives,” which state what should be achieved in each movement. These explain what the judge is looking for in the particular movements and what you should be working toward with your horse at the specific level.

Some examples of directives are as follows:

  • Regularity and quality of trot; willing, calm transitions; straightness; attentiveness; immobility (min. 3 seconds)
  • Regularity and quality of trot; shape and size of circle; bend; balance
  • Willing, calm transition; regularity and quality of gaits; shape and size of circle; bend; balance
  • Regularity and quality of canter; bend and balance in corner; straightness
  • Willing, calm transition; regularity and quality of gaits; straightness; bend and balance in corner
  • Regularity and quality of walks; reach and ground cover of free walk allowing complete freedom to stretch the neck forward and downward; straightness; willing, calm transitions


As riders progress up the levels, the tests evolve to become more challenging, technical, and complex, requiring a higher level of strength and discipline from both horse and rider. At the highest levels, so much effort is required from the horse that only the strongest and most willing horses will perform the movements required while remaining relaxed and positive.

The Dressage Arena

A dressage arena must be set up precisely and with each letter placed in exactly the correct position, at the exact measurements.

Arena size

A dressage arena can come in two sizes, 20 meters x 60 meters, the standard size, and 20 meters x 40 meters. The arena size may vary according to the age or level of the competitors, and some Para classes use the smaller arena; however, the larger 20-meter x 60-meter arena is the internationally accepted size for competition.

Arena Letters and Placement

At first glance, the dressage arena may seem a little confusing. First, you will see a rectangle-shaped arena with seemingly random letters placed at equal intervals around the outside perimeter. The letters are used when constructing a dressage test and are used by the riders to know exactly where to execute, begin or end a specific exercise.

There are a couple of theories about where the letters originated, but there is no definitive answer. The letters, or markers, play an essential part in constructing a dressage test and then the execution of the test by the rider. The markers pinpoint the exact spot that an exercise, movement, or transition needs to take place.

Letters and Placement for a Standard 20-meter x 60-meter Dressage Arena

The letters found in a standard 20-meter x 60-meter dressage arena are as follows; beginning at A and working in a clockwise direction around the outer perimeter of the arena (as if standing at the entrance about to enter); A (on the centerline), K, V, E, S, H, C (on the centerline), M, R, B, P, F.

The following letters are found on the centerline beginning at A and working toward C; D (between K and M), L (between V and B), X (Between B and E), I between S and H), G (between D and F).

Each letter is precisely 12 meters from their neighbor, except those directly next to the corners, measuring 6 meters from the corner (K, H, M, and F). A and C are placed directly on the centerline, 10 meters from the corner on either side.

Letters and Placement for a Small 20 meter by 40-meter Dressage Arena

The letters found in the smaller 20-meter x 40-meter arena are the same as the larger one, except for R, S, V, and P around the outer perimeter of the arena, L and I on the centerline, which are omitted. The letters measure 6 meters from the corner and 14 meters between neighbors.

Several fun rhymes can be used to help memorize the letters around a dressage arena.


Riding a horse with dressage (training) in mind is for the benefit of the horse and, equally, the rider. It is an ongoing and ever-evolving process. The aim is to achieve perfect balance, communication, and understanding between the pair. Correct training works toward achieving harmony. A rider can do no kinder act for a horse than to educate him correctly and in a patient manner, following the proper steps. 

Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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