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.


Battle Movements

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.


French Court of Equitation

The School 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 American roots

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 and Ireland where a passion for racing and hunting predominated.


Olympic Dressage

Dressage was introduced to the Olympic in Stockholm, Sweden, in 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 horse.


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 Chancellor


By 1960, the focus of Dressage had shifted to civilian competition and begun to gain momentum.