The Ultimate Guide to Dressage: Basics, Training, Show Rules, and Style Tips

The Ultimate Guide to Dressage: Basics, Training, Show Rules, and Style Tips

There’s no doubt about itwatching dressage competitions can and will leave you in awe. The precision and harmony between the rider and horse is almost always flawless, and much like a horse dancing, fluidly going through the movements. However, as an equestrian knows, dressage is not an easy feat and it takes years of careful training.

The thought of doing dressage training may scare some horse riders, but it has perhaps crossed your mind to give it a try. What can you expect when you get involved in this unique practice?

In this article, we will talk about:

  • Dressage: A Background On The Practice & Its History
  • Are you and your horse fit for training?
  • The basics of dressage training
  • What to expect in dressage competitions
  • Style Tips: Proper rider & horse fashion for shows
  • How equine tack can make or break your performance

What is dressage and why should I try it?

When you watch a dressage competition, you would notice how the rider is seemingly sitting there, while the horse performs perfectly in the arena. Much like a horse dancing and sometimes described as “ballet on horseback,” a dressage horse has been trained in the discipline for many years before it set foot in the arena.

The word itself, “dressage”, means “to train” in French. The main reason for the sport is to instill discipline in your horse to do a certain set of skills with just the slightest of aids, almost as if your horse is doing these skills naturally.

With the need for flawless execution and coordination between you and your horse, dressage training creates a new bond between you and your four-legged pal. Your horse needs to be trained to understand signals, respond to aids, get flexible, balanced, and learn new skills as precisely as possible.

According to the United States Dressage Federation (USDF), the whole purpose of the sport is to “strengthen and supple the horse while maintaining a calm and attentive demeanor.” There doesn’t seem to be a more rigorous and detailed way to train your equine partner than dressage.

Beyond the stronger bond that dressage creates, it helps sharpen you and your horse’s focus, practices coordination, and may help improve the strength, endurance, and stamina of you and your four-legged friend.

Are you and your horse fit for training?

While there is no age limit for you and your horse to begin training, horses usually start at around 3 years old, when they are strong enough to develop the skills, but still quick to learn and adapt. Your four-legged friend can begin entering events by 4 years of age.

The horse’s personality and demeanor are also factors to consider—strong-willed, stubborn, sometimes “hot-blooded” horses aren’t as keen on learning compared to other equines. Horses also have different physical characteristics, such as some have stronger hindquarters than others, some have shorter necks, and the like. These physical features are important in dressage, wherein your equine will need to lengthen, balance, or sit as he trained for.

Dressage isn’t all about training your riding partner, but it entails discipline, skill, and focus on your part. Learning the aids, gaits, correct paces for competitions—all these and more take hard work and dedication.

Basics of Dressage Training

Besides you and your equine partner, you will need the following:

  • snaffle bit
  • saddle
  • braiding equipment for the mane of your horse
  • shirt, jacket, breeches, horse boots, gloves, and approved helmet


You will also need an instructor who specializes in dressage equine studies. There will always be a stark difference between the knowledge you get from reading and watching videos, and straight from an experienced instructor. This is especially important if you plan on entering competitions in the future.


Your instructor will follow and drill you according to the Dressage Scales of Training. These are universally recognized and used for all dressage competitions. According to the USDF, these are the following:


  • Rhythm - regularity and tempo
  • Suppleness - elasticity and freedom from anxiety
  • Contact - connection and acceptance of the bit
  • Impulsion - engagement and the desire to go forward
  • Straightness - improved alignment and equal, lateral suppleness on both reins
  • Collection - balance and lightness of the forehand from engagement

Also known as the Pyramid of Training, it is a system that you can use to progressively train your horse. The main point of training a dressage horse is teaching your equine how to respond to your aids, created and built through small movements. These small movements are taught a little at a time, layer upon layer, until the strength of your horse develops and he or she responds to your aid almost naturally. Through time, your equine partner will learn the basic three gaits and a lot of different movements.

Building strength, balance, and symmetry are all important in dressage training. After all, it is about competing against your best score, and not necessarily against other riders or horses. There are five levels of “national” tests, according to the USDF. These tests are the Training Level, First Level, Second Level, Third Level, and Fourth Level. If you pursue dressage internationally, international level tests are also available. The highest level is the Grand Prix, which is what you also see in the Olympics.

Remember, it takes years to go up a level at a time in dressage, so please do not get disheartened with your progress. Don’t forget to take some time to do other activities with your equine as well, like riding for leisure or trailing.

What to expect in dressage competitions

Not sure what to expect? Seeing dressage events in action is the best way to immerse yourself into the competition. Reading the rule book for your country or state is important as well.

If you and your horse seem ready and prepared to enter your first show, It’s best to get your feet wet first in a local show. Chances are these shows are friendlier compared to going into affiliated competition straight away. If you believe that you are up for the challenge, and you have been posting results of around 65% or higher in your dressage tests then perhaps it is time to give the affiliated competition a go.

Dressage Etiquette is the same, whether or not you are in an unaffiliated or affiliated competition:

  1. You are assigned a specific ride time so that you can schedule your warm-up accordingly.
  2. You can ride around the ring, but only outside of it, for your horse to get comfortable and familiarize it with its surroundings before the test.
  3. As the rider inside the ring is leaving, do not interfere with them or their equine partner.
  4. There will be three judges. When you salute the judge at the beginning of your test, wait for the judge’s acknowledgement before proceeding. The same goes for the end of the test.
  5. When the judge rings the bell, you need to enter the ring within 45 seconds and get to A at trot form.
  6. While you can’t do voice commands yourself when within the dressage arena, it’s acceptable for someone to read the test while you ride. The designated person must stand outside of the dressage arena, standing at E or B as its starting point. The reader can only read a movement once and must read it verbatim. As you go through the movements, the reader must stay one letter ahead of where you are.
  7. You or your reader cannot use voice commands such as words or clicking when inside the dressage arena. There is a corresponding penalty for that.
  8. There is no disqualification if you go off-pattern. Instead, you will hear the judge’s bell, be given a two-point penalty, and you need to begin riding at the point where the judge will tell you to begin again.
  9. The judges’ comments are extremely valuable for your improvement and progress, as well as to your riding partner. Make sure to focus, remember, and take their comments to heart. They only want you to excel.
  10. After the test, ride in a timely fashion, at a medium walk, to show respect for the competition and the riders after you.

As you may know by now, each movement in the dressage arena is worth 10 points, 10 being excellent, and 0 is not executed. Dressage judges have a very discerning eye as to how well each movement was performed, including your position and effectiveness, your horse’s gaits, its submission, and impulsion.

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Dressage attire for you and your horse

Dressage has a very strict dress code. A wrong outfit can mean deducted points, or even disqualify you even before you set foot in the arena. Play it safe with conservative colors—black, navy blue, brown, cream, beige and white will always be safe bets. These colors will not be a distraction to the judges, nor will they scare or distract the horses in the competition. Complete attire is a must: A shirt with collar, jacket, white breeches for English Dressage events, horse boots, gloves, and an approved helmet, all in complementary, subtle colors. For those with long or unruly hair, stay neat-looking and presentable by wearing a hairnet.

Beyond braiding your horse’s mane as directed, wearing the same or complementary colors with your equine partner also shows cooperation and teamwork. Plan your equine’s tack and overall attire to complement yours.

Choose the Right Dressage Tack for the Tests

Your horse’s tack will depend on whether your riding pal needs a Western or English saddle. There are saddles specifically created for dressage, to help in the tests. You would notice that a dressage saddle has a deep seat with flaps cut straight. It was created as such to help you get as close to your horse, and to help you adopt a better position during selected parts of the tests. You may also opt for a saddle pad since this is allowed in competitions.

When choosing a dressage tack, you need to take into consideration the shape of your horse’s withers. The materials used in the tack are important as well. A saddle pad without soft lining can irritate your four-legged pal, so gel pads may be a wise choice, since it’s thin enough for you to stay close to your equine, but will give you and your horse the riding comfort you both need. For your four-legged pal’s extra comfort and protection, you can opt to dress your riding partner in specially designed dressage boots made in different materials, depending on your preference.

Dressage is a calling for equestrians who want to be challenged. Those who have immersed themselves in the world of Dressage will attest that it was one of the best decisions they’ve made in their life as an equestrian. Are you ready to achieve your best rides in Dressage?

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