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What is Dressage?


by Jeanne Arenholz



As a dressage riders, we're often asked for a definition or explanation of what it is that we do. The simple answer is that dressage is derived from a French word which means training, or depending on the translator, a combination of training and taming. Depending on what you're looking for in your riding, it can be many different things.

A Training System
According to internationally known trainer, Karl Mikolka, "Dressage is the gradual development of the physical as well as mental abilities of every horse regardless of breed and bloodlines. It's a method of training that makes each horse - not just the perfectly built - into the best it can be by enhancing gaits and optimizing natural conformation. Dressage is good basic horsemanship."


Many training systems may fit this description. Dressage however follows classical principles which have been developed over hundreds of years. They're called classical because they're time tested, they work on most horses, and they’re used internationally. To the dressage rider, Western riding and Saddleseat riding aren't classical methods of training, because until very recently they haven't been used throughout the world, and the training methods were formulated to suit specific types of horses. That isn't to say that there is necessarily anything wrong with the methods, it just isn't dressage.


At its beginning levels, dressage training is a basis for any of the international horse sports - show jumping, eventing, driving, or advanced dressage. It's the basis for producing horses with well developed natural gaits with freedom and regularity. It produces relaxed horses in harmony with their body movement and their rider, and dressage horses display lightness and ease of movement. In more advanced dressage the horses become the gymnasts and ballerinas of the horse world.  


A Competitive Sport

Dressage is an Olympic sport. Most Americans are surprised to hear this since it isn't a popular spectator sport in this country, and so gets no media coverage. In Europe the stands are full, the TV and newspapers cover the competitions, and successful dressage riders are national heroes.

Competitive dressage is like the compulsory tests in figure skating. The lower levels may be a bit boring to the unknowledgeable spectator perhaps, but very precise and technical. Tests are performed with a prescribed series of movements at specific points in the competition arena, and marks are given on each movement, resulted in a total percentage of possible points. Horses progress in their training through a series of levels of increasing difficulty which culminate in the Grand Prix level, which is performed at the Olympics.


An Art Form

Many dressage enthusiasts, riders or spectators, are attracted to the sport because of it's beauty. A horse and rider dancing together in perfect unison, dressed in formal dressage attire are truly beautiful. Dressage unites members of two species as one, representing a universal wholeness. Dressage, in its art form, is actually becoming entwined with the competitive sport now as musical freestyles become more important and more popular. Dressage is a dynamic art form, always changing, always flowing. An example of dressage as art, is the performance of the Lippizan stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.


A Passion

Dressage is a complex activity. It's at the same time simple and complicated. There's always more to learn, and the more one learns the more one realizes how little they know. It's a quest for answers, solutions, and perfection. There is a saying that dressage riders must believe in reincarnation, because you can never learn dressage in one lifetime. Many riders are drawn into the sport and become emersed in it.


A Way of Life

Former director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Alois Podhajsky said, "Equestrian art, perhaps more than any other, is closely related to the wisdom of life. Many of the same principles may be applied as a line of conduct to follow. The horse teaches us self-control, constancy and the ability to understand what goes on in the mind and the feelings of another creature, qualities that are important throughout our lives. Moreover from this relationship with his horse the rider will learn that only kindness and mutual understanding will bring about achievement of highest perfection."


So dressage is certainly a classical training system and a competitive sport. Beyond that it's what you make of it and what you want it to be in your life.


Jeanne Ahrenholz is an active member of CSDEA and the Long Lake Hounds hunt club,

a dressage competitor and show organizer, and professional saddle-fitter.


For more information about dressage, visit the United States Dressage Federation.