June 30, 2021
May 6, 2021

Discipline Spotlight : Dressage

Elegant as ballet, dressage is an exciting competitive sport for elite dressage horses and riders – but it’s also a useful method of schooling that can be employed in all disciplines.

Allison Armstrong Rehnborg

Whether you’re a cow horse fanatic, a hunter-jumper junkie or a Western pleasure addict, step outside of your discipline for just a moment and assess your overall level of horsemanship. Now, ask yourself these questions:

  • Could my horse be more supple or more balanced?
  • Is my seat or leg as strong as it should be?
  • Are my cues soft and succinct?
  • Does my horse respond to my cues as readily as I wish he would?

If your answer to any of these questions was “no,” then you and your horse could benefit from adding dressage to your daily riding routine. Surprised? Don’t be! Dressage is more than a competitive sport. It’s also a method of schooling that can benefit horses and riders in any discipline or event, from hunt seat equitation, hunter hack and jumping to cutting, reining and Western riding.  


To understand how the principles of dressage can apply to any discipline, you have to look beyond the black top hats, glowing white breeches and elegant advanced maneuvers of competitive dressage. Instead, think of dressage as another tool to add to your training arsenal. At its core, dressage is all about enhancing the lines of communication between horse and rider. In fact, the word “dressage” is derived from the French word for “training.”

According to the United States Dressage Federation (USDF), which is the only national membership organization dedicated to dressage, the purpose of dressage is to “strengthen and supple the horse while maintaining a calm and attentive demeanor.” If you take that definition to heart, you’d be hard-pressed to find a horse in any discipline that couldn’t benefit from becoming stronger, suppler and more attentive. For that matter, you’d be hard-pressed to find a rider who wouldn’t benefit from developing a stronger seat, a better sense of feel in the saddle or more precise cues – all of which are also essential skills for the serious dressage rider.


Although the higher levels of dressage competition may look as complicated and elegant as ballet, the basic tenets of dressage include large, smooth circles; developing balanced transitions; and maintaining a steady tempo in all gaits. These aren’t complicated maneuvers. In fact, they are elements that exist in almost all disciplines. For example, executing large, smooth circles is essential for reiners. A steady tempo at all gaits is a must for hunter-jumpers, hunters on the flat and ranch horses. Balanced transitions are crucial in all disciplines, not to mention a joy to ride. All of these require softer, more precise cues on the part of the rider, and that’s something every rider should want to develop.  

Still not convinced? Let’s break down the required maneuvers of the 2019 USDF Introductory Level – Test A (https://www.usdf.org/docs/showflash/web/tests/2019/Intro_Test_A.pdf?t=5/3/2021%201:07:50%20PM). This test is designed to introduce a horse and rider to the sport of dressage, and if you were planning to start competing in dressage, this is the level of test that you’d likely start studying for. Some of the required maneuvers include a working trot, with an emphasis on straightness and rhythm; two 20-meter circles, with an emphasis on roundness and size; and willing, balanced transitions between gaits. Throughout the test, the judges are instructed to score the rider’s position, balance and effectiveness of aids, as well as the horse’s freedom of gait, impulsion and submission. If you compete in any discipline, all of this should sound familiar and desirable because these are all qualities that every horse and rider should strive to master, regardless of their discipline.


There are plenty of ways to begin incorporating the principles of dressage into your daily riding routine, and they all start with education.

English riders, bookmark the USDF website (https://www.usdf.org/) today and start looking through the introductory level tests. Consult your equestrian friends about who has experience riding or training dressage in your area, and consider taking dressage lessons from a USDF-certified instructor. Attend a classical dressage show in your area and make friends.  

For the Western rider, consider exploring the tenets of Western dressage, which is a combination of classical dressage and Western horsemanship. The Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) (https://westerndressageassociation.org/)  has been recognized by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) as the sole affiliate representing the discipline of Western Dressage. Just like the USDF, WDAA has a detailed website with example tests, event schedules and plenty of educational opportunities for the aspiring Western dressage rider.  

Bottom line: if you’re interested in improving the lines of communication between you and your horse, you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by learning dressage. You might just fall in love with a brand-new discipline in the process!

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