The Dressage in Olympic Equestrian Competition and its Origin
The origin of this type of classical training for horses can be traced to Greece in the fourth and third centuries B.C. To those ancient Greeks, the systematic training of their horses was both an artistic accomplishment and a means of improving the performance of their cavalry. The Greeks correctly realized that an easily controlled horse, one responsive to his rider’s every wish, would be the most valuable type of horse a soldier could ride. If a trooper was mounted on a horse he could not control, he was of no help at all to his fellow soldiers. Therefore, with an eye toward improving the cavalry, Greek horsemen went to work devising a systematic approach to horse management.
The foundation of equitation—the act and art of horseback riding—was laid down by Xenophon, a Greek born in Athens in 430 B.C. He was a Spartan cavalry officer who trained his horses to change pace, to change direction, and to turn and circle. His horses learned to jump, were hunters, and served as cross-country mounts. Perhaps Xenophon’s greatest contributions to equestrianism came from the philosophy he developed for training horses. He was patient and did not use force; he used positive reinforcement for good behavior and a light touch for disobedience. General Xenophon wrote two of the earliest known books on horse training. In this modern world of constant change, it’s interesting to note that much of Xenophon’s theory on riding and training horses is as accurate and valuable now as it was in his own time. Today, Xenophon’s style of classical riding and training is called dressage.
Dressage is actually a French word, and was not widely used to describe classical horse training until the early eighteenth century It is derived from the French verb dresser, which means “to train or to adjust.” The ultimate goal of dressage training is to produce a horse that works in perfect harmony with its rider.
One world-famous example of dressage riding is found at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. For four centuries, their lipizzaner horses have set the standard for dressage and have traveled the world to demonstrate this classical riding style.
Dressage competitions are a test of both horse and rider, and the purpose is to assess the unity of the two. Horse and rider, ideally, work in harmony. In the Olympics, competitors must ride the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Special, and the Grand Prix Level Freestyle—the most advanced international tests. All riders are given the same amount of time to complete the same test. The tests require that riders and their horses do a prescribed variety of movements and figures. They are rigorous and include four levels of walking, trotting, and cantering, plus changes of direction, the half-halt, and transitions. All these tests are performed silently! Judges want to see a horse with free, light, and easy movements that give the impression of doing on his own what his rider requires. Needless to say, training and dedication are required from both horse and rider.
Grand Prix. All team and individual competitors compete, executing 38 moves in 7 to 7 1/2 minutes. They do this from memory and are awarded points from zero to 10. Very difficult moves performed exceptionally well may receive double points.
Grand Prix Special. This is limited and compulsory for the 25 best riders and their horses from the Grand Prix. It involves 32 movements ridden from memory.
Grand Prix Level Freestyle. Limited to and compulsory for overall best 15 riders/horses from the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special.
Points to Look For
If you are interested in finding a horse suitable for dressage, these are some things you should look for. A well-trained horse should be energetic and show a keen interest in its work, yet be under the riders control and willing to carry out the riders commands without resistance. The horse should move along with active, energetic steps, yet it should not “jig” or show other signs of disobedience. The hind legs should step well under the body, and the back should be slightly rounded in a convex (never concave) fashion to accept the rider’s weight. The neck should be long and arched with the head carried perpendicular to the ground. Almost any breed of horse can be trained in dressage; however, the larger European breeds, such as the German Hanoverian or Swedish Warmblood, are especially popular and well-suited for this discipline.