The Exquisite Art of Dressage

By Felicia West

What is dressage? According to my dictionary, it's "The art or method of training a horse in obedience and in precision of movement." That doesn't quite describe it for me though. There is a certain elegance about it, it has its own set of equipment, different goals in the training.  

Dressage is French for "training" but every riding activity involves some form of training, so what makes this different? What makes this its own sport, able to be judged at the Olympic level? It's been around for a long time and according to the Olympic Charter, a sport must be widely practiced by men in at least 75 countries and on four continents, and by women in no fewer than 40 countries and on three continents. Well we got that...Check!

The best description I ever heard of dressage is "Dancing on horseback". Logically, it's a good description. You take your horse at a certain pace and/or a certain way to a certain spot. There's more to it then that though. At least for me. The reason I think it's such an accurate analogy is because of the unity I've felt while doing it. When I was a beginner, Western was fun, then I got bored and went to Jumping. A couple years later when the jumps got too high for me, I found dressage. I'm not sure why I love it so much. Maybe it's my perfectionism that makes me like it. Planning every single step with your horse to just the right tempo and finding the rhythm that makes your heart sing, getting the right bend to a circle without my horse bowing out his belly, and attaining good head carriage without a struggle. All of those things to me are magical. It's where I felt perfect teamwork with my horse. I remember my mom saying that dressage seemed to require more patience and maturity than jumping or barrel racing. I'm not sure if I agree, but I do think it requires a different "take" on riding if you will.

Most of my fellow students seemed to find it tedious. I sometimes felt that way too. I can't tell you how many lessons I had on just going in a dang circle. You wouldn't think it would be that complicated, but there's a whole lot to it. Maybe what I like about it so much is the emphasis on improvement of the horse, and while every discipline's goal is to get better, it felt different in Dressage. To go into a little more detail, here are some of my likes and dislikes:


  1. You can practice dressage in any tack if you aren't competing. Other activities like jumping aren't always as versatile. Ever tried jumping with a western saddle? Not easy. Or comfortable. I don't advise it. At my old barn, the emphasis on improvement of the horse and rider felt more concrete. 
  2. ou can be apart of a team! A "pas de deus" is when two riders perform in a dressage arena, typically mirroring each other. Often to music. A "quadrille" is similar but with four riders. I especially had a lot of fun with that. Expanding my team beyond my horse was a thrill.
  3. While there's always a risk when you get on a horse, Dressage is a sport that's traditionally in an arena, and you aren't flying over 3 ft poles. A measly 3 ft might not sound like a lot, but when you're already on a horse that's 5-6 ft tall at his withers, and then you add your height from your hip to your head, that adds up quick. If you've had a bad fall recently, this could be a way to ease back into the swing of things.

Kiddo's have no idea how lucky they are sometimes. Achy knees? What are those? Some of us adults know, unfortunately! The longer stirrup length makes riding a little easier for those of us with aches and pains. While you don't ever want to be supporting yourself on stirrups, sometimes the flexion from a jumping saddle is enough to send pain through your knees and/or hips.

4. Dressage saddles tend to be a little more padded than those of their jumping counterparts and while we're talking about the saddles, the angle of the dressage seat assists open up your hips and improve your position.

5. It's an Olympic sport! While most of us will never be representing our nation in the great games, knowing there is an ever so slim possibility helped me on my bad days. It was also something I could watch on tv and say "I do that! Just not as good yet."
In western riding, that's not yet a reality. Maybe in a few years?

6. There's a western version! Finally the two main disciplines have common ground! This unique take on the sport is relatively new, and I have quite a few horsey friends that love it, saying that they finally get their western-loving friends and their english-loving friends to see eye to eye. It's nice to see proof that horse back riding is always evolving.



  1. Some things you just need an athletic horse for. Things like flying lead changes, this is when a horse changes his lead at the canter without breaking into a trot, require more athleticism than your standard walk/trot/canter. This isn't an issue until you reach the mid- to higher levels, but it was irritating for me.
  2. It gets boring! You have no idea how many lessons I had on getting my horse's head carriage just right. Or getting the speed of my canter how I wanted. It was frustrating for someone who was no longer a beginner. Sometimes I wondered why I was taking lessons when we always did the same thing. One day, I decided to start writing down all my little victories at the end of each lesson. As time wore on, I began writing down many more victories than in the beginning. I also noticed that phrases like "for a minute" evolved into "for most of the lesson".
  3. So what about the difference in equipment? Is it really important? It depends. I know, like everything else in the horse world. The physical differences in dressage saddles and general purpose saddles are apparent when you get to see them side by side. A straighter, longer saddle flap is sported by the dressage saddle. The saddle itself a bit bigger. The shorter cantle is what's on the general purpose saddle. Aside from the saddle, when you get to the higher levels (or even in the lower levels, depending on the horse) your horse may need the help of wraps to support his tendons.
  4. n the other hoof, if you never plan on showing it isn't necessary to change your tack, even if you ride western. As long as you're sticking to a bit appropriate for your horse and keep your stirrups a bit on the long side (which western riders do anyway), you're good to go! The dressage saddle however, is a nice bonus! 

This is definitely a discipline you should check out. If nothing else it will increase your horses endurance and flexibility.

What do you think about dressage?