Natural Sporthorse

Dressage Levels for the Everyday Horseman

Part I of III
These series of articles first appeared in several issues of Eclectic Horseman in 2009

Written by Terry Church
© copyright 2016

An Overview of Dressage Basics

Dressage means"training" in French, and was originally developed as a means of schooling horses to be highly maneuverable on the battlefield, requiring them to work deftly off their haunches in order to perform actions that demanded a great deal of strength. Today, however, most of us recognize dressage as a competitive sport. Just like the term "natural horsemanship," "dressage" is viewed positively in some circles and negatively in others. But stripped of personal judgments and competitive trappings, dressage remains a gradated system of gymnastic exercises designed to develop a horse's physique, agility, attentiveness, and responsiveness. The exercises that make up this system are based on movements horses do naturally in brief bursts of energy, oftentimes in pasture when at play. Under saddle these same movements are sustained. Used properly, dressage can enhance a horse's abilities in any discipline. More importantly, it can help to educate a person about the steps and stages a horse needs to go through in order to become adept at doing advanced work while simultaneously developing that person's riding and handling skills. However, this learning process can proceed without strain only when we figure out how to ask for what we want in a way that the horse can understand.

The "Object and General Principles" of dressage are listed in the rule book put out yearly by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). They are cited here in part:

1. The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. As a result it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible but also confident, attentive and keen thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider.

2. These qualities are revealed by:

    a. The freedom and regularity of the gaits;
    b. The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements;
    c. The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating in a lively impulsion;
    d. The acceptance of the bridle with submissiveness throughout and without any tenseness or resistance.
3. The horse thus gives the impression of doing of his own accord what is required of him. Confident and attentive he submits generously to the control of his rider...

These are the words that have attracted many people to the sport. They are also words to help us discern the ideal from what is often put into practice. I had to learn the hard way that memorizing what is written on the page is the easy part, and that becoming a good technician is only half the battle. In reality, learning to embody good intentions and express them into action has been a lifelong practice that never ends. Adding depth to a skill requires a willingness to be sensitive. Feel, that difficult-to-impart but not-impossible-to-learn ability, is inherent. Like the horse, it is a part of our make-up, too. By giving it value, we enhance our capacity for it, and like any other inherent personal quality that may yet be latent or weak from lack of use, each one of us has room for improvement.

Usually, however, we learn the mechanical steps of any new endeavor first. In an effort to enable the general populace to understand and then utilize the principles of dressage, a series of "levels" were standardized within countries that recognize dressage as a sport. In the United States, a body of judges and trainers are appointed to outline the levels every four years. The levels are: Training, First, Second, Third and Fourth (with other auxiliary levels for various competitive events). However, the subsequent, more advanced levels are standardized worldwide by an international body called the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale). Those levels are: Prix St. Georges, Intermediate I and II, and Grand Prix. Each level is comprised of a series of movements that are organized into "tests" performed in competition. Riders who opt not to compete can nevertheless use basic movements as stepping stones in preparing their horses for more difficult maneuvers, or to elicit greater agility and strength for other disciplines - or to ride just for fun.

Real strength and agility, however, require suppleness. An inflexible or stiff muscle cannot be adequately strengthened because building muscle mass requires that the oxygenated blood flowing through arteries and capillaries reach the muscle tissue, and that oxygen-depleted blood is efficiently removed so that the muscle can be continually replenished in order to grow itself. The more constricted or tense the muscle, the more difficult task the blood vessels have of allowing the blood to flow in and out of the muscle.

Basic dressage is primarily about suppling the horse, using movements to stretch the muscles and keep the horse's body malleable. According to the rule book, the objectives and standards of Training Level are "to confirm that the horse's muscles are supple and loose, and that it moves freely forward in clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit." In training level, the movements consist of riding the horse forward at walk, trot (usually posting) and canter, making large circles (20 meters) and bending lines (loops), making transitions gradually (not on-a-dime), and stretching the topline (nose to the ground). First Level is more difficult, asking for smaller circles (10 meter), more precise transitions, asking the rider to sit the trot (a forward trot, not a jog), changing leads through a few steps of trot, and preparing for counter-canter. However, the emphasis is still on suppling the horse by continuing the use of circles and bending lines (serpentines), stretching the topline, riding a free walk (loose rein), and then adding the use of leg-yields (side passes) and a lengthening of stride at the trot and canter. (A complete list of movements and figures and their explanations can be found in the USEF rule book and online, and tests can be found online at, and at

Suppleness, however, cannot exist without some degree of relaxation. Relaxation is the emotional/psychological state of being that enables a horse to physically release tension or tightness in the body. While letting go of tension, a horse becomes more receptive to the person, and so their body becomes more receptive to the pressure of a hand, a leg, or a person's intention, for example. The resulting responsiveness is another key factor in a horse's ability to be soft, light, and maneuverable. In every dressage manual, relaxation is acknowledged as a primary building block of dressage, and is supposed to make up the foundation upon which all subsequent "training" takes place. More importantly, a full measure of happiness - for horse or human - cannot be realized without it.

The Basic Movements

Using the suppling movements of dressage can be a wonderful way to learn about and elicit relaxation from our horses. Here are a few guidelines upon which those exercises are based:

    ~ Any circle or bending line is, by its very nature, a suppling action, particularly for the horse laterally (along the sides).
    ~ Stretching the horse's nose to the ground, particularly while in movement, is a suppling action for the horse longitudinally (over the topline).
    ~ Lateral movements (sideways movements) such as turns on the forehand (crossing the hindquarters) and leg-yields (side passes) are suppling actions as well, requiring the adductors and abductors (muscles on the inside and outside of the horse's forearm and hind legs) to stretch and flex as the fore and hind legs cross with every other stride.

It is possible, however, to ride movements by rote and is why we often see a great deal of tension in dressage horses, whether at home or while performing at horse shows. So what is the key to using the movements in a truly effective manner while maintaining our horse's happiness?

I would like the reader to consider that the vast majority of us have been brought up in a culture that is achievement oriented. That is not all bad, but we have generally been taught that in order to achieve success we have to "make it happen." Many of us have therefore become adept at manipulating the things around us, whether they be circumstances, events, other people - or our horses - to get what we want. The more we want something, the more we tend to use coercion to get it until we become habituated to preempting our days so that everything, including our training session, works out the way we had planned. If we approach dressage with such a mind-set, we will go through the training of the movements exactly as described on the page, and end up with horse that does all the tricks but is tied up in knots or is stiff as a brick.

Some of us already know that good horsemanship includes engendering respect and a natural curiosity for our horses as individuals. It also includes becoming more observant and sensitive to the positive or negative effect that our presence has on them and the world around us - and then learning to see that world from our horse's point of view. It also includes going through the process of becoming better handlers and riders, of gaining experience through doing, of learning about our own bodies as we learn about the horse's body, and what it means for us to be relaxed, supple, in balance, strong, coordinated, and equally adept on both sides, to know which seat bone our weight tends to rest upon a horse's back and where our crooked places are. In other words, to achieve the kind of relationship where our horses happily respond to their own participation in this complex system of gymnastic exercises called dressage, we might consider holding ourselves to the same standards we set for our horses. Just as relaxation enables our horses to be more responsive to us, so our relaxed demeanor brings us into a state of mind where we are more patient and thereby better able to deal with whatever our horse presents to us each day.

Another aspect to consider is that if we try to ride a dressage movement perfectly the first time out, our best intentions for feeling patient and showing respect will go out the window. Breaking a movement down into parts, however, can allow us to maintain our equilibrium while we learn its complexities, its purpose and its many benefits. A circle, for example, is one of the most basic suppling movements in dressage. It sounds simple, but ridden really well and in a way that is beneficial to the horse is not always so easy.

Figure 1
As seen in Figure 1 to the left of this paragraph, a horse will normally lean in on a turn like a bicycle because it is the most expedient way to get from point A to point B. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but if we are looking for ways to soften and supple our horses, we need to understand that leaning in on a turn makes their bodies's rigid, uneven, and causes their feet to scramble. In order to turn this circle into a gymnastic exercise, the horse will need to respond to the person in the following ways:

~ Maintain the forward gait to warm up the muscles, loosen the body, engender freedom of movement, and to develop tone and responsiveness.
~ Yield to the inside turning rein and allow the nose to flex to the inside in order to 1) be guided in that direction, 2) soften to rein pressure, and 3) begin the process of bending the body.
~ Yield to the pressure of the rider's inside leg (the side closest to the center of the circle) in order to shift the horse's weight off the inside shoulder, creating a bend throughout the length of its body that aligns with the circumference of the circle, thereby balancing more evenly on all four feet.

Figure 2 is an example of a horse who balances itself on the turn by bending its body according to the circumference of the circle.

Figure 2

If we try to ride such a circle the first time out, we will often wind up with a fight on our hands because there are too many pressures all at once that the horse has not been allowed to sort out and learn how to respond to. As a result, their instinct is to push back against the rider's legs and hands and resist what they experience as sheer confinement.

To avoid this conflict, riding a circle can be practiced in stages. The first step might simply be to work on our horse's forward response to our leg in a straight line or out in a large area. If we don't have a forward response, adding more leg pressure to make them bend sideways in order to balance their weight off the inside shoulder will only confuse the issue.

If our horses already move well forward off the leg, perhaps our first step will be to pick up a single rein and apply some pressure on that rein at a standstill (from the ground or in the saddle) until the horse learns to yield to the pressure of it. If the horse does not respond softly to this simple pressure, why would we think they're prepared to "go on the bit," or to stay soft in our hands when we ask for lateral (sideways) steps?

Or perhaps our first step is simply to make sure our horse understands how to yield to pressure everywhere on its body, both from the ground and in the saddle. From the ground we can use a hand, an arm, or the weight of our body. (Please see the Pyramid of Training article series). In the beginning, our actions do not need to look neat and tidy, or to look like any particular "movement." They are simply pieces of a puzzle we're putting together gradually. What a horse learns on the ground can be applied in the saddle.

If we take whatever time we need to, we enable ourselves to actually see what the horse responds to easily or with difficulty, where we need to be firmer or softer, or when we need to hold our ground or to back off, all the while enjoying what we're learning and discovering about our horse - and ourselves. As each piece is practiced and learned, we can begin to combine them together until somewhere down the road we have learned to coordinate our own body parts well enough to ask the horse to do the same.

In my own experience I have found that developing an in-depth understanding of the foundational movements and principles of dressage is what takes the greatest amount of time, effort and patience. Once that foundation has been laid, the upper level movements, while more complex and requiring added skill, are the icing on the cake. If we hurry to "get to the top," we miss the more valuable lessons and insights that allow us to become truly good horsemen and women - or good dressage riders - with the level of understanding and feel that makes all good things possible between ourselves and our horses.


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