Dressage is a French word meaning "training". The objective of dressage is to produce a supple, correctly developed horse that is obedient and comfortable to ride. Any horse should have learned the basics of dressage during its early training.
The earliest evidence of a systematic, progressive training system for horses is found in the writings of the Greek general Xenophon (535-355BC). He was the first to regard riding as an art and science.
"Classical" riding began to be developed during the Renaissance. The military began to strive for the best-mounted, best-trained, best-disciplined equestrians. The earliest form of competitive dressage was seen in 19th century competitions for the best-trained officer's charger.
As a competitive sport, the dressage of today involves the execution of a series of pre-designated movements at different paces (walk, trot, canter) at specific points in a rectangular arena. There are dressage tests for horses and riders at all levels of training, from the simplest and Preliminary or Training level to the top level, which includes Grand Prix's of international level and Olympic competition.
Whatever the level, dressage is judged against a set standard. The levels in Britain are Preliminary, Novice, Elementary, Medium and Advanced. In the United States the American Horse Shows Association has standardized US levels of gradually increasing difficulty beginning with Training Level and advance through First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Levels. The four tests at the Fifth Level correspond to tests standardized by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). The final level (by the FEI) includes the Prix St. Geroges, Intermediare I, Intermediare II and Grand Prix. The Grand Prix is comprised of the Grand Prix special and the Grand Prix Freestyle, which is dressage set to music and choreographed by the rider.
The simplest tests use very basic movements. A rider may have to enter at a working trot and proceed down the centerline to C. At C he/she may halt. All movements in the test will be simple basic riding. As the horse and rider progress up the levels the movements and programs become more difficult. In more advanced levels a horse must be able to move sideways as well as forward and to extend and shorten his strides in all three paces. At the highest levels some of the most difficult moves include the pirouette, where the horse must pivot on a hind leg and turn in a complete circle and flying lead changes where a horse must change his leads from one canter to another without a trot in between.
At the top levels dressage requires great physical endurance. It imposes great physical and mental stress on both horse and rider. A top horse also requires excellent conformation, with strength in the hindquarters and back and a good temperament. At all levels a horse is judged on smoothness, regularity and freedom of its paces, its obedience and calmness, its balance and its willingness to accept the riders requests. A rider is judged on his/her ability to achieve these qualities in the horse and the accuracy with which they accomplish the prescribed maneuvers.
At lower levels one judge (watching from outside the arena at point C) is used. In higher level competitions five judges are used.