International level dressage is wonderful to watch and attracts large audiences who delight in the dancing and skipping horses doing intricate figures. But as enjoyable as it is to observe, it’s even more fun to do. Of course at the high levels, the riders are full-time professionals and the horses worth millions of dollars. That doesn’t stop thousands of average horses and riders from joining the fun.
Dressage is the French word for training and refers to the basic training all horses should have. It’s not limited to English riding; the principles apply to Western too. In fact, you often see demonstrations of Western dressage. The aim is to develop a relaxed, attentive, supple horse that responds effortlessly.
One of the nice things about dressage is it is an absorbing activity that you can do alone without being part of a team—although a trainer is vitally important. You can compete if you want, but the training pyramid provides levels to achieve and can give you a sense of accomplishment without having to show. It takes years to move up the levels, so there is always more to learn and accomplish. This feature is probably why dressage has become so popular with educated, professional women. They like something that requires concentration, dedication and measurable goals.
You can do dressage with any horse but one with the correct conformation and native ability will make it easier to advance up the levels. You want one with a good mind, a willing disposition and the physical ability to do what you ask. A horse specifically bred for dressage (usually a warmblood) can be pricey, but you can also find ones with a lot of talent in other breeds. Off-the-track Thoroughbreds often are good choices because of their work ethic and athleticism. My OTTB mare Glory was quite talented and trained to Third Level.
One way to verify how far you’ve come in your training is to compete. The U.S. Dressage Federation defines a series of “tests” at five advancing levels, starting with Training and culminating in Fourth Level. (The international level tests are overseen by FEI (Federation Equestre International) Each level has four tests that list the series of movements required at different spots in the dressage court. At non-championship shows usually one judge sits at the long end of the arena and gives a number score for how well each movement was performed and also comments on how it could be improved. Once you have achieved acceptable scores at one level, you can go on to the next. (Unless you are extremely dedicated and put in a lot of time, you usually advance one level per year.)
Here is a video of a Training level, Test 1 ride.
Compare it to this Second level test.
In addition to the basic tests, you can also compete in a Freestyle at each level. This is a performance set to music where you demonstrate all the required moves for that level, but with your own choreography. Watching horses do the same moves over and over at the lower levels is only interesting to other dressage riders, but audiences of all kinds love the Freestyles.
Here is a video of an Amateur Adult Rider doing a delightful freestyle.