by Laurel Scott and Beth Collier

Dressage — which comes from the French “dresser,” to train — is systematic training that encourages the harmonious development of the horse’s physical ability, while improving his suppleness, balance and flexibility, as well as his confidence in and understanding of his rider. The result, if done correctly, is best described as an elegant partnership.

It’s a good basic foundation — some might even say the proper foundation — for most equestrian disciplines. Indeed, dressage has influenced everything from Western stock seat riding to modern hunter/jumper techniques.

To benefit from dressage, a horse needs only a four-beat walk, a two-beat trot, and a three-beat canter.


More than 2000 years ago, the Greeks — who believed that the way to live in harmony with the universe was to obey its laws — used dressage to prepare their steeds for war. Working without saddles or stirrups and only snaffle bits for control, they produced mounts that moved in a light, well-balanced fashion, yielding gracefully, willingly and proudly to their riders’ every request.

It was the Greek commander Xenophon who penned the best-known work of this era on training and horsemanship. His philosophy — which was later refined by Antoine de Pluvinel, William Cavendish, and François Robichon de la Guérinière — evolved into classical dressage, the highest expression of the art of equitation.

Today, most equestrians are more familiar with competitive (or “modern”) dressage than its virtuoso classical cousin. Indeed, the Spanish Riding School, which was founded in 1572 in Vienna, Austria, is one of the last bastions of the classical tradition (France’s Cadre Noir de Saumur being another). This tradition was revived during the Renaissance with the introduction of small firearms and the return of the light horse to European cavalry. (See Spanish Riding School story in this issue.)

Here, the preferred mount is the Lipizzan, or Lipizzaner, a powerful and intelligent breed cultivated from Spanish stock (hence the name of the school). The graceful haute ecole (high school) movements that have thrilled the school’s audiences for centuries are based on the breed’s own natural movements, and take an average of six to eight years of intensive work to perfect.

From the leg yield and the flying change to the pirouette and the piaffe, every maneuver was developed to keep a horse mobile and handy — capable of wheeling towards or away from the enemy — while engaging in hand-to-hand combat.
As for the exacting and difficult “airs above the ground,” these maneuvers were also designed to protect and defend, as well as to intimidate. They include, but are not limited to:

Levade — a highly controlled rearing motion, in which the horse’s head and neck shields his rider, while the latter reaches down to slash with a sword or aim a pistol. Can also be used as an evasion tactic.

Courbette — a balancing on the hind legs, followed by a series of forward “hops” that serve to disperse foot soldiers.

Capriole — a dramatic forward leap, in which the horse tucks his forelegs and kicks out behind. This was used either to clear space on a crowded battlefield or to escape over the heads of infantry.

What Do Those Terms and Abbreviations Mean?

Fast forward to 2005, when the battlefield is the competitive arena, and the goal the perfect dressage test. (Dressage competitions were originally devised to test the abilities of cavalry officers.)
This means rule books, new terms and lots of abbreviations!

In order to show in — USEF/USDF-recognized shows, your horse must have an HID number. In order to show in the FEI CDI shows, you must have an FEI horse passport, which you arrange through — USEF.

Some people still refer to — USEF as AHSA, but they are forgetting that it was briefly USAE at one point. And — USEA refers to the United States Eventing Association, so it gets a bit tricky!

— USEF/USDF shows sometimes include classes for the USDF Region 1 championships, listed as BLM or USDF Q for the GAIG. BLM wannabes must also be a member of one of 14 associations, which includes PVDA, IEO, LVDA, CDCTA, VADA and MDA. You must also decide whether you are a JrYR or AA. You can’t be both!

Some classes are also listed as TOC or MFS. Sometimes an FEI TOC will exclude a class, such as PSG. Foreign competitors used to have to submit — USEF Foreign Competitors’ licenses, but now they can just be — USEF or USDF members like everyone else, since their foreign federations are not going to know what the heck they’re trying to accomplish. If YRs do well enough at — USEF/USDF shows, they may even qualify for the NAYRC, but they may not need an FEI horse passport — so check the rules!

Confused yet?


— USEF: United States Equestrian Federation
USDF: United States Dressage Federation
HID: Horse Identification Number
FEI: Federation Equestre Internationale
CDI: Concours Dressage International
AHSA: American Horse Shows Association
USAE: USA Equestrian Association
BLM: Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Championships
USDF Q: United States Dressage Federation Qualifier
GAIG: Great American Insurance Group Championship

PVDA: Potomac Valley Dressage Association (MD)
IEO: International Equestrian Organization (PA)
LVDA: Lehigh Valley Dressage Association (PA)
CDCTA: Commonwealth Dressage and Combined Training Association (VA)
VADA: Virginia Dressage Association
MDA: Maryland Dressage Association
JrYR: Junior or Young Rider
AA: Adult Amateur
TOC: Test of Choice
MFS: Musical Freestyle
PSG: Prix St.-Georges
NAYRC: North American Young Riders’ Championships