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From Novice to Advanced: Mastering the Fundamentals of Dressage

Introduction to Dressage

Dressage, derived from the French word for training, is an equestrian sport that originated from the ancient Greeks and was refined in the Renaissance era. Today, it is considered the foundation of all other equestrian disciplines, such as barrel racing and show jumping, as it focuses on the partnership between the horse and rider, showcasing their obedience, flexibility, balance, and harmony.

Origins of Dressage

Dressage can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who used horses for practical purposes, such as war and transportation. Xenophon, a Greek cavalry leader and writer, is credited with writing the first systematic treatise on horsemanship, which included principles of dressage such as rhythm, impulsion, and balance.

During the Renaissance, dressage was refined as a form of equestrian art, with riders and horses performing intricate maneuvers and movements in harmony, often accompanied by music. Dressage also became a staple of military training, as it was seen as a way to improve the obedience and responsiveness of warhorses.

Dressage as a Partnership between Horse and Rider

Dressage is not just about the technical execution of movements, but also about the partnership between the horse and rider. Dressage riders often spend years developing this partnership, as it requires trust, communication, and mutual respect.

The horse is trained to be obedient and responsive to the rider’s commands, while the rider learns to communicate with the horse through subtle cues and body language. This partnership should appear effortless and harmonious to the judges, as if the horse and rider are dancing together.

Fundamentals of Dressage

The 5 Constants of Dressage

The 5 Constants of Dressage are the fundamental principles that define the sport:

Acceptance – The horse must accept the rider’s aids and be obedient to their commands. Calmness – The horse should remain calm and relaxed throughout the competition.

Purity – The horse’s gaits should be pure and regular, with no irregularity or deviation from the norm. Straightness – The horse should move straight on all lines and curves, both laterally and longitudinally.

Forwardness – The horse should move forward willingly and with energy.

The 5 Variables of Dressage

The 5 Variables of Dressage are the ways in which the rider can adjust the horse’s performance:

Direction – The horse should move in the requested direction, whether that’s straight, left, right, or diagonal. Speed – The horse’s speed should be adjusted to suit the movement or test being performed.

Balance – The horse’s balance should be maintained throughout the test, with even weight distribution and coordinated movements. Timing – The rider must coordinate their aids with the horse’s movements, anticipating and reacting to the horse’s response.

Impulsion – The horse must show energy and desire to move forward, demonstrated by the use of the hind legs and a spring in the movement.

Scoring a Dressage Test

Dressage competitions are judged based on the execution of specific maneuvers and movements. Each maneuver is scored individually, and the judges also provide collective marks for the horse and rider’s overall performance.

The scoring system is based on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being excellent and 1 being very poor. The collective marks assess the partnership between the horse and rider, with scores for paces, impulsion, submission, and riding.


Dressage is an art form that showcases the partnership between the horse and rider, with movements that require obedience, flexibility, balance, and harmony. The fundamentals of dressage include the 5 Constants and 5 Variables, which define the principles of the sport and how riders can adjust their performance.

Dressage competitions are scored based on the execution of specific maneuvers and movements, with collective marks assessing the overall partnership between horse and rider.

Dressage Levels

Dressage is a progressive sport that requires horses and riders to advance through different levels of difficulty in the approximate order of sequences of movements. Dressage is a gradual process that allows the horse and rider to develop a deeper understanding of each other as they progress through the levels, creating a partnership that is vital for success.

Novice Level


Novice Level is the introduction to dressage, where riders focus on basic fundamentals, such as rhythm, straightness, and suppleness. Horse and rider perform simple movements such as walking, trotting, and cantering.

The most basic maneuvers consist of 20-meter circles, straight lines, serpentines, and transitions between gaits.

Elementary Level

The Elementary level adds increased difficulty through introducing more difficult events and patterns on the ground and when ridden. The 20-meter circles become smaller, requiring better balance and bend, while the serpentine should also show more suppleness, and straighter lines.

The horse and rider learn to perform a better turn on the haunches, leg-yielding and shoulder-in. Riders also perfect their transitions between gaits.

Medium Level

The Medium level requires the horse to develop collection, impulsion, and carriage. The horse and rider will develop an increased understanding of the movements and progress towards more advanced maneuvers.

The half-pass and flying change are introduced, requiring the horse to move sideways with impulsion. Additionally, the horse should exhibit more buoyancy and power in the transitions, as well as the back and hindquarters.

Advanced Level


Advanced Level is the ultimate level of correctness, form, and elegance. In this level, the horse is required to exhibit the highest level of athleticism, suppleness, and grace.

The horse’s movements should exhibit ultimate cadence, lightness, and impulsion. The collected movements become even more pronounced.

The horse and rider will perfect the piaffe, passage, pirouettes, and tempi changes.

Dressage Movements and Maneuvers

Level One (Novice)

Circles – Circles are the fundamental building blocks of dressage and are found in almost every dressage test. They aim to show suppleness, balance, and rhythm.

Serpentines – A serpentine consists of three to four loops of equal size, performed on a curved line. The rider must show the correct bend and flexion throughout the serpentines.

Halt – The halt is a two-stroke movement that comes from a straight line, followed by stillness. Horses and riders must make a straight halt, with all four feet standing squarely.

Level Two (Elementary)

Smaller Circles – Smaller circles must be ridden with more bend and accuracy than larger circles, requiring the horse to maintain rhythm and balance in a small area. Renvers – The renvers is a sideways movement used to increase suppleness and mobile readiness of the horse.

The movement requires the horse to move sideways with its haunches towards the inside. Travers – The travers requires the horse to move sideways with the shoulders towards the inside.

Level Three (Medium)

Half-Pass – The Half-pass is a more advanced version of the travers and renvers. It is a lateral movement in which the horse moves diagonally across the arena.

The horse moves forward and diagonally sideways at the same time, with the rider maintaining the correct bend. Flying Change – The flying change of lead is considered a highlight moment of dressage.

The maneuver requires the horse to change its lead in the canter by crossing one foot over the other during a single stride. Shoulder-In – The Shoulder-in is used to improve the horse’s balance and carriage.

It is a lateral movement in which the horse moves its shoulders towards inside of the arena, while the hindquarters remain on the track.

Level Four (Advanced)

Piaffe – The Piaffe is a trot in place, showcasing the ultimate in collection and expression. The horse trots on the spot, moving its front and hind legs in diagonal sequence.

Passage – The Passage is an elegant showcase of collection and extension in the trot, showing ultimate suspension, power and lightness. The horse moves with an elevated and expressive gait, with the forelegs lifted high off the ground.

Pirouettes – A pirouette is a very tight horizontal circle of six to eight strides in the trot or canter. It requires excellent balance, agility, and suppleness and is considered one of the most challenging movements in dressage.


Dressage is the foundation for all equestrian disciplines, emphasizing the partnership between the horse and rider. From Novice to Advanced, each level builds on the previous one, developing the horse’s athleticism and the rider’s skill and finesse.

By mastering the different levels and movements, equestrian teams can reach their ultimate goal of harmony and precision.

Dressage Horse Breeds

What Makes a Good Dressage Horse

There are three essential characteristics that make a good dressage horse: temperament, conformation, and the way that they move. Temperament: Dressage horses need to be intelligent, trainable, and willing to work.

A horse that is too hot-headed or nervous may become too anxious to learn the required movements. On the other hand, a horse that is too lazy or complacent may lack the energy and enthusiasm required to perform at a high level.

Conformation: The conformation of a dressage horse must allow for freedom of movement and proper balance. Horses with a long, flexible back, well-sloped shoulders, and an upright neck are ideal for the sport.

A horse with straighter shoulders and a shorter back may have a more difficult time performing the required movements. Way of Moving: Dressage horses must have an excellent way of moving, with suppleness, elasticity and expressiveness in all three gaits.

Their trot should have a round, elevated profile, and their canter should have a smooth, uphill quality.

Top Dressage Horse Breeds

There are many breeds that excel at dressage, but a few stand out as the most popular, successful and well-regarded breeds:

Hanoverian Hanoverians are one of the most popular breeds for dressage, known for their exceptional temperament and fluid movement. They have a long history in the sport and have won multiple Olympic medals and World Cup titles.

Dutch Warmblood Dutch Warmbloods are known for their power, athleticism, and expressive movement. They also have a reputation for being easy to train and suitable for riders of all levels.

Oldenburg Oldenburg horses are bred for their movement and athleticism, with their distinct jumping and movement ability. They are known for their power, athleticism and being versatile enough to compete across different equestrian disciplines.

Andalusian/Lusitano Andalusians and Lusitanos are both popular for dressage due to their ability to extend, collect, and perform lateral movements. They are often associated with classical dressage due to their high-level of elegance, grace, and lightness.

Friesian Friesians are known for their fantastic movement, with elevated, expressive gaits, that give them an edge in the dressage world. They are versatile horses and also excel at driving and pleasure riding.

Lipizzaner – Lipizzaners are a popular choice for classical dressage, being renowned for their elegance, agility, collection, and balance. They are also known for their ability to perform the airs above the ground, which are advanced dressage maneuvers that were originally used in war.

Selle Francais Selle Francais horses are a French breed that combines Thoroughbred, Anglo-Arab, and French Trotter bloodlines to produce horses that excel in both dressage and jumping.

High School Dressage

Haute Ecole (Classical Dressage)

Haute Ecole is a style of classical dressage that focuses on developing a horses natural movement to its highest expression. It emphasizes the partnership between horse and rider and is characterized by beautiful, fluid movements and harmony between the two.

Lipizzaner The Lipizzaner breed is well suited to classical dressage, as this breed originates from the famous Spanish Riding School, which is the benchmark for classical training. The Lipizzanes are trained to perform the airs above the ground, advanced maneuvers that require high levels of collection, balance, and athleticism.

Airs Above the Ground The airs above the ground are advanced dressage maneuvers that demonstrate the horses ultimate collection and balance. These movements include pesade, levade, courbette, capriole, and croupade.

Pesade The pesade is a movement that involves the horse raising the forehand so high that it almost makes a vertical line with the hindquarters, while standing on its hind legs. Levade The levade is similar to the pesade, but the horse lifts its forehand even higher and tucks its hind legs underneath its body.

Courbette The courbette is a movement in which the horse jumps up from its haunches and hops on its hind legs. Capriole The capriole is a movement in which the horse leaps into the air and kicks out its hind legs.

Croupade The croupade is a movement that involves a horse hunching up its hindquarters and carrying most of its weight on its forelegs.

Breeds for Classical Dressage

Friesian Friesians are an ideal breed for classical dressage thanks to their expressive and powerful movement, adaptability, and agility. PRE Horses Pura Raza Espaolas or PRE horses are a Spanish breed that are known for their natural balance, suppleness, agility, and athleticism.

They have achieved fame as dressage horses, with several winners at top competitions.


Choosing the right breed of horse is an important part of achieving success in dressage, whether it’s performing classical dressage or competing professionally. The best dressage horses have the right temperament, conformation, and way of moving necessary to succeed in the sport, whether they are Hanoverians, Dutch Warmbloods, Friesians, Lipizzanes, Andalusians, or Selle Francais.

By choosing carefully and training with patience and skill, riders can create a partnership with their horse that will allow them to achieve success in the sport of dressage.

Getting Started with Dressage

Dressage is a fascinating and challenging sport that requires dedication, persistence, and patience to master. If you’re interested in getting started with dressage, there are several steps you can take to increase your knowledge and skills.

Increase Your Knowledge

It’s essential to learn as much as possible about dressage, including the history of the sport, riding techniques, and training principles. A great resource for learning more about dressage is the United States Dressage Federation, which provides educational resources, information, and support for dressage riders at all levels.

Additionally, there are several books available on the topic that provide valuable information on dressage techniques, training principles, and horse management. Some popular titles include “The Principles of Riding” by the German Riding Association and “The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse” by Charles de Kunffy.

Attend a Competition

Attending a dressage competition is an excellent way to see the sport in action and understand the demands of the dressage tests. There are several types of dressage competitions, including English and Western dressage, where riders compete in specific tests according to their level of skill and experience.

You can also attend competitions online, where riders compete and are judged remotely, allowing you to watch the competition from the comfort of your own home while

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