“The object of Dresage is by systematic work, to make the horse calm, light and obedient, so that he may be pleasant in his movements and comfortable to the rider.”
(De la Gueriniere, quoted by Jackson in Effective Horsemanship. P. 20)
The Art of Classical Horsemanship
The art of riding was developed to a high degree and has it roots in classical Greek horsemanship. Writings on the subject by the Greek statesman and general, Xenophon, can be found as early as 400 BC A great deal of emphasis was placed on an attitude of kindness in the earliest writings on training. While many of the arts declined between Ancient Greece and the Middle Ages, the art of riding endured through the Middle Ages and brought a more systematic approach to training. Even today, different schools exist with respect to training methods, but the goal is always the same – to strive for ever greater levels of precision and excellence in the horse’s movement and harmony between horse and rider.
Early visual representations of Dressage often depict European Aristocrats displaying well-trained horses in elaborate equestrian pageants. But Dressage was well rooted in the military world of horsemanship, as the value of this training method was recognized by the cavalry. When Dressage made its introduction at the 1912 Olympics, it was for military riders exclusively and remained so for another 40 years. Eventually, the competition was open to and is now dominated by civilian riders.
Dressage is one sport which presents a variety of competitors. While age is not a criteria, many riders spend a number of years training and refining their talents, as well as their partnerships with the horses they ride in competition. Apparel for the rider is very specifically delineated in the regulations for the competition. Dressage horses can be of any breed, sex, color, or size. Exceptional basic paces – walk, trot and canter – together with a willing temperament are basic requisites for a potential dressage horse. Equipment permitted on the horse for competition is controlled by competition regulations much the same as it is for the rider.
Dressage is a sport where competitors pursue the unobtainable 100% mark. In order to even come close, meticulous attention to detail, in addition to ability is necessary. Marks may be out of reach because of lack of talent, experience or technique; but they should not be thrown away for lack of preparation.
The attention to detail starts with good horsemanship. Quality veterinary care, proper feeding and an on-going training program are the foundation. correctly fitted equipment and good grooming are also necessary ingredients, in dressage thc general appearance is much more important than in other equestrian disciplines. The horse and rider that are turned out immaculately, with everything gleaming and in place, make it hard for the judge not to give the benefit of the doubt to the combination that pleases the eye Dressage is a performance, and as such, competitors strive to looks as beautiful as nature will allow.
At a show, the final preparations are completed almost automatically. A groom usually sees that the horse is turned out to perfection. His coat shines brightly, mane is carefully braided, hooves oiled and saddlery is cleaned and all metal fittings polished to a brilliant shine.
Riders polish their high black boots, brush their elegant tail coats and the ladies spend time perfecting the most flattering hairstyle, before donning dressage’s version of the top hat.
Just like any other athletes, horse and rider warm-up before their test to bring their abilities to a peak prior to entering the arena. One of the most important aspects of being a successful competitor is determining the method and time needed for proper warm-up, as each horse and rider have different requirements. As the warm- up proceeds, the mental link with the horse becomes more and more definite and ideally, all thoughts other than how to ride ‘this’ horse in ‘this’ test are pushed out of the rider’s mind.
The ‘playing field’ for competitive dressage is a 20 x 60 meter arena with 12 letter markers spaced at specific points along the rails. Here, horse and rider perform a designated test, containing a series of required movements at specific locations within the arena. The letter markers serve as reference for these movements and the accuracy of the movements relative to these points affects thc scoring. Interestingly, no one seems to know the original source of the peculiar sequence of the letters or when their use was introduced to the sport.
This horse show features training level through the ‘International’, or most advanced levels of dressage competition. In order of difficulty, they are, Training through Fourth Level, the Young Rider Tests, the Prix St. Georges, Intermediaire I, Intermediaire II, and the Grand Prix. Within the Grand Prix level are the Grand Prix de Dressage, the test used to determine team medals at the Olympics and other international championships; and the Grand Prix Special. The third test at this level is the Grand Prix Freestyle – a musical ride choreographed by the rider. This test is used to determine the individual medals at Olympic and World Championship competitions. Although certain movements must he performed and each performance has a time limit, the competitor can create a program that suits his horse and is especially pleasing to the eye. Those with flair, choose music to suit the rhythm of the movements, paces and the way their horse moves.
It is these International tests where we see the most spectacular movements: Piaffe, the highly collected, elevated trot in place; Passage, the suspended trot in slow motion Pirouette, a rhythmic turning in place at the walk and canter; Half Pass, a forward and sideways movement at the trot or canter where the horse crosses his legs; Flying Change, a skipping type of movement at the canter where the horse changes his leading leg every fourth, third, second and finally every stride. All of these movements are very highly refined natural movements of the horse. The ultimate challenge is for the horse to perform these demanding movements willingly, on command, and with grace. The harmony required is a test for both the horse and rider combination. The quality of the ride is a test of the horse’s natural athletic ability, willingness to work with the rider and over-all visual impression to the spectator.
One to five judges, positioned at specific locations around the arena, evaluate the performance from their different perspectives. Scores are awarded on a scale of zero (not executed) to 10 (excellent) for each movement, with some particularly difficult movements earning scores that are multiplied by two.
Spectators tend to base their judgments on general impressions — how pleasing the performance was as whole. The judges also take this into consideration when awarding the ‘collective marks’ for paces, impulsion, submission and the rider’s position. Scores are tallied and divided by the total possible, and the final score given as a percentage.
These final percentages are somewhat misleading, the winning score may only be a 63%. You must keep in mind that the marks are given movement by movement, and are judged against a standard of absolute perfection. The greatest dressage riders in the world today can only hope to achieve a final score in the mid – 70% range.
Each competitor will be given a few minutes to familiarize his horse with the arena before the judge’s bell calls him to begin his test. Often the horse tenses at the sight of the stands full of people, the brightly colored flowers, the fluttering banners and decorated judge’s boxes around the arena.
Every test begins with the competitor entering the arena at the ‘A’ marker and proceeding down the center line to the halt and salute at X’, which is an unmarked spot in the exact center of the arena. The halt must be ‘square’, with the front and back feet even and the horse’s body straight. The horse should stand quietly, but move off promptly and smoothly when asked by the rider.
Now and throughout the test pay attention to the horse’s attitude. Does he seem to be happy and alert? Are horse and rider in harmony? A tossing head, swishing tail and ears pinned back are signs of tension and resistance. On the other hand, ears cocked slightly hack show that the horse’s mind is tuned to the rider; that he is listening to the rider’s unspoken aids. A gently swinging tail signified relaxation and a quiet head shows the horse’s obedience and attention to his work.
As the test proceeds, watch how the horse moves on both straight and curved lines. On the straight, his body should be straight and his hind feet should follow the path of the front feet. On turns and circles he should bend his body uniformly along the are in order to create the same path with fore and hind feet. Watch for round circles and smooth even turns. The transitions between gaits should be smooth, and the horse should immediately establish a rhythm in the new gait.
When extended and collected gaits are asked for, look for an obvious difference in the length of thc stride. These are transition also. During an extension, the horse’s frame is lengthened and each stride should cover more ground. During a collected movement, the frame is shortened and each stride should cover less ground without any loss of impulsion or energy.
The horse should carry his head in a vertical position, indication that he accepts the bit and is continually feeling for he rider’s aids. The horse with his nose stiffly out in front of him, and the over bent one with his chin on his chest, are not accepting the rider’s hand.
Now let’s talk about the rider. He should ride with-out apparent effort, maintaining his balance, with his upper body erect but supple and his thighs and legs steady and stretched downward. The elbows should be Close to the body. In this position the rider should be able to follow the movements of the horse smoothly and to apply his aids imperceptibly.
The Appeal Of Dressage
The combination of athletic ability, physical grace and visual pleasure makes Dressage a wonderful sport for participants and spectators, alike. The rapport that develops between horse and rider exists at all levels of Dressage. A blending of discipline, demanding work and artistry in a harmonious partnership between horse and rider is, perhaps, the greatest appeal of Dressage. You be the Judge!