The word dressage comes from the French verb “dresser”, which used in the context of training horses (“dressing) the riding or driving horses. Today the word is used to describe a competitive discipline that employs a variety of tests ranging from preliminary level to the ultimate Grand Prix, which is ridden at international meetings and in the Olympic games.
Dressage dates back 2000 years. The object of dressage is the harmonious development of physical ability of the horse, resulting in a calm, supple, flexible animal. The horse should be confident and in perfect understanding of it’s rider.
All work in dressage should be free, light, and beautiful to the observer. The horse should remain on the bit. The ancient Greeks were the first to practice dressage in preparation for war. The Greeks believed nothing could be obtained without strict adherence to the laws of the universe. This is what truly defines dressage. The horse should submit it’s self happily and proudly to the rider, without any disturbance in his natural way of going.
This can be compared to classical art, which is conveyed, with beauty and respect to balance, light, symmetry and logic.
The Greek commander Xenophon born about 430 bc, wrote the earliest work on horse training, titled “hippike” which translates to the art of horsemanship. The Greeks never used saddle or stirrups, but historians are convinced they used a jointed snaffle.
Most of what Xenophon wrote in his book still holds true today. Xenophon’s men rode stallions into battle because they showed more abilities to Pirouette, leap and turn. Xenophon did not believe in the riding style of the tribes of Asia. He spent much of his time in battle and he was exposed to many different styles of riding from various cultures.
There is no real evidence of early roman horsemanship but there are inferences to various breeds and veterinary matters. Historians are sure that Romans enjoyed chariot driving with the small swift plains horses. After roman foot soldiers were defeated by Carthaginians who were riding on the Iberian horses and by Hannibal's armies mounted on North African horses. The Romans made the transition from infantry to cavalry.
The new way of fighting included the use of horses ridden in curb bits and light armor. The Romans used the classical seat creating engagement with the horse well back on his hocks.
Our modern dressage masters still refer to the Romanic school for the use of there highly collected, agile form of riding based on lightness in hand. The Germans and the Prussians had a heavier style. These styles reflect the type of horse ridden.
Dressage fell in a lull when Rome fell at the hands of the barbarians in 410 ad. Europeans rode on heavier, thick cold-blooded horses with heavy armor. Every kind of bit imaginable was used for control. This caused the maneuverability of the horse to be lost. It was only the switch to fire arms that brought back the use of swift hot-blooded horses.
The Renaissance period brought dressage back into recognition. With the introduction of small firearms leaders had to change the approach to battle. The Spanish, the barb and the Lusitanian horse held preference over other breeds because of their athletic abilities.
The piaffe lent it’s self as a spring for sudden advance. The levade , a highly collected half halt was used to reach down and slash a sword. The pirouette was used to reel away or towards an enemy rider. The courbette raises the horse into the air and was used to disperse foot soldiers. The Capriole or leap into the air was a way to escape over the heads of the enemy infantry. Flying changes kept the horse mobile in the battlefield.
Between the 14th and the 16th centuries the heaviness of the Italian warhorse became a problem. This led them to use more force and powerful training equipment.
In 1502, the Spanish brought their horses to Italy. Within in 50 years the Neapolitan horse was lighter, sleeker an over all more effective mount.
The school of Versailles was a French equitation school promoted by Louis XIV. The masters of this school produced many great works. The most notable is “ Ecole de cavalerie “ published in 1729.
In his book he defines the use of shoulder in to engage the horse inside hind leg and half halts to help the horse yield to the riders hand and lighten the forehand. According to the book this must be done to keep the horses mouth happy.
A contemporary of this book came from Englishmen William Cavendish. The main English contribution to dressage came from they’re love of racing and hunting the thoroughbred.
Count d’Aure was the leader of the French cavalry school and he contributed the use of the medium and extended trot paces, jumping and other outdoor dressage work. He discovered the challenge of training the English thoroughbred for dressage. He also invented the use of flying changes at every stride.
The marriage of the two most powerful families in Europe during the Baroque period secured the future of dressage. This dynasty became known as the Spanish Hapsburgs. They helped the Iberian horse become in demand throughout Austria, Hungary, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire.
The Iberian horse was the only available hot-blooded horse at the time period. The Turks prevented the import of the Arabians and the thoroughbred did not become common until much later in the 18th century.
In 1580 the imperial Austrian stub began importing lippizaners from Spain. From this stock, the Spanish riding school was developed and run by Charles VI in 1735, whose picture still hangs there today.
The strong heritage of the Germans was linked to that of Austria and Hungary since they were under the same imperial crown.
During the 30 years war (1618-48) Germany was in political upheaval and needed a superior cavalry horse. That inspired them to use more hot-blooded horses in their breeding program.
The Germans decided the requirements of the cavalry horse are: speed, obedience, collection and agility in face to face single combat. Also they must be safe over an uneven terrain. The culmination of this process resulted in the descendants of the modern day warm bloods.
This commitment began their organized systematic approach that is the basis for their enormous success in today's competitive dressage arena.
America’s earliest roots in dressage began with the Spanish conquistadors whose style influenced the western seat and stock saddle. Native Americans quickly adapted their own style of riding by sitting upright in the walk and trot and using the forward seat in gallop.
At the beginning of the 20th century it became apparent that military commanders needed a new method of cross-country riding. And the solution came when Fredrico Caprilli introduced the forward seat to military riders.
This caused confusion in England because the backward seat was fashionable there. But it was quickly being realized that it was not practical. It was then decided that classical training was also needed for outdoor riding.
Oddly the last two countries to accept the forward seat were England and Ireland who had a passion for foxhunting and racing.
The first Olympic dressage games were held in Sweden in 1912. These equestrian games were open only to cavalry officers. The dressage test consisted of collected and extended gaits, rein back, turn on the haunch, four flying changes and jumping five small obstacles. One of which was a barrel rolled toward to the horse.
The U.S cavalry at Fort Reily Kansas exchanged ideas and instructors with the schools in Europe. And went on to win an Olympic team bronze in 1932. U.S captain Hiram Tuttle also an individual bronze medal. This was the first year the year the 20X60 meter arena with lettter markers was introduced.
The notable U.S army general George S. Patton is credited for protecting the Spanish riding school and rescuing the Lippizan mares from WWII.
After 1948 when the US cavalry disbanded the focus of dressage shifted from military to civilian sport and competition.
Many dedicated immigrants helped the United States “catch up” with the Europeans. And the United States Dressage Federation was founded in 1973 to promote, educate and recognize dressage achievements.
The voice of Xenophon is still evident today. In that after 2500 years of experience and skill there is still only one way to achieve lightness, balance, and harmony and that is to progress slowly, methodically and humanely, and keep the horse proud and happy in his work.