What is Dressage? 

Richard Davison and Hiscox Artemis at the London 2012 Games

It is London 2012 and the double gold in Dressage for Team GB in the individual and team event that we have to thank for catapulting my much adored and loved sport of dressage into publicity on a global scale. Where many had never heard of Dressage before, here it was, suddenly being recognised everywhere as the sport of the ‘Dancing Horses’. It is often a miss-understood sport with little knowledge as to what it entails such as how anyone could possibly make the horse ‘dance’ and do movements such as the piaffe, passage and pirouette.

According to the Dressage governing body, the Fédération Equste Internationale (FEI), their definition of Dressage is as follows:

“Dressage, the highest expression of horse training, is considered the most artistic of the equestrian sports and can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. The horse has to perform at a walk, trot and canter, and all tests are ridden from memory and follow a prescribed pattern of movements. The only exception is the Freestyle which is specially choreographed for each horse and is performed to music.” FEI

The word ‘dressage’ is a French term, that means’training’. Dressage is said to have evolved from the training of Calvary horses for combat on the battle field long before modern heavy machinery came to replace them. Dressage has come a long way evolving into an elegant and refined Olympic sport. Harmonious performance is only possible when the rider has a correct and well-balanced body position, moves with the horse's motion and times the aids (commands) correctly. Dressage looks deceptively easy, but to do it well is incredibly difficult. It takes years of dedication and training to reach the ‘Grand Prix’ (GP) level seen at the Olympics. Equestrianism is the only Olympic sport in which men and women compete against each other on equal terms, and the only one to team up athletes with animals.

The close relationship between horse and rider is critical and takes months, if not years, to nurture. If an Olympic rider sustains an injury close to a big competition, another rider cannot take his place on the same horse. The bond between horse and rider must be firmly established to compete at the top levels.

In competition, riders perform a series of choreographed movements known as a ‘dressage test’. Horse and rider are given a mark out of ten for each movement they perform, plus additional marks for the horse’s paces (the way it moves), impulsion (its desire to work actively), submission (evidence of willingness), and the rider’s position. The average of these scores gives a percentage, which is the final mark. It is extremely rare to be awarded a ten, and dressage riders continually strive for that ever elusive perfection of 100%. The world record for a Grand Prix freestyle, (where all elements of the normal GP must be performed to individually choreographed music) is 93.975%, achieved by British Dressage rider Charlotte DuJardin and her horse Valegro in 2013. They now hold all 3 world records for the Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special and Grand Prix Freestyle.