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Guide to Dressage Riding: Simple Explanations for a Complex Sport

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The roots of dressage trace back to the Renaissance, but its origins extend all the way back to the age of the ancient Greeks. Xenophon, an Athenian historian and soldier, writes in his classic equestrian work entitled “On Horsemanship” in the 4th century BCE:

“If one induces the horse to assume that carriage which it would adopt…when displaying its beauty, then, one directs (it) to appear joyous and magnificent, proud and remarkable for being ridden.”

The sportswoman on a horse

Dressage is a true partnership between a horse and rider, and its principals set the foundations for all other forms of riding. Whether you’re a barrel racer or show jumper, using dressage training techniques can help improve the harmony between you and your horse – and you may have been working on dressage without realizing it!

If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about this complex and beautiful sport, here is my comprehensive (but not nearly exhaustive!) guide to dressage riding.  

Dressage – the Art of Training

Dressage is “the art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance.” (source)

The word dressage comes from the early French word dresser, which means “to train”. Dressage horses and riders must train for years to master the correct responsiveness and movements required in competition.

In the competition arena, dressage tests a horse’s ability to respond to subtle cues from its rider and perform a series of individual movements in a specific pattern. This is called a dressage test, and tests increases in difficulty depending upon the level of competition.

As horses and riders improve their fitness, skills, and training, they move up in competition levels. At the top of the dressage competition pyramid is the Grand Prix (which is the sort of competition you’d see in the Olympics).

Dressage Fundamentals

To a non-equestrian, it may appear as though the rider is just sitting there while the horse “dances” through a dressage test. Obviously, there’s a whole lot more to it than that!

The 5 Constants of Dressage

The quality of a rider’s success can be measured with these five basic principles (and how well his horse achieves them): Acceptance, Calmness, Purity, Straightness, and Forwardness.

 These qualities are called dressage constants. The goal is for the horse to display them in dressage work at all times.  

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  • Acceptance. The horse must accept the rider’s aids willingly and easily through mutual respect – not force. He is not submitting to the rider’s force, but rather he is choosing to accept the aids in a relaxed way.
  • Calmness. A dressage horse must be confident, calm, and understand what is expected of him. A tense or frustrated horse will not achieve the desired results.
  • Purity. “Purity refers to the naturalness and correctness of the paces” (Micklem 2012). At its core, a dressage horse must have the proper impulsion to achieve the correct suspension and length of the desired gaits. Basically, there has to be enough power in the engine to achieve nice, floaty movement.
  • Straightness. This refers to the development of a horse’s linear way of moving – whether both sides of his body are correct and symmetrical. He must always be moving in a straight line (particularly on the forehand). Even during circular movements, a horse with the correct straightness will bend in a nice even line.
  • Forwardness. This just means that the horse is moving forward in response to forward cues, mentally and physically. Frustrated, exhausted, or confused horses may stop or balk at forward aids.

Even if you never plan to show your horse in a dressage competition, working on these fundamentals will improve your horsemanship, your riding, and your relationship with your horse.

dressage horse and rider

The 5 Variables of Dressage

These fundamentals are called variables because they are required in variable amounts, depending on the test (whereas the constants are always required together, at the same time).

  • Direction. Necessary for any dressage test, showjumping round, or reining pattern – the correct direction and speed are necessary for success. Direction just refers to the direction your horse is moving, and his body should be following properly.
  • Speed. This can refer to the physical speed the horse is going, and how quickly or slowly he moves between different gaits. It can also refer to the speed of the individual gait itself (extended trot vs collected trot, for example).
  • Balance. A horse’s balance can change, depending on the work that he’s doing, or his skill level. A collected horse performing advanced movements must have the proper balance (not too heavy on the forehand).
  • Timing. This just refers to the timing of the aids to the movements. A rider must ask his horse to perform a given maneuver at the appropriate time for a smooth transition.
  • Impulsion. This is one of the most important variables in dressage, but it can vary widely depending on a horse’s training level. Impulsion is a horse’s power – it comes from his hindquarters and propels him forward.

As you can see, a lot is happening during a dressage test – and it’s usually invisible! The point of dressage is to make difficult concepts look easy and effortless.

Scoring a Test

In competition, horses and riders complete a series of maneuvers in a dressage test. The level of difficulty and the maneuvers themselves will depend on the horse and rider’s level.

Each individual movement a horse performs receives a score from 0-10 (0 as not performed and 10 as excellent). Collective marks are also given at the end as these items are judged: Gaits, Submission, Impulsion, Rider’s Seat and Position, and Rider’s Correct and Effective Use of Aids. (source)

Young rider girl on sorrel horse at dressage equestrian competition

Dressage Levels

There are four basic levels of dressage: Novice, Elementary, Medium, and Advanced. As a horse and rider team progresses through their training together, they can move up in levels. The tests at increasing levels add more movement and difficulty, and they ask more of the horse and rider.

Now, technically there are many levels in between these main four – with varying degrees of difficulty and requirements (Introductory, Preliminary, Advanced Medium, Prix St Georges, and Grand Prix, just to name a few).

For the sake of clarity, I’ll just briefly explain the four basic levels. These tests are a way to track a horse’s progress, and a horse that scores 65% or higher on a test in a competition is likely ready to move up to the next level.


This is an introductory level to dressage, where the basic fundamentals are required. This level encourages good dressage techniques during transitions and working gaits. These tests focus on the fundamentals of calmness, forwardness, and straightness.

Maneuvers you might see in a novice test include medium walk and trot, working trot and canter, rein changes, circles, and serpentines.


Once you’ve got the basics down and you can perform well in novice competitions, you can compete at higher levels. The elementary level shows off all of the basic fundamentals, but with some added degrees of difficulty.

An Elementary test may be seen at a one-star eventing show. Eventing horses must also excel at showjumping and cross-country, and they often compete at a slightly lower level than horses exclusively working in dressage.

Maneuvers in an elementary test include those seen in a novice test, plus rein-backs, smaller circles, and more complicated ground patterns.


A Medium level test requires horses to show true collection and impulsion. The horse will also be asked to perform collected and extended gaits as well. Other maneuvers in the medium test include a shoulder-in, half-pass, and a flying change.


In the Advanced test, horses must perform to the very best of their abilities and display the ultimate level of correctness, elegance, and form. In an advanced test at the Grand Prix or Olympic level, you’ll often see high-level maneuvers such as piaffes, passages, canter pirouettes, and multiple flying changes.

Dressage Movements and Maneuvers

Many different maneuvers can be combined into a dressage test depending on the level of competition. Here is just a brief table of some general examples of movements that may likely be required in a test, by level.

Level One (Novice) Level Two (Elementary) Level Three (Medium) Level Four (Advanced)
Walk, trot, canter Walk, trot, canter Walk, trot, canter Walk, trot, canter
Halt Collected trot, canter Collected trot, canter Half-steps in trot
Half-circles Rein-back Extended trot, canter Collected and extended gaits
Circles Halt Rein-backs Counter-canter circles
Serpentine Circles in collected trot and counter-canter Circles in trot, canter, counter-canter Half-pass
Giving and taking the reins Shoulder fore Shoulder-in Half-pirouette in canter
Straight lines Small travers and renvers Travers and renvers Several flying lead changes
Turn on the forehand Large half-pirouette in walk Half-pass Piaffe
Leg-yield   Walk pirouette Passage
    Single flying lead change  

Dressage Horse Breeds

Any horse can do dressage. All horses and riders can benefit from dressage training, and any breed can be successful – even mules!

However, a few main factors will generally determine whether or not a horse will be successful in a dressage show ring (or even whether he’ll enjoy it enough not to buck you off).

  • Temperament. A dressage horse must be quiet, obedient, and responsive. A stubborn, hotheaded or nervous horse might be better suited for something else.
  • Conformation. Dressage requires a horse to use its body in a particular way. If a horse is built poorly or awkwardly, he may struggle with higher-level movements. 
  • Way of moving. A dressage horse must have square, even gaits. While he can be taught to carry himself well, a horse with a naturally even and elegant way of moving will have an easier time as a dressage horse.

Some breeds have been specifically designed to excel at dressage, and you’ll often see them at the top levels of competition. However, many different breeds can perform well at the lower levels, and many more still can enjoy dressage as a training and exercise tool.

Top Dressage Horse Breeds

  • Hanoverian
  • Dutch Warmblood
  • Oldenburg
  • Andalusian/Lusitano
  • Holsteiner
  • Trakehner
  • Westphalian
  • Friesian
  • Lipizzaner
  • Selle Francais

And many, many more. High stepping harness horses such as Saddlebreds, Morgans, Arabians, Hackneys, Cobs, and Gypsy Vanners often make good dressage horses because they’re obedient and have an attractive way of moving (and square gaits).

Most other sport-horse and warmblood breeds also excel at dressage, as they usually have excellent conformation and an athletic attitude.

Be sure to check out my post on the top 7 horse breeds for dressage for additional information.

High School Dressage

In Vienna, high-flying Lipizzaner stallions perform a “high school” version of classical dressage called haute ecole (or “airs above the ground”). These movements require many years of training, and only specific horses can be trained to perform them.

Some haute ecole movements:

  • Pesade and levade. To the untrained eye, it appears as though the horse is rearing. He must tuck his forelegs and raise his forehand off the ground – and hold it at a 45-degree angle (the levade is held at 30-35 degrees).
  • Courbette. The horse “hops” on his back legs for a few steps, forelegs tucked neatly underneath him. 
  • Capriole and croupade. In the capriole (“the leap of the goat”), the horse leaps straight up into the air and kicks his hind legs out behind him, but lands neatly on all fours. In the croupade, the horse keeps his legs parallel to the ground, and does not kick them out behind.

Other breeds known for their abilities in classical dressage include Friesians and PRE horses (Spanish Andalusian and Lusitanos). High school dressage also includes the piaffe and passage, but is more specialized than the modern competition dressage we commonly see in arenas today.

Dressage rider on bay horse galloping in field

How to Get Started with Dressage

If you’ve already decided that dressage is right for you, there are several ways you can get started. Just know that dressage can take years to master, but this is why it’s often called an art. The beauty is in the practice and the mastery itself, rather than the finished product.

  1. Increase your knowledge. Check if your local library has any books on dressage or general horse riding. Even if you’ve grown up on the back of a horse, the chapters in good old-fashioned books often have a wealth of knowledge about this classical discipline. The United States Dressage Federation also has a plethora of information on their website.
  2. Attend a competition. If you’ve never seen anyone perform a dressage test before, checking it out in person is the best way to see if it might be right for you. If there aren’t any English competitions around, look for alternatives (such as Western Dressage) or watch performances online.
  3. Take a lesson. If you’re lucky enough to have a dressage barn near you, reach out to them for a lesson. Whether you ride your own horse or use one of theirs, a good dressage instructor can help you develop the skills you need to excel.
  4. Improve your riding. No matter what discipline you currently ride, there’s always room for improvement. Dressage focuses on balance, flexibility, and coordination. If you improve your balance and focus on softening your aids, you’ll have an easier time transitioning to dressage.
  5. Try it yourself! Try adding some simple dressage exercises into your riding routine, and see how your horse responds. Even an ornery trail horse can benefit from some simple bending circle exercises (even if it’s just for fun).

Dressage Training and Cruelty

Dressage training at its core is about harmony and partnership. You can’t have a true partnership with your horse if you treat him with cruelty and force. Unfortunately, as with any equestrian discipline, some cruel training techniques do exist:


Rolkur is a training technique that has been banned by the FEI. It is the practice of hyperflexing a horse’s neck for prolonged periods of time to achieve a certain frame – by using force, rather than training. There’s a difference between forcing your horse’s head into unnatural positions, and riding your horse in a collected and properly flexed frame.


Certain bits or other pieces of tack can shorten a horse’s neck artificially, forcing him to carry it in an unnatural position. It may look pretty in the show ring, but a dressage horse needs to learn how to carry himself in the correct frame.

Heavy Hands or Poor Riding

Riders may use force and strength to get their horses to do what they want. But this goes against the core principles of dressage. You should always be trying to lighten your aids and improve your riding for the best result. Yanking and kicking a poor horse around is not the way to success.

Most cruel training methods are implemented because people don’t want to take the time and effort it takes to truly train for a partnership, not just a push-button show horse. As with most things, shortcuts are not beneficial in the long run, and can often be harmful and cruel to the horse.

Dressage F.A.Q.

How much are dressage horses worth?

The cost of a dressage horse can vary wildly depending on breed and training. Dressage training is expensive, and takes many years to master. A well-schooled Grand Prix level dressage horse can easily sell for $50,000-$100,000 (up into the millions). A young dressage prospect with good breeding can still cost $10,000 – $30,000. The most expensive dressage horse ever sold was Totilas, a Grand Prix winning Dutch Warmblood who sold for $11 million.

However, if you just want to compete casually at the lower levels, there are plenty of affordable horses out there. And just remember, dressage is about the partnership between horse and rider. You can’t put a price on that.

What are those letters for?

If you’ve ever seen a dressage competition, you’ve probably noticed the large letters placed outside the arena border. These letters help guide riders through the pattern, and they’re almost as old as the sport itself.

During the Renaissance, riders transitioned to training indoors – turning equestrian pursuits from a necessity into an art form. Nobody knows for sure where the letters come from, but it’s theorized that they were discovered in an old stable yard as markers for specific horses. (source)

How big is the arena?

There are two standard sizes for dressage arenas. The “small arena” for lower-level tests is 44 x 22 yards (40x20m) and the standard arena for higher-level tests is 65×22 yards (60x20m).

What do riders wear?

Riding attire and equipment can vary depending on the level and the fashion at the time. A normal riding helmet, jacket, breeches, and tall boots are standard for lower-level competition. At the higher levels, riders wear top hats, tailcoats, white breeches, and white gloves.

However, the FEI recently implemented a rule that will require riders of all disciplines to wear helmets, even dressage riders, and even at the highest levels. (source)

What tack does the horse use?

This again will depend on the level, but horses generally wear a large white dressage pad and dressage saddle. Dressage saddles have deep seats, thick knee rolls, and longer stirrups than other English saddles. Lower-level dressage horses wear simple eggbutt snaffle bridles, and a double bridle at the higher levels. 

Whether you’re just a casual fan of dressage, or you wish to enter the world of competition, this majestic sport is a sight to behold. Even a casual rider can incorporate dressage techniques into their daily riding program. If you want to achieve a true partnership with your horse and increase your horsemanship skills, give dressage a try!