So What is “Dressage” Anyway?

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.

6 thoughts on “So What is “Dressage” Anyway?

  1. Excellent information. I wish all horse owners, no matter their style or discipline, would take time to read this and be inspired to study, practice, and work toward this style of CORRECT horsemanship.

  2. This message is so timely since we are seeing some movement toward “western” dressage here in the east. It validates that this mental attitude applies whether western or english. I wish Dennis and Deborah could spend more time back here with some sort of focus on this while it’s catching on. You are both great and we enjoyed you so much when you came to Port Jervis NY.

  3. Well said! Many years ago (around 1970) I discovered a book entitled “The Schooling of the Western Horse” by John Richard Young, a horseman who wrote for Western Horseman and some of the other magazines of the day. His book started me on the journey that led me to Denis’ Universal Horsemanship. This journey led me to understand and appreciate that there were two types of western riding – the Californio and what I call the Texas style. The Californio style can be traced back to Spain and the classical riding style, known today as dressage. In California the vaqueros applied it to ranch work where the hallmark of a vaquero and a horseman was finesse. Finesse is what I found lacking in the Texas style. I appreciate the way Denis and Deborah articulate and systematize dressage in their program.

    • Yes, that is exactly what is difficult for people to grasp. In the east where I live, “western dressage” is starting to catch on. However, it is NOT the true vaquero horsemanship that carries with it a purpose. Refinement and craft came with the Spaniards and became diluted from misunderstanding and the need for expedience. A soft feel and true communication applied to a job that needs to be done is the real deal. Dennis is on the leading edge. I’m so glad he is among us.

      • You’re correct Jennifer. My theory on the dilution of horsemanship (or denigration) came about because horses were more available to the general population in the Americas. In Europe horses were almost exclusively in the possession of the wealthy and the aristocracy, both of whom had the time and resources to develop and refine their horsemanship skill. Also, the availability of horses became a means to an end, not and end in itself. Horses were a commodity to be used. In 19th century western US it was the $40 saddle and the $10 horse. At the beginning of the 20th century the biggest problem in the big cities was horse manure and dead horses abandoned on the streets. I’m glad that some of us are moving beyond the “break ’em” and the “kick”em to go and pull on the reins to stop.” I hope that someday the Universal horsemanship of Dennis and Deborah will be universal.

      • Something to celebrate is the growing awareness of how far horses are willing to reach if they have a true leader for a partner. Being expendable whether it was as remounts and war horses or cart horses and cow ponies came from necessity but solidified the mindset of how inconsiderate treatment of them could be. While it is taking generations to right the wrongs and make amends, I do see a shift. I so appreciate your perspective. I think all we can do is our best with an open heart and mind and with help from people like Dennis. Thank-you Dennis!

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