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(Photo- Michael Poulin - Olympic Dressage Medal Winner, Instructor & Trainer)
Dressage is a French term, loosley defined as "The Way or Training". Dressage is the oldest equestrian sport, dating back to the Renaissance and having its foundation in classical Greek horsemanship. Dressage was originally used to train horses for use in 16th and 17th century warfare. During this "golden age"horses were a vital combination of transport and weaponry. They carried supplies, weapons and fighters: they could also be trained for use on the battlefield, where warriors on horseback were much more effective than those on foot. They were that periods equivalent of "High Tech" weaponry. Dressage horses and riders learn a variety of movements based on those once used for war: movements designed to protect the rider while allowing him to fight with a sword; movements to evade the enemy, to circle, back and stop, and the most famous and ballet-like moves called Haute Ecole (High School) or airs above ground. Dressage today now functions as two seperate disiplines
The riding discipline of Dressage is unlike all other riding disciplines in that its foundation are the teachings of Xenophon (c.430—c.350 BCE) A Third & Fourth Century Greek General and student of the classical Greek Athenian philosopher Socrates. He wrote the seminal book equestrian, "The Art of Horsemanship". This book and the use of behaviorial based communication cues are the basis of what is generally refered to as "Classic Riding" from which dressage was derived. The United States Dressage Federation oversees the rules and standards for competitions, which are held at all levels of training. Riders and horses that are just learning dressage compete in smaller events until they gain expertise, at which time they advance in the competitions. Events are called tests, where riders and horses execute a pattern of movements, on which they are judged. The individual movements of each pattern are scored from zero to ten. Grand Prix and the Summer Olympics games are the highest expressions of dressage competition.
The arena layout is rectangular and must fulfill not only specific size requirements, but also has markers that determine where horses will perform particular movements. There are two sizes of arena: a smaller (ring size of 60 X 20 feet or 18.30 meters x 6.10 meters) one in which lower levels of dressage are performed, and a standard size (with dimensions of 60 X 40 feet or 18.30 meters x 12.20 meters) in which all other events take place. You can find information and diagrams of marked arenas by clicking here.
Warmbloods are most often used for dressage but all breeds are allowed to compete, so you may find the Finnhorse, Friesians, Arabians, Andalusians, Morgans and Lusitanos, all compete in these events. Gaited horses can be also be trained in dressage as well. (For additional information on horse breeds please click here)
Lower levels of dressage can be worked walking or trotting, so beginning riders can study dressage. As the riders and horses learn, they compete in more and more advanced tests. The background of a dressage instructor should include completing high level tests, dressage horse training and years of working with students. Dressage is great training for horses and riders, calling for discipline and communication between horse and rider. Part of the magical beauty of dressage is the subtle communication between rider and horse to perform ballet like movements with athleticism, grace and precision..
Classical dressage, a high art form; is taught worldwide including historic riding schools like the Cadre Noir in France and the Spanish Riding School in Austria (Home of the world famous Lipizanners. Traditional bullfighting in Portugal and Spain also use dressage training. With its emphasis on traditional forms and artistic movement, it's no surprise that dressage isn't performed by riders wearing jeans: a long frock coat called the Shad belly, pants (Breeches), white shirt, and stock tie, one of several approved hats, and gloves, are worn. (Click here for more information about Classic (English / Dressage) riding attire)
Dressage tests may also include a freestyle section, where horse and rider perform their own patterns set to music. In driving competitions, there are often dressage components where the horses perform particular dressage movements without being mounted. In this interesting version of dressage, there are usually several horses, which have to work together smoothly with seemingly little effort on the part of the horses or the drivers.
There are a number of terms used in dressage, and it takes time to learn them all. Each particular movement has a name; there are also agreed-upon terms for the dressage training scale, which codify the way the horses should move and the style they demonstrate. Rhythm and regularity, relaxation, contact, impulsion and collection are qualities horses are judged on in dressage competitions.