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" of 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 zero to ten - zero being "not executed" (and 10 being "excellent"). A score of 9 (or "very good") is considered a particularly high mark, while a competitor achieving all 6s (or 60% overall) should be considering moving on to the next level.
All riding horses can benefit from use of dressage principles and training techniques. However, horse breeds most often seen at the Olympics and other international FEI competitions are in the warmblood horse breeds category. Dressage is an egalitarian competition in which all breeds are given an opportunity to compete successfully. Therefore, many other breeds are seen at various levels of competition.
There are two sizes of arenas: small and standard. Each has letters assigned to positions around the arena for dressage tests to specify where movements are to be performed.
The small arena is 20 m by 40 m (66x131 ft), and is used for the lower levels of three-day eventing in the dressage phase. Its letters around the outside edge, starting from the point of entry and moving clockwise, are A-K-E-H-C-M-B-F. Letters also mark locations in the middle of the arena: Moving down the center line, they are D-X-G, with X in the center. Since the combination of Equine Canada (EC) and United States Dressage Federation (USDF) tests in 2003, the small size arena is no longer utilized in rated shows in North America.
The standard arena is 20 m by 60 m (66x197 ft), and is used for tests in both dressage and eventing. The standard dressage arena letters are A-K-V-E-S-H-C-M-R-B-P-F. (There is speculation as to why these letters were chosen. Most commonly it is believed because the German cavalry had a 20 x 60 meter area in between the barracks which had the letters posted above the doors) The letters on the long sides of the arena, nearest the corners, are 6 m (19.7 ft) in from the corners, and are 12 m (39.4 ft) apart from each other. The letters in the middle of the arena are D-L-X-I-G, with X marking the center.
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 are up to five judges at different places around the arena—at C, E, B, M, and H—which allows the horse to be seen in each movement from all angles. This helps prevent certain faults from going unnoticed, which may be difficult for a judge to see from only one area of the arena. For example, the horse's straightness going across the diagonal may be assessed by judges at E and H.
The dressage arena also has a centerline (from A to C, going through X in the middle), as well as two quarter-lines (halfway between the centerline and long sides of each arena).
Dressage consists of the lower levels: First, Second, Third and Fourth. Introductory and Training levels prelude First level in the United States. In Australia the levels are as follows Prep, Preliminary, Novice, Elementary, Medium and Advanced. The FEI (Federation Equestrian International) levels: Prix St. Georges, Intermediare I, Intermediare II and Grand Prix.
Apart from competition, there is a tradition of classical dressage, in which the tradition of dressage is pursued as an art form. 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. This type of schooling is also a part of the Portuguese and Spanish bullfighting exhibitions.
At the upper levels, tests for International competitions, including the Olympics, are issued under the auspices of the Federation Internationale Equestre. At the lower levels, and as part of dressage training each country authorizes its own set of tests. In the USA it is the The United States Equestrian Federation and the United States Dressage Federation. Pony Clubs also produce basic walk/trot tests.
Each test is segmented into a number of sequential blocks which may contain one or more movements. Each block is generally scored between one and ten on the following scale:
In addition to marks for the dressage movements, marks are also awarded for more general attributes such as the horse's paces, submission, impulsion and the rider’s performance. Some segments are given increased weight by the use of a multiplier, typically 2, which then doubles the marks given for that segment.
Scribing (also known as Penciling) is the writing down of the scores and comments of Judges at dressage events, so that the Judge is able to concentrate on the performance. In addition to this the scribe should check the identity of each competitor, and ensure that the test papers are complete and signed before handing them to the scorers. The scribe should have some knowledge of dressage terminology, be smartly dressed and have legible handwriting. The scribe should also be professional in manner, neutral and not engage in small talk or make comments. It is permissible to use abbreviations provided they are accepted and intelligible.
The dressage tests performed at the Olympic Games are those of the highest level: Grand Prix. They are judged under the rules of the FEI. 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 (a movement where the horse travels on a diagonal line keeping its body almost parallel with the arena wall while making both forward and sideways steps in each stride); passage (a slow-motion, suspended trot); piaffe (an approach to "trot in place"); one, two, & three tempi changes (where the horse changes from one lead to the other in the canter); and canter pirouettes (a 360-degree circle that is almost in place).
Tests ridden at the Olympic Games are scored by a panel of five international judges. Each movement in each test receives a numeric score from 0 (lowest) to 10 (highest) 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 Musical Kur.
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.
The pushing power (thrust) of the horse is called "impulsion," and is the fourth level of the training pyramid. Impulsion is created by storing the energy of engagement (the forward reaching of the hind legs under the body).
Proper impulsion is achieved by means of:
Impulsion can occur at the walk, trot and canter. It is highly important to establish good, forward movement and impulsion at the walk, as achieving desirable form in the trot and canter relies heavily on the transition from a good, supple, forward walk.
Impulsion not only encourages correct muscle and joint use, but also engages the mind of the horse, focusing it on the rider and, particularly at the walk and trot, allowing for relaxation and dissipation of nervous energy.
When a horse collects, he naturally takes more of his weight onto his hindquarters. Collection is natural for horses and is often seen during play in the meadow. A collected horse is able to move more freely. The joints of the hind limbs have greater flexion, allowing the horse to lower his hindquarters, bring his hind legs further under his body, and lighten the forehand. In essence, it is the horses ability to move its centre of gravity more backward. This should be shown during each transition to a lower gait, even by a novice horse.
The "school jumps," or "airs above the ground" are a series of higher-level dressage maneuvers where the horse leaves the ground. These include the capriole, courbette, the mezair, the croupade, and levade. None are typically seen in modern competitive dressage, but are performed by horses of various riding academies, including the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Cadre Noir in Saumur. Horses such as the Andalusian, Lusitano and Lipizzan are the breeds most often trained to perform the "airs" today, in part due to their powerfully-conformed hindquarters, which allow them the strength to perform these difficult movements. There were originally seven airs, many of which were used to build into the movements performed today.
There is a popular conception that these moves were originally taught to horses for military purposes, and indeed both the Spanish Riding School and the Cadre Noir are military foundations. However, while agility was necessary on the battlefield, most of the airs as performed today would have actually exposed horses' vulnerable underbellies to the weapons of foot soldiers. It is therefore more likely that the airs were exercises to develop the military horse and rider, rather than to be employed in combat.
Horses are usually taught each air on the long rein without a rider, which is less strenuous for the animal. However, each movement is meant to eventually be performed under a rider.
The pesade and levade are the first airs taught to the High School horse, and it is from these that all other airs are taught. In the pesade, the horse raises his forehand off the ground and tucks his forelegs evenly, carrying all his weight on his hindquarters, to form a 45 degree angle with the ground. The levade was first taught at the beginning of the 20th century, asking the horse to hold a position approximately 30-35 degrees from the ground. Unlike the pesade, which is more of a test of balance, the decreased angle makes the levade an extremely strenuous position to hold, and requires a greater effort from the horse. Therefore, many horses are not capable of a good-quality levade. The levade is also a transition movement between work on the ground and the airs above the ground. Neither of these movements are equivalent to rearing, as they require precise control, excellent balance, and a great deal of strength, and are the product of correct training, rather than resistance from the horse.
The horse is asked to enter the pesade or levade from the piaffe, which asks the horse to increasingly engage his hindquarters, lowering them toward the ground and bringing his hind legs more toward his center of gravity. This gives the viewer the impression 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 considered to be pinnacle of collection, as the horse carries all of his weight on his back legs, and has an extreme tucking of the hindquarters and coiling of the loins.
In the capriole (meaning leap of a goat), 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, and is considered the most difficult of all the airs above the ground. It is first introduced with the croupade, in which the horse does not kick out at the height of elevation, but keeps his hind legs tucked tightly under, and remains parallel to the ground. The horse is then taught the ballotade. In this movement, the horse's hind hooves are positioned so one can see its shoes if watching from behind, but the horse is not asked to kick out. When the horse demonstrates proficiency in the ballotade, the capriole is introduced.
In the courbette, the horse raises his forehand off the 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, although it is more usual to see a series of three or four leaps. The courbette, like the capriole, is first introduced through the easier croupade.
In the mezair, the horse rears up and strikes out with its forelegs. It is similar to a series of levades with a forward motion (not in place), with the horse gradually bringing its legs further under himself in each successive movement and lightly touching the ground with his front legs before pushing up again. The meziar was originally called the courbette by the old dressage masters, and it is no longer practiced at the Spanish Riding School.
Dressage horses are shown in minimal tack. They are not permitted to wear boots (including hoof or bell boots) or wraps (including tail bandages) during the test, nor are they allowed to wear martingales or training devices such as draw or running reins or the gogue anywhere on the showgrounds during the competition. Due to the formality of dressage, tack is usually black leather, although dark brown is seen from time to time.
An English-style saddle is required for riding dressage, specifically a "dressage saddle" which is modeled exclusively for the discipline. It is designed with a long and straight saddle flap, mirroring the leg of the dressage rider, which is long with a slight bend in the knee, a deep seat and usually a pronounced knee block. The saddle is usually placed over a square, white saddle pad. A dressage saddle is required in FEI classes, although any simple English-type saddle may be used at the lower levels.
At the lower levels of dressage, a bridle includes a plain cavesson, drop noseband, or flash noseband. As of 2006, drop nosebands are relatively uncommon, with the flash more common. At the upper levels a plain cavesson is used on a double bridle. Figure-eight nosebands are rare, and usually only seen in the dressage phase of eventing. Riders are not allowed to use Kineton nosebands, due to their severity.
The dressage horse at lower levels is only permitted to be shown at recognized competitions in a snaffle bit. Though the detail regarding bitting vary slightly from organization to organization. The loose-ring snaffle with a single- or double-joint is most commonly seen. Harsher snaffle bits, such as twisted wire, corkscrews, slow-twists, and waterfords are not permitted, nor are pelhams, kimberwickes, or gag bits. Upper level and FEI dressage horses are shown in a double bridle, using both a bradoon and a curb bit with a smooth curb chain.
Dressage horses are turned out to a very high standard, as competitive dressage is descended from royal presentations in Europe. It is traditional for horses to have their mane braided. In eventing, the mane is always braided on the right. In competitive dressage, however, it is occasionally braided on the left, should it naturally fall there. Braids vary in size depending on the conformation of the horse, but Europeans tend to put in fewer, larger braids, while horses in the United States usually have more braids per horse (possibly from the influence of hunter-style riding in the country). Braids are occasionally accented in white tape, which also helps them stay in throughout the day. The forelock may be left unbraided; this style is most commonly seen on stallions.
Horses are not permitted to have bangles, ribbons, or other decorations in their mane or tail. Tail extensions are permitted in the United States and Australia.
The tail is usually not braided (although it is permitted), because it may cause the horse to carry the tail stiffly. Because the tail is an extension of the animal's spine, a supple tail is desirable as it shows that the horse is supple through his back. The tail should be "banged," or cut straight across (usually above the fetlocks but below the hocks when held at the point where the horse naturally carries it). The dock is pulled or trimmed to shape it and give the horse a cleaner appearance.
The bridle path is clipped or pulled, usually only 1-2 inches. The animal's coat may or may not be trimmed. American stables almost always trim the muzzle, face, ears, and legs, while European stables do not have such a strict tradition, and may leave different parts untrimmed.
Hoof polish is usually applied before the horse enters the arena. The horse is impeccably clean, with a bathed coat and sparkling white markings. Foam should not be cleaned off the horse's mouth before he enters the arena.
Quarter marks are sometimes seen, especially in the dressage phase of eventing, however they are not currently in style for competitive dressage.
Dressage riders, like their horses, are dressed for formality. In competition, they wear white breeches, that are often full-seat leather to help them "stick" in the saddle, with a belt, and a white shirt and stock tie with a gold pin. Gloves are usually white, although less-experienced riders or those at the lower levels often opt for black, as their hand movement is not as noticeable. The coat worn is usually solid black with metal buttons, although solid navy is also seen. In upper-level classes, the riders wear a shadbelly with a yellow vest or vest points instead of a plain dressage coat.
Riders usually wear tall dress boots, although field boots may be worn by riders at the lower levels. Spurs are required at the upper levels. A whip may be carried in any competition except in a CDI or a national championship, and the length is regulated.
If the dressage rider has long hair, it is typically worn in a hair net. The hair net is carefully selected to blend in with the rider's hair color. Lower-level riders may use a derby, hunting cap, or ASTM/SEI-approved Equestrian helmet. At the upper levels, a top hat that matches the rider's coat is traditionally worn, though in some competitions, an ASTM/SEI approved helmet is show legal.