Dressage. It’s a mysterious word–it sounds pretty and invokes images of a pegasus-like horse almost dancing with a flowing mane and tail. But what is it really? What does it mean if you ride dressage? And if you just enjoy a nice trail ride now and again, or ride in a western saddle and chase cows why should you care?
Dressage is a French word that means “training.” It comes from the verb dresser, to train. The United States Dressage Federation defines it as the development of the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work, making him calm, supple, and attentive to his rider. Sounds good, right?
A dressage rider understands how a horse learns — physically and mentally. A dressage rider knows lots of dressage “exercises” that will help the horse develop correctly and keep him happy while he is learning. But a dressage rider would never just work on an exercise at random. A dressage rider always has a plan (based on the classical training scale). A dressage rider is always engaged with the process of the plan. There’s a short-range, medium range, and long-range plan. Always.
A dressage rider is at least as fit and balanced as the horse, knows her weaknesses, knows how these can affect her horse, and uses qualified “eyes on the ground” regularly. A dressage rider always seeks ways to educate herself. She studies with knowledgeable professionals. She reads and watches videos. She attends workshops. And she does these things because, as a horse lover, she has chosen a lifestyle. Not because she wants to win prizes.
How can you tell a dressage rider? It’s not the shadbelly or the white saddle pad or the tall black boots. It’s not the braids in her horse’s mane. If you look carefully you could very well see a dressage rider going down the trail on a furry pony or chasing barrels at a local gymkhana.
A true dressage rider is a true horseman. You can tell a dressage rider by her happy, calm, balanced horse. You can tell a dressage rider by her horse’s soft expression and willing eye. You can tell a dressage rider by how much her horse likes her and how easily he loads in a horse trailer.
Half-passes and flying lead changes may be the mark of a dressage rider, but only if they are done out of willingness, and with softness and understanding.