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The fundamental purpose of Dressage (a French term meaning
"training") is to develop, through standardized progressive
training methods, a horse's natural athletic ability and
willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a
riding horse. Although the discipline has its roots in classical
Greek horsemanship, dressage was first recognized as an important
equestrian pursuit during the Renaissance in western Europe. The
great European riding masters of that period developed a
sequential training system that has changed little since then and
is still considered the basis of modern dressage.
Early European aristocrats displayed their horses' training in
equestrian pageants, but in modern dressage competition,
successful training at the various levels is demonstrated through
the performance of "tests," or prescribed series of movements
within a standard arena. Judges evaluate each movement on the
basis of an objective standard appropriate to the level of the
test and assign each movement a score from 0 to 10-zero being
"not executed" and 10 being "excellent." A score of 9 (or "very
good") is considered a particularly high mark.
The Dressage Arena
There are two sizes of arenas: small and standard. The small
arena is 20 meters by 40 meters, and is used for the lower levels
of dressage and 3-day eventing dressage. The standard arena is 20
meters by 60 meters, and is used for upper-level tests. Dressage
arenas have a lettering system around their outside in the order
(clockwise) A-K-E-H-C-M-B-F (small arena) and
A-K-V-E-S-H-C-M-R-B-P-F (standard arena). At the start of the
test, the horse enters at A. There is always a judge sitting at C
(although for upper-level competition, there is generally more
than one judge at a second or third place around the arena). The
invisible letter X is always in the center of the dressage arena.
The dressage arena also has a centerline (from A to C, going
trough X in the middle), as well as two quarter-lines (halfway
between the centerline and long sides of each arena).
Olympic Level Dressage
The dressage tests performed at the Olympic Games are those of
the highest level-Grand Prix. This level of test demands the most
skill and concentration from both horse and rider.
Gaits and movements performed at this level include collected and
extended walk, trot, and canter; trot and canter half-pass
(almost a sideways movement); passage (a slow-motion trot);
piaffe (a "trot in place"); one and two tempi changes (where the
horse appears to skip as it changes leads in the canter); canter
"zigzags"; and pirouettes (a 360-degree circle, in place, at the
Tests ridden at the Olympic Games are scored by a panel of five
international judges. Each movement in each test receives a
numeric score and the resulting final score is then converted
into a percentage, which is carried out to three decimal points.
The higher the percentage, the higher the score.
Olympic team medals are won by the teams with the highest, second
highest, and third highest total percentage from their best three
rides in the Grand Prix test.
Once the team medals are determined, horses and riders compete
for individual medals. The team competition serves as the first
individual qualifier, in that the top 25 horse/rider combinations
from the Grand Prix test move on to the next round. The second
individual qualifier is the Grand Prix Special test, which
consists of Grand Prix movements arranged in a different pattern.
For those 25 riders, the scores from the Grand Prix and the Grand
Prix Special are then combined and the resulting top 15
horse/rider combinations move on to the individual medal
competition-the crowd-pleasing Grand Prix Freestyle.
For their freestyles, riders and horses perform specially
choreographed patterns to music. At this level, the freestyle
tests may contain all the Grand Prix movements, as well as double
canter pirouettes, pirouettes in piaffe, and half-pass in
passage. For the freestyle, judges award technical marks for the
various movements, as well as artistic marks. In the case of a
tie, the ride with the higher artistic marks wins.
Apart from competition, there is a tradition of Classical
Dressage, in which purists pursue the tradition of dressage as an
art form, for its own joy and beauty. Dressage is also a part of
the Portuguese and Spanish bullfighting exhibitions. The
traditions of the Old Masters who originated Dressage are kept
alive by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria and the
Cadre Noir in Saumur, France.
Breeds commonly used for competitive dressage are normally in the
warmblood category, as these breeds have the vigorous, extended
movement and strength necessary for the sport. However, Dressage
is an egalitarian sport in which all breeds are given an
opportunity to compete successfully. Iberian horses such as the
Andalusian, Lusitano and Lippizanner are most popular among
practitioners of Classical Dressage. These breeds excel in the
collected movements of Classical Dressage.
Airs above Ground
These are a series of higher-level dressage maneuvers where the
horse leaps above the ground. These include the Capriole,
Courbette, croupade, and Levade. They are performed with or
without a rider.
The capriole is one of the "airs above the ground" in classical
dressage. It is not seen in modern competitive dressage, but is
performed by the horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna
and the Cadre Noir in Saumur.
In the capriole, the horse jumps from a raised position of the
forehand straight up into the air, kicks out with the hind legs,
and lands more or less on all four legs at the same time. It
requires an enormously powerful horse to perform correctly.
The courbette is one of the "airs above the ground" of classical
dressage. It is not seen in modern competitive dressage, but is
performed by the horses of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna
and the Cadre Noir of Saumur.
In the courbette, the horse raises his forehand off ground
ground, tucks up his forelegs evenly, and then jumps forward,
never allowing the forelegs to touch down, in a series of "hops".
Extremely strong and talented horses can perform five or more
leaps forward before having to touch down with the forelegs. It
is more usual to see a series of three or four leaps.
The levade is one of the "airs above the ground" in classical
dressage. It is not performed in modern competitive dressage, but
can be seen performed by the horses of the Spanish Riding School
in Vienna and the Cadre Noir of Saumur.
In the levade, the horse rises on his haunches to an angle of
approximately 35 degrees from the ground, with both forelegs
tucked up evenly, and balances in that position. At the beginning
of the movement, the hind feet come under the horse's center of
gravity with the hocks coming lower to the ground, so that the
horse appears to sink down in back and rise in front. The
position is held for a number of seconds, and then the horse
quietly puts the forelegs back on the ground and proceeds at the
walk, or stands at the halt.
The levade is a movement that requires enormous strength of the
horse, and not many horses are capable of a good quality levade.
The Lipizzans of the Spanish Riding School are particularly
suited to the movement.
See also: Beginners Guide to dressage