There are so many ideas about what dressage is, and so many people doing things with horses claiming it’s “dressage”, so how do we know if they/we are really doing it? If you’re new to the sport, it can be really hard to tell! To make it easier, we can start with 5 things dressage is not.
Dressage is NOT:
1) Training in a way that breaks down the horse. Good dressage training should increase a horse’s balance, coordination, and carriage. The gaits should improve. The horse’s ridability should improve. The horse should have pride and find joy in his work. Good work builds the horse up slowly over time, versus pushing the horse too quickly and straining his body. To slowly gymnasticize the horse, patience and dedication are required. Anything that promises to be a “quick fix” or restrains the horse in an unnatural way should be questioned as to whether it will slowly, gently, correctly build the horse up or instead quickly break him down. In most cases, the fast or forceful way of training also ends up causing tension, pain, fear, and sometimes long-term damage, and has no place in dressage.
2) Repetitive, boring work. If you’re going round and round and round and round on the rail getting bored, or working on an endless 20m circle waiting for it to improve itself, rest assured that what you’re doing is not dressage. Dressage offers so many different ways of working different parts of the horse’s body that once you start to understand all the things you can do you’ll never be satisfied “just going around on the rail” again! Dressage is so different than “doing flat work” or “just hacking”. Even with a young or green horse, variety is what supples and strengthens the horse, challenging him to use himself in a better balance and develop both sides of his body evenly. If you need ideas to change your routine from “doing flat work” to “doing dressage”, check for a category of posts called “Arena Exercises” for ideas to incorporate into your ride!
3) Easy to do well. Sorry, I wish this weren’t the case, but dressage isn’t easy to do well. Anyone trying to tell you otherwise is trying to sell you something. A rendition of sort-of dressage movements is pretty easy to do, and I introduce lots of people to dressage by having them sit on my well-schooled horse, add the inside leg, and feel the horse go sideways… but there’s a huge difference between that and correctly riding back to front, inside leg to outside rein, engaged and connected lateral work. On the plus side, dressage is very progressive and one piece very naturally leads to the next, especially if you use the training scale and USDF tests for guidance. If you start at the beginning and build a solid foundation, over time there is almost no way to not get it or not make progress. It just takes time and effort, like anything else you’d want to get good at!
4 ) Only for rich people with expensive horses. Just don’t even go there. Dressage training is about progressively building up a horse. Any horse. In fact, dressage can be a saving grace for a horse with a poor way of going or behavioral/training issue. It’s a systematic way of creating a good riding horse. Now, if we’re talking Olympic Dressage, then maybe yes, that’s going to be reserved for people with money or access to money and expensive horses. But there are ordinary people doing dressage on horses of all types and sizes, of all ages, with all sorts of histories. Dressage might be easier on a purpose-bred horse and almost anything is easier if you have lots of money, but dressage is certainly not restricted to the wealthy. If you have a horse to ride and a desire to learn, you can do dressage.
5) Only for people who want to compete in Dressage shows. There are so many people who learn dressage because it interests them, and for various reasons never compete. And there are lots of people who train a lot in dressage with their hunter, jumper, eventer, western, or trail horse because having a supple, balanced, responsive, athletic horse is a good place to start for any discipline! Also, dressage is probably one of the few disciplines that is very rewarding on its own because of the way it naturally progresses. In some disciplines, you really need someone else to compete against to know if you did well. For example, if you ride a jumper course in your home arena, without someone else to compare your time with, how do you know if you were fast or slow? With dressage training, even if you don’t compete, you can enjoy progressing up the levels with your horse because you’ll feel new movements first become possible, and then easy and enjoyable. Your horse will offer to move in ways you never thought would be possible. And you’ll learn to ride with a more coordinated seat and refined aids than you ever imagined. With each new level you reach, the joy in riding becomes greater. And the best part is, it’s pretty endless. There is always more to learn, new exercises to try, and new goals you can set.
So then, what is dressage? Well, technically it’s french for “training”. And that pretty well sums it up! It’s a method of training a horse to make him the best he can be, in health and soundness and balance and beauty. It makes a horse a joy to ride. It creates a rider that can sit comfortably on a horse, move in harmony with him, and use subtle shifts to influence him. It’s often been likened to “horse ballet” because of the dance-like movements that becomes possible. It creates that deep partnership that we all dreamed we could have with a horse when we started riding. Sounds worth pursuing, doesn’t it?