Dressage 101: The History of Dressage
By Linda Weldon.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of TRACK RIGHT.
The word Dressage comes from
a French term meaning "training." The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the
physical ability of the horse, resulting in a calm, supple, flexible animal,
both longitudinally and laterally. The horse should be confident and in perfect
understanding with his rider. Dressage
is not only a method of schooling, but also a competitive equestrian sport. It
is considered "classical training," as it uses a series of gymnastic
exercises and movements which have been studied and developed for centuries.
The Spanish Riding School
in Vienna, Austria, with its white Lipizzan stallions is, perhaps, the most familiar
institution dedicated exclusively to the art of Classical riding. The history
of Dressage dates back more than
2,000 years to the Greeks and the Romans, the former, being the first to
practice Dressage in preparation for
war. It was this culture that believed nothing could be obtained correctly or
harmoniously without the strict adherence to the laws of the universe. The Greek Commander, Xenophon, born in 431 BC, believed in sympathetic
horsemanship and is cited to have been the original ‘horse whisperer.’ He wrote
the earliest obtainable work on training horses, titled ‘Peri Hippike,’ or ‘On
Horsemanship.’ The Greeks did not use a saddle or stirrups, but historians
are convinced they used a jointed snaffle. Remarkably, most of what Xenophon
wrote in his book still holds true today.
Dressage began as
battle movements and Xenophon's men only rode stallions into battle because
they were thought to be braver, showing more aptitude for pirouetting, leaping,
turning, and moving sideways. The Piaffe could be
used to trample an adversary; a Levade was useful if
you needed to make a slash with your sword; a Pirouette could turn you, to or
from, the enemy; a Capriole could leap over an enemy; a Courbette
could bring you high above the enemy, an advantageous place from which to reach
down and slay them, and Flying Lead Changes were necessary to maneuver around in battle.
Unfortunately, during Medieval times, the art of Dressage
was lost when the soldiers resorted to wearing heavy armor
and also covered their horses with anywhere from 50 to 150 lbs of armour. Dressage returned to popularity during the
Renaissance period, (originating in Italy
and across Europe) when pistols and rifles
became a common part of battle. The armour was reduced and with a rife or gun a
soldier could take aim from further away.
of Versailles was a name
given to the French Court of Equitation by Louis XIV. During his reign, the
masters, known as Ecuyers published many great works.
The most notable was Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere whose
book ‘Ecole de Cavalerie’
was published in 1729. In this book, la Gueriniere
defines his practice of using the shoulder-in on a straight line to engage the
horse's inside hind leg and the use of the half-halt with yielding of the
rider's hand to lighten the horse's forehand and keep the horse's mouth happy.
By the end of the 18th Century, the Germans decided the requirements of
the cavalry horse were as follows: speed, for attacks at the gallop; obedience,
for collection and agility in face-to-face single combat; and safety over
cross-country terrain. This set the precedent for modern day Warmbloods.
North America's earliest
roots in Dressage began with the
Spanish Conquistadors and their ‘fine riding’ mode of riding. By the beginning
of the 20th century it became all too apparent to military commanders that a
new method of cross-country riding was needed to accommodate the large numbers
of unskilled recruits and horses. Manege (indoor)
riding was too time consuming, so Italian officer Frederico Caprilli introduced a
new concept of ‘forward seat riding.’ Surprisingly, the last two countries to
accept forward seat riding were England
where a passion for racing and hunting predominated.
introduced to the Olympic in Stockholm,
1912. These equestrian games were only open to cavalry officers and the Dressage test consisted of collected and extended
gaits, rein-back, turn on the hocks, four flying changes on a straight line,
and jumping five small obstacles, one of which was a barrel rolled towards the
The Dressage letters around
the arena and also including the centerline letters
first appeared in 1920 Olympics. There are two main theories as to what the
letters mean: the first is that they are the initials of the cities the Romans
originally conquered. However, the most likely explanation for these letters
relates to the days of the Old German
Imperial Court, when Courtiers representing the
various dignitaries would be positioned around the stable yard in a strict
order with the horses ready to ride. Thus:K
= Kaiser; F = First Prince; P = Pferdknecht/Ostler; V
= Vassal; E = Edeling/Ehrengast/Guest of Honour; B = Bannertrager/Standard Bearer; S = Schzkanzier/Chancellor
of the Exchequer; R = Ritter/Knight; M = Meier/Steward; H = Hofsmarshaller/Lord
By 1960, the focus of Dressage
had shifted to civilian competition and begun to gain momentum.