My non-horsey other half and I were watching a dressage class at the weekend. I was patiently answering his questions whilst wearing my judge's hat and feeling suitably smug at the depth of my knowledge when he asked me something that left me at a loss.
"Where do the letters come from? They don't seem to have any particular order. What's their significance?" he asked. Rather shamefully I had to confess that I had no idea and decided to research the subject post haste.
Although the absolutely definitive origin of the letters is unknown, it seems that there are two main theories both of which originate in Germany.
Prior to 1918, markings were found on the walls of the stable yard of the Imperial German Court in Berlin; the Royal Manstall. These writings appeared to indicate where each horse was to be positioned by its groom to await its rider; a necessity given that the Manstall housed 300 of the Kaiser's horses. The stable yard itself was known as the 'Hof' and was large enough for riders to gather and parade for morning exercise being three times the width of the stable block and measuring 20m x 60m; the size of a modern long dressage arena. This theory sounds reasonable enough, but for the absence of a letter 'C'.
The writing on the wall, so to speak, was as follows:
A - Ausgang - Exit
B - Bannertrager - Standard Bearer
E - Edeling/Ehrengast - Chieftain or Honoured Guest
F - Fürst - Prince
H - Hofsmarshall - Lord Chancellor
K - Kaiser - Emperor
M - Meier - Steward
P - Pferknecht - Ostler or Groom
R - Ritter - Knight
S - Schzkanzler - Chancellor of the Exchequer
V - Vassal - Servant/Squire/Equerry
The second theory involves the German cavalry. The space in between the stable blocks in the German barracks was measured at 20m x 60m and was used for morning exercise and general assembly. It seems highly likely that the cavalry would adopt similar lettering to that of their ancestors in the Kaiser's court. However, the German cavalry manual first written in 1882 and later revised contains a diagram of the indoor arena (Reit Bahn) marked as measuring only 40m x 20m. The lettering here is shown as A, B, C, and D in the four corners of the school and E and F as the middle markers. These letters were used to guide riders as they rode the school figures in training and were not used for competition arenas.
When competitive dressage began, arenas were measured at 60m x 20m and these dimensions were adopted for the 1932 Olympic Games in which cavalry officers competed. Sequences of predetermined, set movements (dressage tests) were devised to demonstrate correct progressive training methods much as they are today although these early dressage tests were specifically designed to test the skills of combative riders and their mounts. Collected and extended paces were required, pirouettes, rein back and flying changes were also included and there were five small obstacles to negotiate including a barrel which was rolled toward the approaching horse and rider!
Until as late as 1952, Olympic dressage was restricted to male commissioned officers only; civilians and women were excluded! This rule was changed following the disqualification of the winning Swedish team in the 1948 Games when it was revealed that one team member, although male, was a non-commissioned rider.
So, next time I enter at 'A' in collected canter I will have in my mind the origins of the arena markers and will be extremely thankful that I shall only be facing the rigors of half pass, shoulder-in and perhaps a flying change as the last time I looked negotiating oncoming rolling barrels was not included at advanced level!