The British Dressage team made history at London 2012. Not only did they take team gold, an incredible achievement in itself, but they also won their first ever individual medals, with Charlotte Dujardin receiving gold and Laura Bechtolsheimer bronze. Their dressage tests were beautiful to watch and both more than deserved their medals.
Thousands tuned in to watch these ‘dancing horses’ but many were mystified by the concept of dressage, seeing it more as a circus act than a sport.The objective of showjumping is clear: complete a course of jumps in the quickest time without knocking any of the poles down, but those not usually interested in horses found the purpose of dressage harder to clarify.
Having competed in dressage myself, here is my attempt at an explanation!
The horse and rider perform a set test, which is made up of a sequence of different movements in all of the main paces: walk, trot and canter. Every movement is observed by a judge(s) and given a mark out of ten, one being extremely poor and ten being perfect. The letters around the arena designate where each particular movement should be performed and riders will be penalised for any errors.
So what is the judge(s) looking for?
To put it basically, a horse that is balanced.
(I can hear you thinking: is that it?!) Well, not quite.
Balance refers to the distribution of the weight of the horse and rider on the horse’s fore and hind legs. A horse that is balanced will carry more weight on its hindquarters, lightening the weight on its forelegs and shoulders (also known as the forehand). A balanced horse will also accept the bit without resistance, allowing the hindquarters to connect with the forehand, so that the horse moves forwards with energy rather than speed. Dressage also teaches a horse to be obedient, supple and responsive.
Once balance has been achieved, the horse and rider can start working towards collection, which involves further lightening of the forehand to create shorter, more energetic steps. Collection is what gives dressage horses the bounce and spring in their steps!
The position of the rider is crucial to ensure that the horse can carry out what is asked of it with freedom and ease. Any communication errors are usually the rider’s fault, who may have given the wrong signals or not correctly absorbed the movement of the horse. An obvious example is the rider who sits crookedly and then wonders why their horse struggles with straightness.
The signals given by the rider should be virtually unnoticeable: a squeeze of the leg, a closing of the fingers or a shifting of the rider’s weight should be all that is needed to direct the horse. Dressage may look effortless but it takes years of training to reach the highest levels.
Hopefully I’ve given you a bit of understanding about dressage and answered some of the main questions people often have about the sport. You might even be inspired to try it for yourself!