Dressage is the art of training a horse to perform specific maneuvers that test his strength, agility, balance, and willingness. It’s often called an art because it takes many years to learn, and many more to master.
As horses move through their training in dressage, they perform tests in competition that measure their progress. Each level increases in difficulty, skills, and knowledge, and training. Both horse and rider should have a good mastery of the skills at their current level before moving to the next.
In national dressage competitions in the US, there are five basic levels of dressage tests: Training, First, Second, Third, and Fourth. These are also referred to as Preliminary/Introductory, Novice, Elementary, Medium, and Advanced.
In international competition, the tests and levels are similar, but they have different names and slightly different requirements. International dressage competition levels are called Prix St. Georges, Intermediare I, Intermediare II, and Grand Prix. The advanced Grand Prix level is what you’d see at the Olympics, and it represents the very best of dressage.
The Dressage Test
During a test, horses are judged on each individual movement with a score from 1-10. The rider also receives a collective score at the end of the test for the following categories: freedom and regularity of the gaits, proper impulsion, the horse’s submission, and the rider’s position, seat, and aids.
A score of 65% or better is generally a good sign that a horse is ready to move up to the next level.
Many people choose to train at a level or two above that in which they compete, and some people choose to compete just for the experience of it. Horses often act very differently in a strange competition arena than they do at home, where their surroundings are familiar and comfortable.
Generally speaking, you want your horse to be able to perform all the required movements with an appropriate degree of accuracy before moving up a level. (source)
US Dressage Levels
As horses and riders progress through their training together and receive high scores in competition, they can add maneuvers to their skill sets and move up to new levels.
The levels and tests are based on a pyramid of training principles that was originally developed by the German military as a way to maintain consistency in their riders. All of the basic fundamentals in the training pyramid work together to produce good-quality dressage, but the degree to which they are judged varies.
Rhythm sits as the foundation of the pyramid, followed by Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness, and at the top – Collection. At the most advanced levels of dressage, all of these concepts work perfectly together at the same time.
Training Level (Introductory)
Concepts Required: Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection
The Training Level is just that – the earliest competitive stage of a dressage horse’s training. In these tests, horses and riders are learning to perform the important basic fundamentals of dressage.
They are also a good introduction to the world of dressage competition itself. New sights and smells can be seriously distracting to even the best or most experienced horses, and they must be prepared physically and mentally for these tests.
The purpose of the Training Level test is to “confirm that the horse’s muscles are supple and loose and that he moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm accepting contact with the bit.” (source)
Basically, this means that the horse should be relaxed and obedient as he moves through the test, even if the execution of the moves themselves are slightly off (mistakes with timing, for example).
“Rhythm” at this level is referring to the correctness and evenness (or purity) of the gaits – that the walk, trot, and canter have even, steady beats. At the Training Level, a dressage horse should have steady gaits and an obedient disposition.
First Level (Novice)
Concepts Required: Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion
After a dressage horse can perform all of the basics of dressage as exhibited during the Training Level, he is ready to move up to the First Level. He is still expected to show proper rhythm, relaxation, and connection, and he also “has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and to maintain a more consistent contact with the bit.”
Horses in the First Level have the appropriate power in their hindquarters (developed through training and competing at the Training Level) to begin focusing work on impulsion and straightness.
Aside from having pure gaits, the First Level dressage horse will also be asked to lengthen his strides. This is the early stage of developing proper impulsion and future collection.
- Free walk, medium walk, working trot, medium trot, working canter, halt and salute
- 15 and 20 meter circles, serpentines, diagonals, straight lines, half-circles
- Leg yielding, turning around the forehand, basic proper gait transitions
Second Level (Elementary)
Concepts Required: Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Early Collection
The Second Level tests require “a greater degree of straightness, bending suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage.”
In dressage, a horse should always be straight.
This means that both sides of his body are moving evenly together, and that his muscles are developed properly on both sides. When working in a circle, his body should be aligned in a smooth arc all the way around.
The Second Level horse should also begin to show collection. This means that the horse is moving from the power in his hindquarters (impulsion), that he’s light and slightly elevated on the forehand, and he’s carrying himself well.
You can try to force collection by holding a horse’s head and neck up, but if his body hasn’t been adequately prepared – it’s a recipe for disaster.
Collection involves balance and strength in the whole body, and tests in the Second Level evaluate a horse’s skills in this area.
Ideally, horses should carry themselves as they move freely throughout the arena. Horses that must be “held up” artificially with devices or with a rider’s hands will not be as successful in dressage.
- Collected trot, medium trot, collected canter, medium canter, rein-back
- 8 and 10-meter circles, counter-canter, rein-back to collected trot
- Shoulder fore, travers and renvers, large half-pirouette at the walk
Third Level (Medium)
Concepts Required: Skills Necessary: Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Collection
By now, a dressage horse performing at the Third Level should have a good handle on all of the basic fundamentals of dressage. All of the elements from the pyramid of training work together to produce good quality gaits, and a great degree of collection and extension.
In the Third Level, more complicated maneuvers are also introduced. Horses must be able to transition well from extended to collected gaits, execute flying changes with balance, perform travers and renvers (haunches-in and haunches-out), and half-passes at trot and canter.
- Collected and extended walk, collected and extended trot, collected and extended canter
- Transitions from collected to medium gaits
- 6 and 20m canter circles, half-circles at counter-canter
- Shoulder-in, travers and renvers, 20 degree half-pass, walk pirouette
- Single flying lead changes
Fourth Level (Advanced)
Concepts Required: Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Full Collection, Advanced Movements (piaffe, passage)
This is the most advanced level of dressage, and it’s where you’ll see all the fancy “dancing” movements during an Olympic freestyle test. At the Advanced Level, horses must display all of the dressage fundamentals as introduced in previous levels – but with great precision and obedience.
Fourth level dressage horses must be light and elevated on the forehand, and often appear as though they are “floating” during certain exercises.
This floating effect is created by a great degree of strength and power from the horse’s hindquarters, and a deep intuitive connection between horse and rider. This is why top-level dressage horses often perform best with one rider, but are then unable to achieve the same levels of greatness with another.
Dressage is a true partnership between horse and rider, and dressage at the most advanced levels of competition is a reflection of that bond of horsemanship and training.
- All gaits working and collected, half-steps in trot, extended trot and canter, exceptional extended and collected canter
- Transitions from collected to extended (and back again) in walk, trot, and canter
- Counter-canter 10m half-circles
- 30-degree half-pass, counter change of hand in trot, half-pirouette in canter, many flying lead changes
- Advanced movements of piaffe and passage
Whether you’re thinking about introducing your horse to dressage, or you just want more information on the sport, the United States Dressage Federation and the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) have tons of information on their websites where you can find out more about the intricacies of dressage levels. Anyone can benefit from doing some dressage training with their horse, but it takes years to truly master the competition circuit and end up an Advanced Level champion!