Dressage is a beautiful horse sport, sometimes called “Horse Ballet.” It involves horse and rider moving gracefully through a series of tests. The underlying principle of dressage, which literally means “training,” is to develop the horse’s natural abilities such that the horse will respond effortlessly to minimal direction given by the rider. Indeed, much of the success of any dressage rider will come only through a close relationship with the horse.
Dressage is an Olympic sport and all worldwide competitive dressage is overseen by the International Equestrian Federation. The first competition is a team sport. After that, individuals who have scored well in the first round can compete for individual medals. During competition, only one pair of horse and rider go through the tests at a time. Each rider is graded against a standard scale of what constitutes successful completion of a test. The grading scale is one through ten. A score of one means the test was performed very badly, with ten being a score of excellent. A rider can get a zero score if a specific test isn’t performed at all. So the competition is determined by comparing the scores of each rider, rather than relative scale of whether a rider simply performed the test better than another rider.
The training exercises and tests move through a training scale. Moving up the scale, the different skills of the horse get developed. However, the training scale isn’t purely sequential. A skill at the bottom of the training scale, such as gait and tempo, should continue to get more refined and elegant as a horse and rider move up through the training scale, even as new skills are added. When a horse and rider reach the highest level of dressage, they can participate in Grand Prix competitions like the Olympics.
Grand Prix dressage competition includes specific kinds of tests. The Piaffe is a test where the horse calmly trots in place. Ideally, there is little, if no, movement forward. Passage is also done at a trot, but is a controlled movement forward. In Passage, the horse lifts its hooves high and appears to pause for a beat before setting them down. Even for those not familiar with dressage, Passage is typically the most identifiable of the dressage tests.
Flying Changes are tests where the rider must constantly change leads at specified strides during a canter. The specific Flying Change test will determine whether the lead must change with each stride, every second stride, or every third stride. Another popularly known test is the Pirouette, when the horse makes a turn in place (anywhere from 180 to 720 degrees) while at a canter.