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Horse Dressage:
Information and Background on an Olympic Equestrian Riding Sport

Dressage is the oldest equestrian sport, dating back to the Renaissance and having its foundation in classical Greek horsemanship. Originally trained for use in war, horses were a vital combination of transport and weaponry. They carried supplied and fighters: they could also be trained for use on the battlefield, where warriors on horseback were much more effective than those on foot.
Dressage can be likened to Western riding in that what is now an elite Olympic sport was once a series of important training maneuvers that made the horse more useful and valuable than less fully-trained animals. Dressage horses and riders learn a variety of movements based on those once used for war: movements designed to protect the rider while allowing him to fight with a sword; movements to evade the enemy, to circle, back and stop, and the most famous and ballet-like moves called "airs above ground".
Dressage is very popular with British and French horse aficionados, and is also an important equestrian sport in the U.S. The United States Dressage Federation oversees the rules and standards for competitions, which are held at all levels of training. Riders and horses who are just learning dressage compete in smaller events until they gain expertise, at which time they advance in the competitions. Events are called tests, where riders and horses execute a pattern of movements, on which they are judged. The individual movements of each pattern are scored from zero to ten. Grand Prix and the Summer Olympics games are the highest expressions of dressage competition.

The arena layout is rectangular and must fulfill not only specific size requirements, but also has markers that determine where horses will perform particular movements. There are two sizes of arena: a smaller ( ring size of 60 X 20ft) one in which lower levels of dressage are performed, and a standard size (with dimensions of 60 X 40 ft) in which all other events take place. You can find information and diagrams of marked arenas online.

Warmbloods are most often used for dressage but all breeds are allowed to compete, so you may find the Finnhorse, Fresians, Arabians, Andalusians, Morgans and Lusitanos competing in the same events. Gaited horses can be trained to dressage as well.

Lower levels of dressage can be worked walking or trotting, so beginning riders can study dressage. As the riders and horses learn, they compete in more and more advanced tests. The background of a dressage instructor should include completing high level tests, dressage horse training and years of working with students. Dressage is great training for horses and riders, calling for discipline and communication between horse and rider. Part of the beauty of dressage is that it's not necessarily obvious that the rider is asking the horse to perform the movements: dressage should be smooth and subtly worked.

Classical dressage is considered an art form and is taught at illustrious riding schools like the Cadre Noir in France and the Spanish Riding School in Austria. Traditional bullfighting in Portugal and Spain also use dressage training. With its emphasis on traditional forms and artistic movement, it's no surprise that dressage isn't performed by riders wearing jeans: a long frock coat called the shadbelly, pants, white shirt, stock tie, one of several approved hats, and gloves, are worn.

Dressage tests may also include a freestyle section, where horse and rider perform their own patterns set to music. In driving competitions, there are often dressage components where the horses perform particular dressage movements without being mounted. In this interesting version of dressage, there are usually several horses, which have to work together smoothly with seemingly little effort on the part of the horses or the drivers.

There are a number of terms used in dressage, and it takes time to learn them all. Each particular movement has a name; there are also agreed-upon terms for the dressage training scale, which codify the way the horses should move and the style they demonstrate. Rhythm and regularity, relaxation, contact, impulsion and collection are qualities horses are judged on in dressage competitions.

Read the next horse riding sport article on Show Jumping Eventing.
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