Dressage can be great fun for both you and your horse. But, if you’re thinking of taking it up, there are a few things you’ll need to know before your first competition. In this guide, we’ll be going through the essential elements of dressage for beginners, so you can start training right away. Here, we’ll discuss:
Dressage is an equestrian sport which requires a horse and rider to carry out a series of controlled movements and patterns, in an arena and in front of a judge or group of judges. The aim of dressage is to manage your horse’s actions while they maintain a calm and obedient manner. For this reason, it requires a strong bond between horse and rider.
The name is originally a French term and can be roughly translated as "training", since dressage usually involves precise training before each competition. As the horse and rider progress onto the next dressage level, the movements involved in each test increase in difficulty.
In the UK, dressage competitions are either unaffiliated or affiliated. For affiliated competitions, the dressage rider and horse must be a member of British Dressage before they can take part. Some Pony Club branches, riding clubs, riding schools and equestrian venues have also designed their own competitions and tests for younger or less experienced riders.
In British Dressage there are three options of membership:
Full: The complete package with access to all competitions and member benefits.
Club: Ideal for anyone looking to take their firsts steps in affiliated dressage.
Premier Club: Membership for owners, supporters, judges and coaches.
British Dressage also provide three alternative opportunities to join them as either an Associate Member, a Trial Member or a Winter Member.
Dressage can be done at a wide range of skill levels, from beginner and amateur competitions to Grand Prix and Olympic level, so it’s the perfect sport for any class of rider. The dressage levels are:
1. Introductory (walk/trot)
6. Advanced medium
FEI International level
8. Prix St Georges
9. Intermediare I
10. Intermediare II
11. Grand Prix
As a beginner, your main focus will be on the Introductory and Preliminary levels. Before entering your first Introductory dressage competition, you’ll first need to know the basics of horse riding. So, you should be well-versed in tacking up, mounting and dismounting your horse or pony.
Introductory level focuses on walking and trotting movements, which means you’re ready to enter your first competition once you’ve mastered these beginner skills. Then, once you’ve passed this level, you’ll move onto the Preliminary level, and patterns will focus on walking, trotting, canter and turning in a 20m circle.
A dressage test is another name for a dressage competition. Each level of a dressage test contains a series of patterns, called movements, to determine the skill level of the horse and rider. You will be given an option of tests to ride by the event organiser which you will need to learn prior to the competition. You can obtain copies of the test from the British Dressage test shop.
During the competition, you will be expected to perform each dressage movement from memory or you can assign someone to call the test for you. Judges will then give you a score from 0 to 10, based on the fluidity and control of each movement and the regularity of paces. The horse’s gait, submission, impulsion (using the power in their hindquarters to move forward) and your performance as a rider are scored as double points.
At the end of the dressage test, the marks from each movement are added together and converted into a percentage. Competitors are judged based on a standard expectation, rather than compared with each other, but the highest percentage is celebrated as the winner of the competition. In some cases, the judge may also add comments to the score sheet outlining what went well or what could be improved.
What can I expect from a dressage competition?
A dressage competition takes place in an arena, which is either outside or inside and is on grass or sand. A standard dressage arena is 20m x 40m, but a large arena is a little bit longer at 20m x 60m. Letters will be marked out along the perimeter of the arena, which will help you work out when to transition into the next movement.
At the beginning of your test, you will hear a bell, whistle or car horn, which is your cue to enter the arena at the letter A in the pace for the test you are riding. The judges will be sat at the opposite end to you at the C marker, and you will proceed towards them down the centre line. You will be marked on your entrance into the arena which counts as the first movement of your test.
For the final movement of your test, you will again proceed down the centre line and halt at one of the markers to face the judge and salute. Your test is now complete, and you can leave the arena at the A marker on a long rein.
How to salute in dressage
Once your horse has come to a complete halt, take your reins in one hand and drop the other hand to your side. There’s no rule to state which arm you should drop unless you’re carrying a whip — in that case, always salute with your empty hand. Nod towards the judges and wait for them to nod back before you take your reins back into both hands.
Dressage rules can determine your dress, tack and saddlery, but these rules change each year and can vary depending on the competition organisers and the level. Failure to abide by the rules will result in a penalty or even disqualification from the competition. So, you should make sure that you have an up-to-date copy of the Pony Club or British Dressage rules, or the appropriate rule book from the event organiser.
What kind of horse is best for a dressage beginner?
All breeds of horses and ponies are capable of doing dressage and any breed is able to enter. Warmbloods are often used at higher levels, but this is not mandatory. However, when looking for a dressage horse, you might want to think about their temperament. A calm horse that’s responsive will be easier to train than one that puts up more resistance.
At a beginner level, the patterns involved in your dressage tests will be basic, but you’ll need to refine them if you want to achieve a good score. Having a supple horse or pony can improve the fluidity and control of your dressage movements, and there are various exercises you can do to help make them more flexible. However, you first need to gain full command of your horse’s movements, so you should start your dressage training by working on your position, control, transitions and rhythm.
The way you sit on your horse or pony can not only affect your appearance, but also how they respond to you. So, you should practise your positioning in the saddle before you continue with the rest of your dressage training.
You should be sat central in your saddle with your weight equally dispersed. Your tailbone should be pointing down and your hips should be upright to help you sit up straight. You should also keep your head up at all times. Looking down can cause your body to lean forwards, which can put more pressure on your horse’s forehand and make it more difficult for them to work from their hind.
A good dressage performance relies on the control you have over your horse or pony. The movements that you will perform during a dressage test are all actions the horse will be able to carry out on their own. However, superior dressage skill is determined by the ability for the horse to do these things on command, with only a small cue from the rider.
At the beginning of your basic dressage training, start with a light hand and a light contact on the reins. If your horse doesn’t respond to your cue, increase the pressure slightly until they do. Be careful not to use too much pressure, as this could cause tension in the horse and make them more likely to resist your movements. Then, give them positive reinforcement, like a pat, to let them know that their response was the correct one. As they start to understand what is expected of them, you can begin to decrease the pressure until your horse can perform the action with only a slight cue from you.
When it comes to dressage training, it’s important that you remain patient, as it may take your horse or pony some time to adjust to certain movements. A happy horse is often a more obedient one, so make sure you give them plenty of breaks and a chance to have fun in-between your training.
Once you’ve gained control of your horse or pony, you’ll need to work on transitioning from one gait to another. To ask your horse to speed up from a walk to a trot, lightly squeeze with both legs and use a verbal cue, like “trot on”. To ask your horse to go from a trot to a canter, squeeze your outside leg further back towards the hindlegs and again use a verbal cue if needed, like “canter”. To slow them back down, increase the weight on your seat bones and stop following the motion with your body. Gently squeeze the horse’s girth with your legs to encourage them to move their hindquarters under their body.
During your dressage test, the judges will be looking at the rhythm of your horse or pony’s movements, as it should stay constant throughout. So, pay attention to the beat of each of your horse’s gaits: a walk should be four beats, a trot should be two beats and a canter should be three beats.
Some beginner riders, and even some more experienced ones, can tense up as their horse or pony transitions into a trot, meaning their legs squeeze against the horse’s side. Doing this can signal to the horse that you want to speed up or slow down, which will cause them to have an irregular rhythm. So, as part of your dressage training, you should practise maintaining a relaxed manner and independent seat as your horse goes into a trot.
To do this, try a rising trot first. This is when you rise for one beat and sit for the next. Doing this can help you recognise a rhythm and move with it, meaning you won’t be tense as the trot bounces you around. Once you feel comfortable with a rising trot, you can then practise a sitting trot. When in a sitting trot, focus on relaxing your body. Try not to tense your legs and make sure to maintain a steady breath. To help you relax your legs while riding, the video below will take you through three useful exercises to try:
Suppleness is your horse’s ability to move freely without any stiffness. A good dressage horse should move fluidly as they perform each movement, so you should work on their suppleness as part of your dressage training.
Practising spiralling is a great way to improve the suppleness of your horse. To do this, place a cone to mark the centre point of a circle. Then, start by riding in a circle 20m from the cone. Gradually move in closer to the cone as you complete each circle, maintaining the same rhythm of speed. If your horse begins to lose the rhythm, stop tightening the circle until they find their footing. The size of your circles will vary depending on your level of training but, once you feel it is small enough, work your way out back to the 20m circle. When doing this exercise, try to work in both directions in equal amounts so you don’t work one side of your horse’s body more than the other.
Doing this can help to improve your horse’s balance and coordination and can help them bend into their movements more easily. It’s also a great way to work on your 20m circles in preparation for your competitions.
For most beginner dressage tests, you’ll need:
Dress codes may differ depending on the event organiser and failure to comply could result in a penalty or disqualification. To ensure you’re following the rules, always check the guidelines beforehand.
To find out more about riding attire and how to ensure it fits correctly, check out our beginner’s guide on what to wear for horse riding.
Like your clothing, permitted tack can vary depending on the event organiser or association, so you should always check the rules beforehand. However, for beginner dressage levels, the essential tack you’ll need is:
It’s important that the girth, bridle and noseband fit correctly. If not, your horse will feel uncomfortable and it could affect your competition performance.
You should also make sure that your tack is cleaned and cared for to ensure it’s looking its very best for the event. We’ve got a whole selection of saddlery leather care products to help you prepare your tack before your dressage competition.
For a dressage competition, you’ll want your horse or pony to look its best, so you should bathe and groom it carefully either the day before or the morning of the event:
Take a look at our selection of horse grooming products, including grooming brushes, sprays and ointments to find everything you’ll need to prepare your horse or pony before their dressage competition.
Plaiting your horse’s mane and tail
You might also want to plait your dressage horse’s mane and tail. Although this isn’t compulsory, a lot of riders choose to do this as it can look a lot neater and more elegant. It’s common practice to create an odd number of plaits in your horse’s mane, with 11 or 13 plaits usually enough for most horses and ponies. However, more plaits can elongate your horse's neck, so you might want to add extra if your horse is shorter in the front.
If you decide to plait your dressage horse’s mane, we’ve got a large selection of plaiting accessories to help you out. For more information on how to groom your horse, take a look at our handy guide to horse grooming.
Dressage is a very rewarding sport as it can help to develop a deep connection between you and your horse or pony. Entering your first competition can be daunting but, hopefully, this beginner's guide will have given you everything you need to know to get started.
At Houghton Country, we stock a wide range of horse and equestrian accessories that are perfect for dressage. If you’re unsure what riding wear and tack would be right for you, visit us in store or call us on 01661 853 110 where a friendly member of our team can advise you. Or, take a look at our knowledge hub for more expert guides like this one.