Horse Dressage

Insider Info

If you love horses, there is no better way to build a relationship with one than dressage.

Dressage (rhymes with massage) is a method of training as well as a competitive sport. It takes the natural movements a horse can make and structures them into exercises.

Its practitioners sometimes describe the activity as a religious experience. In any case, it is mentally and physically challenging for horse and rider alike.

"It was the elegance, artistry, and intelligence of the sport that attracted me," says Nancy McAlinden.

Dressage is a classical art of riding that first surfaced in Greece around 400 BC. It was later developed by European royalty. Most people probably know of the dancing white Lipizzan stallions from Vienna -- that's dressage.

Today, dressage is accessible to a variety of horses and riders. (The U.S. Dressage Federation boasts 36,000 members.) It is also one of the three Olympic equestrian disciplines.

In competition, which occurs in rectangular arenas at all levels, horses perform tests which have been designed by the National Dressage Committee.

These gauge a horse's progress and range from basic levels, in which all riders can participate, to the more advanced, in which only dedicated athletes can compete.

You can work with any horse on dressage, but only a few will have the right combination of physical and psychological characteristics to excel at the highest levels of competition.

"Equestrian endeavors ought not to be entered into without proper training and education. It is not an easy field in which to be successful, but it can be rewarding for the right person," says Robert O. Mayer of Pennsylvania, who owns a riding academy.

"What keeps me doing dressage is that I feel it creates a strong bond between myself and my horse. I think dressage is the foundation of all good riding," says Samantha Hartford.

"You know how some football players do ballet because it makes them stronger and more flexible? Dressage does the same for horses. It also makes them very willing and obedient partners."

Dressage uses a series of gymnastic movements, figures, and transitions to train a young horse or re-train an older one. It is the "flat work," or non-jumping, part of riding a horse.

"My interest began mainly because I have an older horse who could no longer jump, and my coach believed strongly in the fact that dressage is the basis for all riding," explains Laura Harding. "I quickly saw what he meant, and I have loved it ever since."

You don't need a lot of equipment for dressage, especially if you're not planning to compete. A simple bridle, with reins attached to the ring of the bit, and a western saddle will do. In competition, you'll need an English saddle specially made for dressage.

You'll also need more formal attire, such as a hunt cap or top hat, a shirt with choker or tie, leather boots and gloves. International competition is even more rigid, including a dark coat with tails.

Dressage seems to be a female-dominated sport. "That's the way it is at shows and clinics -- unless you look at western stuff, and then there are more men and boys involved," says Rick Lyles of Michigan.

"Interestingly, at the upper levels in dressage, jumpers, and eventing, the proportion of men is greater. Dressage is really an acquired taste -- it's very thoughtful."

He feels that more boys should try it, but that they probably won't find it exciting. "I find it fascinating that equestrian sports are among the very few where men and women do compete on a very equal basis."

Even if you've never tried dressage, Sybille Crafts of the NEDA (New England Dressage Association) says not to worry.

"It is never too early and it is never too late. Dressage can be started at any age. When it comes to young people, then there needs to be an interest in this discipline. Riding itself, as any other sport, is best started at a young age. Learning is easier, your mind and your body are responding quicker and safer."

A word of caution, however. "Evaluate your patience factor. This is not a sport for people with quick tempers, short attention spans, a hurry-up attitude, or for people who need instant rewards," warns McAlinden.

"Dressage riders must be able to take great pleasure in small improvements gained over a long period of time."

She adds, "Spend as much time on the lunge developing your seat and position as possible. Dressage begins and ends with a deep, correct, following seat, independent aids, and a classically correct position.

There are no shortcuts to achieving this. Be prepared to spend your lifetime constantly working on a better seat, a better position, better hands."

Alison Hughes Martin, who enjoys the connection dressage makes with her horse, says the sport is a continual learning process. There are frustrations as well as satisfactions.

"I have had them all, from spooking horses to falling off to winning major competitions. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't know and want to learn."

Others mention the trials of competition. "Frustrating would have to be when you've ridden a really good test, but the judge thinks differently," says McAlinden.

"When training for dressage, it is hard to do the same things over and over again -- even if they are beneficial -- because you can get tired of the repetition. But when it finally clicks, then you've learned something for life, and you feel amazing."

If you are serious about dressage, your social life may suffer. "The worst part of this sport is training for several hours a day and not having the normal social life of an 18 year old," says Belinda Locke.

"It can get very hard being so one-track, and putting your horse or sport before friends usually results in a lack of the aforementioned! It is difficult to build relationships when you are so focused on something else."

Lesley Patton recommends, "Be patient, take your time, and don't try to force a horse to do the movements. It's better to have a happy, free-moving and light horse that likes his work, than to see someone cramming a horse up into the bridle and forcing him to do the movements with a heavy seat and hand.

"Also, try to work and take lessons from someone that follows that methodology -- and try to learn the movements yourself first before you attempt to teach it to a horse."

The decision to try dressage should not be taken lightly. "Any sport that involves horses is not cheap!" says Hartford, who used to teach. "Lessons are expensive, and the kinds of horses needed to reach the top of dressage are very expensive. Kids will need to have very supportive parents."

"If you want to start out riding and you want to eventually ride dressage, you do not need your own horse in the very beginning," says Crafts.

"Depending on your interest and skill, you will very quickly find out that there are many means and ways to get in touch of horses. Sometimes one can lease or half-lease a horse, sometimes one can share a horse."

If you like to work around horses, dressage offers several opportunities for employment. Just starting out, you might help around a local barn, cleaning stalls and feeding the horses.

As your interest and experience progresses, you might teach lessons. Certification as a dressage instructor is an option. Running your own horse farm is another possibility.

Getting Started

To get started in dressage, Crafts says, "Contact a GMO [group member organization], like NEDA. You can become a member and find out through membership more about dressage, what it entails and where to ride, where there are clinics, lectures, shows, opportunities to volunteer and be with like-minded people."

"Don't get too serious too young unless that is what wholly consumes your every thought. Have fun, because that's what horses are all about, but believe in your dreams and make them happen," says Locke.

"It takes a lot of hard work to reach the top, so set your eyes on a particular place and go for it, whether it be Pony Club or the Olympics! I'm certainly doing so!"

In terms of inspiration, Harding says, "Don't give up. It may seem really hard at first, but in the end it cannot help but improve your overall riding ability."


United States Dressage Federation
P.O. Box 6669
Lincoln , NE   68506-0669


Book Stable
Equestrian Times
Horse News Online


Classical Dressage
Library, photo archives, and a calendar of events

Information on everything from racing to breeding to events

Animated guide to dressage movements and arena dimensions

Comprehensive collection of links to horse-related needs

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support
  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900
  • North Dakota Career Resource Network | (701) 328-9733