The rise and rise of British dressage over the past 10 years culminated in multiple gold medal winning performances at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. As a result of this unprecedented achievement, dressage has seen a sudden increase in popularity here in the UK.
The term 'dressage' is French and literally means 'training'. Dressage in its earliest form was reputedly first developed by the Greek philosopher, historian and cavalry officer, Xenophon. Xenophon realised that if the horse was rewarded for good work rather than punished for poor work, the more trust he would have in his rider. As a consequence the horse would learn to perform in harmony with his rider and would enjoy his work without tension and the fear of retribution if he fell short of expectations.
Adopting this principle, Cavalry horses were trained to become supple, balanced and light in the forehand and to respond instantly to their riders' most subtle requests. If a horse could move nimbly and instantly backwards, sideways and forwards in perfect balance the more efficient he would be on the battlefield. Movements performed naturally by horses at liberty were harnessed for use in defence and evasion; half pass, capriole and pirouettes, for example.
Modern competitive dressage does not see the more extreme movements demanded of those war horses although these may still be seen performed by the Classical Schools such as the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and others.
Today's dressage horse is educated using basic scales of training which form the foundations of his work through from Preliminary level all the way up to Grand Prix, should he progress that far. All horses can be trained using this framework no matter what discipline they will ultimately specialise in.
The scales of training are divided into six key elements, each being linked to the next in a series of connecting, progressive stages.
Rhythm: The horse's rhythm should be regular; that is to say correct for each pace: four-time in walk; two-time in trot and three-time in canter. The horse's legs should move in the correct sequence and show clear moments of suspension in the trot and canter. The tempo (speed) of the rhythm should remain the same and have a clear beat to it.
Suppleness: The horse's muscles should be toned, relaxed and free from resistance. His joints are loose and he does not tighten or hold himself against the rider's aids. As he moves, the muscles over his back and topline right through to his poll should be elastic and swinging under the rider, not hollowed or tightened against her.
Contact: The rider's contact on the horse's mouth should be light, even and elastic. This is achieved by the rider's leg and seat, never their hands. The leg aid drives the horse forward so that he steps underneath his rider's weight and works forward, through and over his back, neck and poll. The rider then captures this energy in her hand.
Impulsion: This refers to the contained power of the horse originating in the hindquarters and controlled by the rider's hand. Any tension, resistance or hollowing of the horse's back will prevent that connection from being established.
Straightness: Like humans, horses tend to favour one side more than the other and move with their bodies slightly curved. If the rider sits to one side or has a stronger contact on one rein than the other, the horse's crookedness will become worse making it more difficult for him to remain in balance. Any impulsion the rider has created will be blocked if the horse is crooked. The horse's hind legs should step into the tracks of the forelegs both on straight lines and around circles.
Collection: As his training progresses, the horse is taught to carry more and more weight on his hindquarters, lightening his forehand and allowing him to become more athletic and easier to ride. Over time the horse will develop his musculature and strength so that he is able to do this with relative ease.
In short, dressage makes the horse a better ride. He becomes easier to manoeuvre, more powerful and responsive to his rider, better balanced and more obedient.
Top show jumpers invest more time in training their horses on the flat than over fences. If the horse is balanced, obedient and able to turn on a sixpence, how much quicker will he be against the clock in a jump-off? And he is far more likely to clear the fences if he is light in his shoulders, muscular and powerful in his quarters, straight and relaxed allowing his rider to lengthen or shorten his stride on the approach to fences as required.
A well trained horse is much more pleasurable to hack out on too. Opening gates is so much easier if your horse has been taught to step sideways and backwards and to stand obediently as you open and close the gate.
In some showing classes, the judge rides the horses as part of their assessment of him. How much more pleasurable it must be to ride something obedient, light in the hand, balanced, supple and straight than to sit on a horse which falls around every corner, barges against the bridle, and ploughs along on its forehand before falling in a disorganised heap as he halts.
There is so much more to dressage than just trotting around in boring circles and no matter what sphere you choose to compete in, the time you invest in schooling your horse is sure to repay you with interest!