Dressage for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know

Dressage English Horseback Riding

What is Dressage?

Dressage is a popular horseback riding discipline around the world that demonstrates a horse’s elegance and training. You can watch top international riders competing in dressage at the Olympics on T.V., or you can find a local show circuit where riders show up to try their hand at the sport.

So, what is dressage? Dressage is a horseback riding discipline where horses and riders ride through a predetermined test or pattern to demonstrate control, rhythm, suppleness and show that their horse is willing to execute everything that the test calls for.

A dressage test will consist of circles, change of direction, transitions, and other specific dressage maneuvers that all exhibit the rider’s ability to communicate with the horse and the horse’s willingness to execute such maneuvers. Dressage is a great way to build a better connection with your horse and learn how to communicate on a different level.

How a Dressage Test Works

If you’ve never competed in dressage but are planning to, knowing how dressage competitions play out will help keep you ahead of the game. I always feel better going to a show when I’m prepared and know what to expect. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how a dressage competition will usually go:

Step 1: Register For the Division You Want to Compete In 

In order to compete, you’ll need to first register you and your horse. Depending on the competition, you can either register online or once you arrive at the showgrounds.

You’ll have to provide you and your horse’s information, and a negative Coggins test for your horse. If you’re competing as an association member, make sure you have your membership card.

Next, register for the division you want to compete in. There will most likely be a description of the skills each division requires; read through the descriptions and choose a division you feel comfortable doing.

Step 2: Memorize Your Dressage Test Ahead of Time

Upon registering, you will usually receive your division’s pre-determined dressage test written out on paper. This paper will list a step-by-step guide on how to complete the judged test. There usually won’t be a visual image of the arena; instead, the steps will be written out to correlate a certain movement with a dressage letter.

This may sound confusing at first. To begin with, the dressage arena is marked with letters around the ring. Your test can say things like “circle at E.” If this is the case, you know that you’re supposed to ride to letter E and make a circle. The test guide may be a bit more helpful if you’re looking at a dressage ring as you read it.

Make sure you give yourself time to memorize your test before it’s your turn in the ring. I always found that watching other riders ride the test helps me memorize it too.

Step 3: Know How Much Time You Have to Enter the Dressage Ring

Before you begin your dressage test, you are to trot around the outside of the ring, enter the arena, halt your horse, salute to the judges, and then begin your test. You have to do this all in an allotted amount of time.

To help you keep track of time so that you don’t get penalized, ask the show administrator, the timekeeper, or another rider for the amount of time you have to start your dressage test. It may also be mentioned on your test paper that you get to help you memorize the test.

At the beginning and the end of your test, you’ll come to the center of the dressage arena facing the judges and salute. You are technically judged from when you enter the arena to when you do your final salute.

Step 4: Understand What You’re Being Judged On

I find that when it comes to competing in general, knowing what you’re being judged on can help me ride more effectively. In dressage, you aren’t just being judged on a specific aspect; instead, you and your horse are being judged as a unit. The judges will study everything from your horse’s movements and willingness to your ability to communicate effectively with the horse and execute each maneuver within the test.

The goal is for you and your horse to look as fluid as possible. Dressage is known as a discipline of the highest form of training and control. Because of this, judges will focus on things like the balance of the horse, the rhythm of the horse’s gaits (a steadiness controlled by the rider) and willingness and responsiveness to the rider’s cues (which means that the rider has to communicate effectively.)

Step 5: Your Score Will Be Announced

After you’ve done your dressage test, you’ll receive a paper from the judges where you can read all of their comments and critiques. The paper will list out each step of the test and what the judge thought of your execution. It will also list your overall score. Each maneuver in the test is scored on a scale of 0-10, 0 being a low score and 10 being a high score.

This is my favorite thing about dressage. I love getting feedback from the judges to understand what I could do better and also what I was able to do well.

Your score will be announced. The higher the percentage you have, the higher you’ll place in the division.  This is a nice and simple way of tracking your score compared to calculating faults and penalties.

A Dressage Test – Maneuvers You May See

English Pleasure Horseback Riding

When a non-equestrian watches a dressage test, it will probably make no sense to them; however, to the trained eye, you’ll be able to tell that the horse and rider are trying to demonstrate balance, rhythm, and control through a certain maneuver.

Here’s a list of maneuvers you may see in a dressage test:

changing rein: this is another term for “change direction.” It’s when you’ll ask your horse to change direction by changing the horse’s bend all while maintaining balance and suppleness.

circle: a circle is exactly as it sounds; it’s when you circle your horse around to prove suppleness and balance on an inside bend.

collection: I like to think of collecting your horse as if you’re compacting them by bringing more control to both the hind-end and the front-end of the horse. When your horse is collected, they’ll feel very light in their front-end.

counter canter: this is when you canter your horse on the outside lead instead of the inside lead, or what we’re used to as the correct lead. The horse will canter on the outside lead and be slightly bent to the outside, even on a circle.

extension: this is when your horse lengthens their stride. This proves that your horse has rhythm and balance. When riding, it’s important to remember you’re asking your horse to lengthen their stride, not speed up.

flying change: a flying change is when a horse changes their canter lead in the middle of a canter stride. This means that the horse will change the leg they’re first stepping forward with. This is considered a more advanced dressage maneuver and showcases rhythm, balance, and control.

half-pass: this is where a horse will move forward and sideways all at the same time by stepping its legs one over the other. The horse will be bent in the direction that they’re moving towards.

halt: your halt will be one of the first things you’ll be judged on as you enter the arena and halt before the judges. A good halt is not only to stop your horse but also to get them to stop with their feet square.

leg yield: much like the half-pass, a leg yield is when a horse will move forward and sideways all at the same time by stepping its legs one over the other. Unlike the half pass where the horse bends in the direction it’s traveling, during a leg yield, the horse will stay straight through the body.

passage: a passage is a collected trot where the horse is still moving forward, although their legs seem to dangle in the air for a period of time. This comes from the horse collecting and using its hind-end to propel it forward.

piaffe: this is considered a very collected trot where the horse seemingly trots in place. This takes incredible strength and rhythm.

pirouette: mostly seen at the canter, this is where the horse seems to pivot on its hind end to make a circle, although technically both hind-end and front-end continue to move laterally together to create the circle.

rein-back: a rein-back is a fancy term for asking your horse to back up. In dressage, you want to make sure that when your horse backs up, they take even and controlled steps.

serpentines: when you ride a serpentine, you may feel as if you’re asking your horse to zigzag across the arena. In reality, you’re repeatedly changing rein as you so that you’re constantly moving from one side of the arena to the other.

shoulder-in: a shoulder-in is when your horse is tipped and bent to the inside of the arena so that it seems as if you’re about to ride them around in a circle. However, instead of moving to the middle of the arena, the horse will have to move laterally to continue forward down the arena fence-line.

transitions: this refers to any time the horse changes its gait. A good transition will exhibit balance and hind-end propulsion, even in a downward transition.

Gear Used for Dressage

If you’re competing in lower levels of dressage, you can usually get by riding in your normal tack. As you advance through the levels or as you choose to focus specifically on dressage, there are specific tack pieces that help you look the part:

Dressage Saddle

Dressage saddles are known for their deep seat and longer flaps. The deep seat helps the rider to communicate thoroughly to the horse and the longer flaps allow for the rider to ride with a longer stirrup in order to have full capability of using leg cues.

If you’re looking for a dressage saddle, check out the Wintec 250 Dressage Saddle on Amazon.

Dressage Saddle Pad

Since a dressage saddle has somewhat of a different shape compared to normal English saddles, you’ll want to make sure you have a saddle pad built for a dressage saddle. These saddle pads will have to accommodate for the longer saddle flaps.

Check out the LeMieux Prosport Suede Dressage Saddle Pad, which is reasonably priced and very popular among riders.

Dressage Girth

Another piece of tack that has been customized in order to accommodate for a dressage saddle is a dressage girth. Dressage saddles have longer billets for the girth to attach to. Dressage girths are usually shorter in length in order to fit the longer billets. These designs can also be known to allow the horse’s shoulders to have more mobility.

Check out the popular StretchTec Shoulder Relief Girth.

Preparing for Your First Dressage Test

How Much do Horseback Riding Saddles Weigh | Equine Helper

Once you know that you want to compete in dressage, take time to help you and your horse prepare for what you may face in the dressage arena. Here are a few things you should ask yourself when it comes to training for your dressage test:

Is Your Horse Responsive to Your Cues?

Dressage is built around the communication between you and your horse; ideally, your horse will respond to even your subtlest cue. If the horse is slow to respond to what the rider is asking, the judges will deduct points from your test.

You can help your horse be more responsive to cues by doing groundwork and by keeping their minds focused and engaged throughout your exercises. To learn more, check out our article How to Get Your Horse to Pay Attention to You.

Can You and Your Horse Easily Execute Every Maneuver Your Dressage Test Calls For?

Before you enter a dressage competition, you want to make sure that you and your horse can execute the maneuvers you may face in your specific division. Since much of dressage is based on very technical aspects, it’s important to practice ahead of time. Many horses and riders spend years mastering the art of dressage.

Find yourself a dressage instructor and start riding through patterns, learning how to help your horse balance, and understanding how to find the rhythm in your horse’s gaits. Your instructor can help you learn new maneuvers and also help teach your horse to respond correctly to certain cues.

Start where your comfort level and knowledge level is; if you can complete a simple test at a walk and trot, enter a lower level. As you go through more training and begin to advance, enter divisions that may be a bit more challenging, but you know you and your horse can still do.

Find Dressage Tests Online to Practice

A great way to learn and understand dressage is by actually riding through dressage tests. You can find dressage tests online to take home and practice in your arena.

Have your instructor pretend to be a judge as you ride through your dressage test. Your instructor can leave comments on paper for you to read over after your test.

Study and watch other dressage riders to help you get a better understanding of the knowledge behind dressage. You can find many videos online where the rider talks through a commentary of their test.

I hope you have fun at your next dressage test! Maybe you’re interested in showjumping more than you are dressage. Good News! We have an article discussing the ins and outs of showjumping! Check out Showjumping for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know.


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