The actual word "dressage" is French and evolved from the verb dresseur meaning to train. Dressage is a unique discipline for riding a horse. It is as unique as Hunter/Jumpers, Tennessee Walkers, Three or Five Gaited Horses, Reining, Endurance, Eventing or any others that come to mind. Dressage is an Olympic discipline, enjoying great international popularity internationally. The addition of the musical freestyle to the required rides performed to win an individual medal has increased audience interest. In a dressage test, horse and rider are judged on how well they can perform a series of prescribed movements. The degree of difficulty increases from the Training (beginner) to Fourth Level, USA National levels to the FEI (Federal Equestrian International) levels, which are the same tests performed in every nation worldwide. Most tests are performed in a 20 x 60 meter ring (approximately 66' x 198'); a shorter ring is sometimes used. The tests have separate movements that flow together and each movement is scored from 0 to 10: 10 means excellent, 5 means sufficient and 0 means the movement was not performed. Excellence is achievable, perfection is not a consideration. There are also four "general impression" scores given for each ride. The total points given are added and then divided by the total possible scores to give a percentage, thus 50% is considered "sufficient". Not all horses are able to learn and perform all the movements of the Grand Prix (the highest FEI test) just as all jumping horses are not able to jump high enough to perform the jumping Grand Prix; and all riders do not wish to ride those higher tests. Riding and watching a correct and expressive lower level test is more enjoyable than watching an incorrect higher level test.
The object of the training of a dressage horse is to develop a harmonious and fluid moving horse that performs from almost imperceptible signals from the rider. The horse's physique and mind develop as does his ability to perform so that he is confident, attentive, keen and supple. A horse performing the discipline of dressage must have 3 free, elastic and regular gaits which are: a four beat walk with no moment of suspension, a two beat trot with a moment of suspension between each diagonal beat and a three beat canter with a moment of suspension following the 3 beats. It is the development of a happy horse and these 3 gaits that is of paramount importance in all the training. Additionally the rider must learn to sit in the saddle in a unique balance and use their aids; weight, legs and hands to help their horse achieve these ends. It is a long process for both the horse and rider and during this time a very special bond of trust and understanding develops between the horse and rider. After many horses become comfortable with their level of training a less experienced rider can learn from this trained horse (an interesting role reversal).
As you watch a competition we suggest that you read the test itself, not just the movements but a copy of the test that includes the "Directive Ideas" section which appears in the middle of the paper. This section gives a brief highlight of the important factors of each movement, as does the Purpose Statement at the top of the test. The mental aspects of dressage are important for horse, rider, trainer, judge and spectator. The dressage community hopes that you enjoy watching and learning about this discipline.