Buyers,  Horses,  Riders

Ultimate Guide to Dressage

I grew up riding at a hunter jumper barn in Southern California during the early 1980s. Los Angeles, my hometown, was the host city for the 1984 Olympic Games. I have to admit, we wanted to go and see the Show Jumping competition but we couldn’t get tickets so instead, we went to see the Dressage competition because that event still had tickets available.  

Wow…just wow! I was awed at the power and movement of the horses we saw. Honestly, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at but I knew it took a very special horse and some serious training to move like that. Let alone do it equally well on both the right and left rein. I was impressed to say the least. The combination of athletic power and artistic beauty has made me an admirer and a student of dressage ever since.

Being a hunter jumper rider, I found it very difficult to find other like-minded riders. My peers saw dressage as something completely foreign and basically of no interest or use to them. I find it so weird how the various disciplines of riding tend to each live in their own silo, missing out on so much knowledge and experience that’s available in the other worlds of riding.

What is Dressage?

Dressage is both a discipline of riding and a method of training. As a training method, Dressage finds its roots in the military. Today, it is one of the three disciplines of Equestrian Events that are included in the Olympics. Top-level dressage is the place where art and skill converge into a powerful display of beauty and strength. But along with something to be in awe of, dressage is something that is profoundly practical. Ironically its the value placed on riding theory by the forefathers of dressage that makes it so practical.    

From a horsemanship perspective, what I love is that the training is the training. This makes dressage accessible to everyone regardless of the horse they have. What changes the level of “quality” that a particular horse or rider is able to achieve? I can perform a collected trot on my 16-year-old Off The Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) or my 8-year-old powerhouse Holsteiner. Both horses have been trained using the principles of Dressage. Both are capable of successfully performing the movement.  What differs is the level of “quality” the horse can perform the movement. Dressage is very fulfilling because of this.  The work I put into each horse always has value and reward.   

History of Dressage

Dressage finds its origins in the teachings of a young Greek Nobleman in the 4th century BC named Xenophon. He authored guidelines entitled The Art of Riding and The Cavalry Major that are the foundation of present-day knowledge and methods of training. Along with his practical knowledge, his understanding of the horse’s psychology was well known at the time. He could easily be considered the first animal psychologist. 

Fast forward to the 15th Century and you’ll find the beginning of a new era of more sophisticated riding finding roots. During the Renaissance period, the writings of Xenophon were rediscovered and further developed. The art of riding once again began to thrive.  

Moving forward in time to the 17th Century there was a significant transformation to the commonly used saddle.  This new design was brought to fruition by a man named Gueriniere. Gueriniere was the Master of the Stable for King Louis XIV.  

This new design allowed for a more natural position of the rider’s leg. Freeing it to hang down by the horse’s side thus more easily allowing the rider to apply the aids. The design was the beginning of the development of the modern seat still used today. 

Shoulder-in Takes Shape

Gueriniere made many important contributions during this time.  He is credited with fully developing the Shoulder-In movement. And with writing down the first logical and continuous set of riding instructions.  

The 1800s brought more attention to the idea of creating an organization or school to teach the horse and rider using consistent principles. This was the beginning of the German Riding System.  This dedication to a system of training that not only trained horses but more importantly trained future instructors was profound. It ensured the standard of instruction was uniformly carried out in the world as a precise and coherent system. This commitment only grew throughout the 20th century. To this day, Germany is arguably the leader in modern-day dressage.

How are Dressage Horses Trained? 

The Training Scale is used to provide a systematic education to the dressage horse. This works in both the short-term as in your daily lessons. And the long-term as in your goals for the future. This ensures the horse will possess the skills/strength/suppleness to execute the movements being asked of them at each level. These movements are all taken from the natural movements of the horse.  

The primary purpose of the Training Scale is to maintain the horse’s health, prevent accidents, provide enjoyment for the rider and improve the performance of the horse.  

Dressage Training Scale

  • Rhythm 
  • Suppleness
  • Contact (acceptance of the bit)
  • Impulsion
  • Straightness
  • Collection

Each element of the Training Scale is not an isolated topic. They are qualities that are meant to “interact” with each other.  That being said, they are set in a hierarchical system of abilities going from the most elementary to the most difficult.  You cannot achieve Collection without first establishing the previous 5 elements of the Training Scale as they are the building blocks for proper Collection.

The Training Scale is of benefit to all horses, not just dressage horses. It provides clear guidelines for schooling any horse. Providing a logical way to analyze problems and find solutions.

What are the Levels of Dressage?

Dressage competition is split into Levels. Dressage levels provide a way to classify and test the education of a horse and rider. Each of these Levels has a variety of tests associated with them. These tests ensure the horse has been properly trained to be ready for the next level.  At each level, the movements that are asked for get progressively harder.  This increase in difficulty reflects the expectation of increasingly higher schooling of the horse.  

The levels are split into two groups; National Standard and International Standard (FEI). 

National Standard in the USA:

Introductory Level

Training Level

First Level

Second Level

Third Level

Fourth Level

International Standard (FEI)

Prix St Georges

Intermediate I

Intermediate II

Grand Prix

How and Why is Dressage a Sport?

Dressage is one of three equestrian disciplines represented in the Summer Olympics.  The other two are Show Jumping and Three-Day Eventing (which includes Show Jumping, Cross Country, and Dressage).  

As a competitive sport, dressage challenges both the physical and mental aspects of competition.  What’s unique to all equestrian sports is the addition of an equine athletic partner. In competition, the abilities of both athletes are tested. I promise you, that the easiest dressage lesson I ever took was exponentially harder than the hardest jumping lesson I’ve ever had.  

Why?  Because in dressage, your ability to influence the horse’s every movement is being asked for. There are no moments of coasting along. Think of it as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) with the shortest intervals you could possibly imagine.

How Hard is Dressage?

Even with the challenge it presents, dressage is absolutely “for everyone.” Every rider and every horse can benefit from dressage. The basic elements of dressage training are invaluable assets to any discipline of riding. The wonderful thing about dressage is that it offers structure to your daily riding sessions as well as your long-term goals.  It has a coherent order to it.  This provides a kind of clarity I find to be missing in other disciplines of riding. 

What Breed of Horses are Used for Dressage?

The majority of dressage horses are warmblood horses. These horses originate in Europe. The term “warmblood” refers to a type of horse rather than a specific breed of horse. Whereas the term Thoroughbred does actually refer to a breed of horse. Many warmblood breeds are named for their region. Such as the Holsteiner, a popular breed of horse that is bred in the Holstein region of Germany.

Dressage Warmblood Horse Breeds

Warmbloods are typically powerful horses with a fairly heavy build. These horses have a much heavier body type than a Thoroughbred. The Thoroughbred is a very light bodied horse, bred for speed.

There are a variety of warmblood breeds. For example, the KWPN from the Netherlands. Or popular breeds from Germany including the Trakehner and the Westphalian. There is the Lipizzan horse from Spain. This breed is more widely known because of the fame and popularity of the world-renowned Spanish Riding School and their Lipizzan Stallions. The Lusitano from Portugal is also a horse with a long history of use as a dressage horse.  

A horse’s conformation is important to their ability to develop through the levels of dressage.  Depending on the level of advancement you wish to attain, the physical characteristics necessary in the horse change. Keep this in mind if you’re shopping for your next dressage partner. Speaking of shopping…

How Much Does a Dressage Horse Cost?

The cost of a dressage horse varies greatly. Factors include the level of training, breed, the caliber of the movement the horse is able to perform (not all Medium Trots are the same), age, experience, competition results, and purpose (pleasure or competition). For more on this, see my post Top 3 Things to Consider When Buying a Horse.

What is the Typical Dressage Arena Size?

A dressage arena typically referred to as a “Court” measures 20 meters x 60 meters.. Within the Court are letters delineating specific locations where the required movements are to be performed. This standardized system of the dressage court is key to productive training.  

The letters are: 

A and C marking the middle of the two short sides

B and E marking the middle of the two long sides

M, F, K, and H are on the long sides marking 6 meters from the ends of the arena. The letters D and G are level with these but located on the centerline.

X is the center point of the arena. 


The simple phrase that helps me to remember the order the letters are in is this: A Fat Black Mother Cat Had Eleven Kittens. I chanted this phrase to myself over and over before my first “big” lesson.

My Journey with Dressage

I’m currently training my horse Dylan, an 8-year-old KWPN gelding, with the help of Mette Rozencranz.  It’s a wonderful journey that’s just getting started…

Providing Helpful Horsemanship skills to horse-people of all disciplines. Curated by Robin Martinez, a lifelong horsewoman with a passion for learning and teaching. Together with her husband Dionicio, they own Blackjack Farm in San Diego, CA where they train and compete their own jumping and dressage horses.