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Introduction to Dressage

Why Dressage?

The aim of dressage is to train a horse to carry his rider easily in a supple, balanced way.  Dressage builds up the correct muscles for the horse.  Well schooled dressage horses are active, eager and responsive to their riders most subtle commands.

A horse cannot perform well in any discipline unless he has been trained to improve his balance and responsiveness.  Jumping, hacking, or competing in any form is better if the horse can balance himself so he carries more of this weight on his hindquarters.

Learning how to get the best from your horse is a real pleasure.  In learning you begin to 'feel' the horse under you, and understand his way of going.

Riding lessons give the basics of correct schooling for riders who might wish to go on to take up this discipline seriously.  For riders who just want to be able to have fun on a horse, or go on to other disciplines, it ensures they learn safely how to give the correct instructions (aids) to the horse so that it does what the rider wants it to do.

You may be having so much fun in your lessons that you do not realise the amount of instruction you are being given - but how useful it is on a hack to have a horse which 'moves away from the leg' (i.e. goes in the direction you nudge it with your leg) if you need to move over to the verge quickly.

Flatwork is also an essential part of jumping - you need to be able to turn your horse and control him in order to jump.  Ninety percent of jumping is flatwork, so if you think flatwork is boring and prefer to keep popping over those jumps, think again if you want to take up show jumping seriously. 

Dressage involves a performing a selection of school exercises.  Descriptions of basic exercises are found on linked pages on this site (circles, serpentines, figures of eight, shallow bends etc.).  As your horse gets more supple lateral work is introduced, e.g. Leg yielding. 

Dressage Tests

Dressage competitions consist of taking part in a series of dressage tests.  Your horse is awarded points based on the score obtained in the test.  As the horse gains points he must move on to the next level of test. 

Taking part in dressage tests is great fun - and even if you don't get placed, you can also compete just to beat your own previous score so you can see how you are improving.  The first level is Prelim, and contains only simply exercises of 20 metre circles in trot and canter, and half 10 metre circles in walk.  It is always best to start with the lower levels of test, even if at home you are doing far more complicated movements. 
If you are new to dressage then your horse may well be distracted when out for the first time, and simple exercises will be easiest for you and him to get right in front of the judges.  Once you and he gain confidence you can try a higher level.  It's a good idea to be practicing at the next level up to the one you're going to do in competition. 

The test level, points required and movements (exercises) which should be included are shown below.
Level of Test Points required Movements to be included
Preliminary Open to horses with 37 British Dressage Points or less 20 metre circles in trot and canter
Half 10 metre circles in walk
Change of rein across the diagonal
Novice Open to horses with 74 British Dressage Points or less Half 15 metre circles in canter
3 or 4 loop serpentines in trot
show some lengthened strides
Rein back (3-4 steps)
Elementary Open to horses with 149 British Dressage Points or less Medium trot/canter
Collected trot/canter
5 loop serpentine
Medium Open to horses with 249 British Dressage Points or less Extended trot/walk
Pirouette in walk
Half pass in trot/canter
Advanced Medium Open to horses with 324 British Dressage Points or less Half pass zig-zags
8 metre circles in canter (collected)
Serpentine in canter with flying changes
Advanced (Including Prix St Georges, Intermediaire and Grand Prix) Open to any horse Canter pirouettes
Sequence flying changes
Dressage Test

Where do those Dressage Letters Come From?

K             E           H.......

Nobody knows exactly what the letters are around the dressage arena.  They first appeared during the Olympic Games in the 1920's.  Nowadays it is hard to imagine how anyone could remember their dressage test if the letters were not there! 
Dressage letters are used both to guide the rider and to indicate to dressage judges how much control the rider has over their horse.  Perfect dressage movements in a test involve changing transitions when the horse's shoulder is directly opposite a particular letter.  Circle exercises are also performed from one letter to another.

Apart from when the arena is used for a dressage test or practice, the dressage letters are very useful during riding lessons.  Just imagine how difficult the instructor would find it when giving instructions to change the rein if the letters were not there!

History of Dressage Letters

There are two main theories - one is that they were the initials of the first cities that the Romans conquered.

The most likely explanation for the dressage letters comes from the days of the Old German Imperial Court.  Courtiers representing the various dignatories would be positioned around the stable yard in a strict order with the horses ready to ride. 

The ranks were:

K = Kaiser
F = First Prince
P = Pferdknecht/Ostler
V = Vassal
E = Edeling/Ehrengast/Guest of Honour
B = Bannertrager/Standard Bearer
S = Schzkanzier/Chancellor of the Exchequer
R = Ritter/Knight
M = Meier/Steward
H = Hofsmarshaller/Lord Chancellor

The observant among you will notice that letters on the centre line are also used, A, D, L, X, I, G and C.  Where these just letters from the alphabet to fill in the gaps, or is there a real reason behind them? 
Other pages you might like:

School Etiquette
School Exercises
Figures of Eight