When done correctly, dressage should result in a balanced, harmonious display of teamwork between horse and rider. In the beginning stages of training, dressage helps horse and rider communicate with each other by developing balance, strength, flexibility, and accuracy (elements of the Training Scale.) At its highest level, dressage improves the horse’s ability to use its own body, resulting in seemingly effortless movements that appear light, almost as if the horse is floating across the arena.
Communication between an experienced horse and rider becomes so subtle that the horse often appears to be performing on its own without visible input from the rider. They can perform more spectacular movements, such as the collected and extended gaits, lateral movements, and collected work such as the pirouettes, passages and piaffe. The Lippizan Stallions of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna demonstrate the “haute ecole” or highest degree of training in dressage with the infamous “airs above the ground.”
Dressage tests are designed to show off the horse’s abilities and evaluate its proficiency in training. Because reaching the highest levels of dressage can take years of practice and dedication, there are multiple levels of tests (each increasing in difficulty) that riders and horses of every age, experience level, and mastery can participate in.
Each test has it’s own prescribed series of movements that the riders horse must perform. Tests for the lower and middle levels of the sport are designed by United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), a national governing body of equestrian sport, of which there are 5 levels. The levels go as follows:
Training level: Tests 1,2, 3 & 4
First level: Tests 1,2,3 & 4
Second level: Tests 1,2,3 & 4
Third level: Tests 1,2 & 3
Fourth level: Tests 1, 2 & 3
More challenging tests meant for upper level horses and riders are designed by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), an international equestrian sport association, and they are used in international competitions around the world. The tests go as follows:
Prix St. Georges
Grand Prix Special
The FEI has also designed two tests for Young Riders (ages 15-21) that are roughly equivalent to the Second and Third level’s.
Horses in Olympic competition use the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special tests, and they perform a Musical Freestyle where the horse is required to do flying lead changes every stride, full pirouettes at the canter, piaffe and passage, as well as demonstrating extension and collection at all gaits. It is commonly believed throughout the industry that it takes an experienced trainer with a talented horse at least seven years to train the horse to perform at the Grand Prix Level.
At all levels, competitors ride in front of a judge who observes and evaluates their execution of each movement. While the competitor is riding, the judge’s secretary, or scribe, writes down a numerical score corresponding to the execution of each movement along with the judge’s comments. At the end, the judge gives scores rating the general impression of the horse and rider and their performance overall. The secretary add’s up the total at the end.
Scores range from 0 (not performed) to 10 (excellent). Going off course results in a point penalty. The winning ride is the one with the highest percentage of possible points for that particular test. Winning scores are typically in the high 60’s or 70’s, depending on the level of competition. Competitors are typically given a copy of the judge’s scores and comments to take home with them, so they can improve their weaknesses for future competitions.
Scores are based off of a number of qualities including accuracy, energy, relaxation, consistency, rhythm, tempo, balance, and submission. The judge also considers the horses movement and the rider’s positioning and use of their body. As rider and trainer become more well versed in each movement, the horses expressiveness becomes a factor in scoring.
For a Musical Freestyle where riders chose their own music (typically instrumental), movements, and choreography. Freestyle rides are judged on technical accuracy, use of the music and movements, artistry, and artistic expression.
Two additional types of dressage competitions are the Pas de Deux and the Quadrille. A Pas de Deux consists of two horses and a Quadrille four. Horses perform together, often to music, synchronizing their choreography and movement with the music, their riders, and each other. Participants are judged based on choreography and synchronization, as well as technical and artistic merit.
Dr. Cesar Parra owns Piaffe Performance, a premier dressage training facility in Whitehouse Station, NJ. For more information, please visit his professional website.