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Dressage comes from the French word "training" and involves training that helps to enhance the natural movement of the horse and the horse's natural athletic ability. The whole training process is designed to gradually strengthen the horse to be able to do a range of movements that require great physical strength and a good partnership between horse and rider to perform in natural beauty. The rider must balance the horse and aim to give lighter aids to gain a better result. Although the discipline has ancient roots, dressage was first recognized as an important equestrian pursuit in the West during the Renaissance. The great European riding masters of that period developed a sequential training system that has changed little since then. Classical dressage is still considered the basis of trained modern dressage.
Dressage competitions can be entered unaffiliated or affiliated (a competition linked formally to that country's dressage society, the UK has British dressage of BD) and has a range of levels. In the UK, these are walk and trot/intro, prelim, novice, elementary, medium, advanced medium, advanced and Grand Prix. You can also do freestyle to music tests which involve you making your own test involving set movements to music of your choice. In a test, horse and rider are marked for each inidivdual movement from 0 (not executed) to 10 (excellent). 9 is class as very good and a rider should aim for 6 or higher before moving on to the next level. At the end of each test, the rider is given a score sheet from the judge with comments about their performance. This is meant to be constructive critisism to help the rider know where they need to improve and to show areas they are doing well in.
Any horse is capable of doing a basic dressage test but most high level dressage horses are Warmblood breeds that have been specifically bred for the sport. The dressage arena comes in 2 sizes, small (20 x 40m) or standard (20 x 60m) and has set letters around it so the rider knows where to do each movement. You enter at A and the judge sits at the other end at C.
The dressage training scale is arranged in a pyramid that is not a rigid format as each level is built on as the horse progresses through training. Rhythm and regularity are at the bottom, with relaxation on top of it, contact is on top of that, followed by impulsion, starightness and with collection at the top.
I competed in 2 unaffiliated walk and trot dressage tests on my 5y/o pony last year and got 82% in the first and 89% in the second. I realy enjoyed the experience and it gave me a great insight into what I still need to work on and where our strengths were lying at the time. All horse related sports have flat work or dressage at their base so even if you don't want to compete, it is a good way to start a horse. I paid £4 per class but be prepared to pay about £6 for a lower level affiliated class and £30 for a prelim second round qualifier for a regional championships.
Dressage is a great equestrian competitor sport for everybody who rides. Its ideal for people who are maybe nervous and wanting to gain their confidence, people who hate jumping but want to compete, people whose horses don't particularly like jumping or unable to jump through injury, and it also helps enourmously for those horses who do jump as it helps to balance the horse making it a lot easier for horse and rider when it comes to jumping tight showjumping courses. The whole aspect of dressage is for the horse to submissive and obedient, and for the rider to give clear aids without being noticable!!!! The tests are fairly easy to memorise once you get the hang of it!! but if your memory is bad you may have a caller at unaffiliated level. Each transition, movement is marked out of 10 and the winner being the highest mark. The sheets are very helpful when you collect them as they help to coach the rider into doing an even better test next time!!