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What the hay is Dressage????

Until a short time ago, all I knew about dressage was that it involved putting a horse through its paceswhatever that meant.

I looked into the history of dressage. I was interested to read that it has its origins in the military. Soldiers riding their cavalry horses in the days of muskets and rifles had to have their hands free to do the aiming and shooting.

The horse had to respond to subtle shifts in the riders balance and leg pressure. The French were apparently the first to develop this art and named the practice dressage, a French word for training.

In dressage competitions, the horse and rider perform in tests that display the horses balance, obedience, and suppleness. The competitions themselves are much like figure skating, in which the athlete must perform a specific set of maneuvers. In dressage, the rider and horse demonstrate three basic gaits (walk, trot, and canter), and ride a number of patterns that include circles and figure eights. At more advanced levels, the skills and patterns become more complicated, including diagonals, serpentines, flying changes, and pirouettes. Clearly, these are lovely to watch. Among the more interesting movements are the piaffe, a highly collected movement in which the horse trots on the spot, and the passage, an elevated trot that makes the horse appear to float!


It is opening the lines of communication between horse and rider, listening to the horse, of being very aware of how every move you make means something to the horse, of first being able to ask yourself "what did I do that made the horse do that?" when you didn't get the response you were looking for. There is nothing about "making him do it". The responsibility lies with you, the rider, to make things comfortable for the horse. That doesn't mean you won't meet resistance or evasion or that you can't use discipline to counter them; the results are achieved through co-operation not coercion.



Looseness is a prerequisite for all further training and, along with rhythm, is and essential aim of the preliminary training phase. Even if the rhythm is maintained, the movement cannot be considered correct unless the horse is working through its back, and the muscles are free from tension. Only if the horse is physically and mentally free from tension or constraint can it work with looseness and can it use itself to the full. The horse's joints should bend and straighten equally on each side of its body and with each step or stride, and the horse should convey the impression that it is putting its whole mind and body into it's work. Indications of looseness are a swinging back, snorting, and a closed but not immobile mouth. Looseness had been achieved when the horse will stretch its head and neck forwards and downwards in all three gaits.


The term "rhythm" refers to the regularity of the steps or strides in each gait: They should cover equal distances and also be of equal duration. The rhythm should be maintained through transitions and turns as well as on straight lines. No exercise or movement can be good if the rhythm falters; and the training is incorrect if it results in loss of rhythm.


Contact is the soft, steady connection between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth. The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider's driving aids and "seek" a contact with the rider's hand, thus "going onto" the contact. A correct, steady contact allows the horse to find its balance under the rider and find a rhythm in each of the gaits. The poll should always be the highest point of the neck, except when the horse is being ridden forwards and downwards. The contact should never be achieved through a backward action of the hands; it should result from the correctly delivered forward thrust of the hind legs. The horse should go forward confidently onto the contact in response to the rider's driving aids.


A horse is said to have impulsion when the energy created by the hind legs is being transmitted into the gait and into every aspect of the forward movement. A horse can be said to be working with impulsion when it pushes off energetically from the ground and swings its feet well forward. Impulsion is created by training. The rider makes use of the horse's natural paces, but "adds" to them looseness, forward thrust (originating in the hindquarters) and suppleness (Durchlssigkeit).


A horse is said to be straight when its forehand is in line with its hindquarters, that is, when its longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track it is following. Straightness is necessary in order for the weight to be evenly distributed over the two halves of the body. It is developed through systematically training and suppling both sides of the body equally. Most horses are crooked. Like right and left-handed people, this crookedness has its origins in the brain and is something the horse is born with. If the horse is straight, the hind legs will push exactly in the direction of the centre of gravity. The restraining aids will then also pass through the horse correctly, via the moth, poll, neck and back to the hindquarters, and they will act on both hind legs equally.


The aim of all gymnastic training is to create a horse which is useful and ready and willing to perform. For the horse to meet these conditions, its weight, plus that of its rider, must be distributed as evenly as possible over all four legs. This means reducing the amount of weight on the forelegs, which naturally carry more of the load than the hind legs, and increasing by the same amount the weight on the hind legs, which were originally intended mainly to create the forward movement. By training and developing the relevant muscles, it is possible to increase the carrying capacity of the hindquarters. On the other hand, the forelegs, which support rather than push, can only be strengthened to a very limited degree through training. It is therefore more sensible, and indeed necessary, to transfer some of the weight to the hindquarters. The increased flexion of the hind legs results in the neck being raised. The horse is then in a position, if the carrying capacity of the hindquarters is sufficiently developed, to move in balance and self-carriage in all three gaits.


Standard Arena- 197'X 66'
Small Arena - 132'X 66'

``Not to know is bad. Not to want to know is worse. Not to hope is unthinkable. Not to care is unforgivable.'' - Nigerian saying.

This information and more can be found on the "Classical Dressage Notebook" website at