dressage rider in competition

Dressage Riding: Beginner Equestrian’s Guide

In dressage riding, the horse and rider’s performance appears regal and effortless. The harmony between the horse and rider results from years of communicating with each other through subtle aids and patient training. Dressage improves a horse’s obedience, athleticism, and flexibility and a rider’s poise, control, and communication with a horse, which makes it a foundational discipline for every equestrian sport. Whether you are a beginner in dressage or just enjoy riding recreationally, dressage will make you a more skilled rider and help you build a closer bond with your horse. In this blog post, we’ll share everything you need to know as a novice dressage rider. We’ll also offer ways to prepare for your first dressage competition and share our favorite equipment and apparel, so you and your horse shine in the ring. 

What is dressage?

Dressage is a form of training and competition where riders lead their horses in a predetermined sequence of movements that display the horse’s obedience, athleticism, and agility. Dressage riders guide their horses using aids that are inconspicuous to spectators. The word Dressage derives from “dresseur,” meaning training in French. As the name suggests, dressage is both a form of training and a way to showcase that training through tests performed for a panel of judges. 

Dressage is believed to date as far back as Ancient Greece when it was used as a form of training to prepare horses for battle. Today, dressage is one of three Olympic equestrian sports governed by the United States Equestrian Federation, through the United States Dressage Federation (USDF). At the international level, the sport is governed by the Federation Equestrian Internationale, also known as the FEI.

What is the goal of dressage riding?

The goal of dressage is to train a horse through a harmonious relationship with its rider so the horse performs movements with strength, balance, and confidence. This training results in a focused, supple, loose, and flexible horse who is also confident, attentive, and sensitive to the aids. This demonstrates the horse has achieved a perfect understanding of the rider’s aids. 

Gaits are expected to exhibit the controlled power of the horse. For example, the walk is to be unrestrained, the trot forward balanced and free, while the canter is united, light, and balanced. The horse is to exhibit power from the hind quarters and respond to the slightest aids from the rider. The horse is expected to move forward with impulsion and be willing to respond to the rider’s aid precisely without hesitation while achieving harmony and balance with natural movement. These movements should be combined with acceptance of the bit without any tension or resistance. As such, the horse gives the impression of doing what is asked confidently, and attentively while yielding to the rider’s direction.

Is dressage difficult?

Dressage takes years of hard work and patient training to master. The difficulty increases with each level of competition. Dressage is the most technical of equestrian disciplines and it requires demands both mental and physical energy from the horse and the rider. As a dressage rider, you have to understand how your body should move and respond to your horse and know intuitively how to help your horse understand what you want him to do. Even though it might look like all a dressage rider does is sit on a horse, maintaining this posture while communicating aids is physically demanding. It takes incredible strength and balance to remain poised and balanced as your horse changes movements. 

Dressage is challenging for horses because they must learn how to carry weight on their hindquarters while staying balanced. They also must understand the meaning of their riders’ aids and how to follow them. A dressage horse must train slowly because each new movement requires greater strength and agility. Developing collection, which gives horses a light and springy response by using their hindquarters, and staying collected is the most difficult aspect of dressage for a horse. 

Is dressage cruel to horses?

Dressage takes hard work for a horse, but it isn’t cruel. Think of any athlete training for any sport–they invest a lot of hard work to improve, but the better they get at their sport, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. The same is true for dressage horses. Dressage only works as long as the horse responds harmoniously to the rider. This harmony is built as the horse learns to trust and communicate with his rider. 

The Federal Equestrian International (FEI) has set rules to protect a horse’s well-being and makes sure these are enforced at competitions. Sadly, despite these rules, people have mistreated their horses in dressage, usually because they don’t have the patience to use proper training methods. This leads them to practice banned techniques like rolkur, where the horse’s neck is hyper-flexed by force to slope downward when the head should drop naturally with proper training over time. The goal in dressage is to get your horse to respond to lighter, not more forceful, aids. 

Is dressage dangerous?

Dressage is low-risk compared to other equestrian sports like racing or jumping. But safety equipment like a riding helmet or air vest protects from potential falls or kicks. There is some level of risk involved any time you are training or riding a large, powerful animal, but serious accidents in dressage are rare. 

What to learn for dressage riding

Dressage competition is primarily judging the horse. Some scoring is given to the rider, but the ability of the horse to execute the movements of the test correctly carries more weight in the final scoring of the test. 

All horses start their dressage journey at the bottom of the Dressage training scale or pyramid. It is crucial to develop these skills in order, as each of the elements in the pyramid builds upon the one before as the horse progresses in training. Mastering every element takes years of patience, commitment, and dedication. The first three elements at the pyramid’s base develop communication between a horse and rider. The next three in the middle build flexibility and strength, and the final three at the top develop power and balance in the hindlegs.

1. Rhythm

Each gait, walk, trot, or canter, has a specific tempo, or a number of beats. Rhythm is the regularity of tempo or the repetition of footfalls. Training a horse to move with a consistent rhythm helps the horse learn to move forward confidently between gaits and moving at different cadences. Your horse should maintain a consistent rhythm with a faster cadence by increasing the power (impulsion) applied to his footfalls. To help your horse keep rhythm, you should time your aids within each sequence of footfalls.  

2. Relaxation & Suppleness

Relaxation and suppleness refer to your horse’s mental calmness, the horse shows no anxiety or tension and is loose or flexible in his movements. Mental and physical relaxation come together, as the horse begins to understand and accept the rider’s influence without apprehension or tension.  He begins to develop the musculature necessary to become supple and balanced and move with a natural swinging gait. This relaxation enables the rider to lengthen and shorten the horse’s frame while moving forward into the bridle. 

3. Contact & Connection 

Contact and connection demonstrate the harmony between a horse and a rider. Good contact is revealed in the elasticity of the reins and a horse’s acceptance of the bit. When your horse is on the bit, the connection will extend through his neck and body, causing him to stretch forward from the hind end and round his posture. A horse chewing on the bit with gentle movements of the mouth indicates a relaxed jaw and acceptance of your aids. In the beginning phases of training, your horse will learn to accept your contact and respond to aids from your legs in his hindquarters, allowing you to maintain fluid contact with the reins. 

4. Impulsion 

Impulsion in dressage is described as the powerful thrust from the hindquarters that propels the horse forward. There are four components to impulsion: the horse’s desire to move forward, the elasticity of his steps, the suppleness of his back, and engagement (the loading of the hindquarters to produce more impulsion/suspension).

5. Straightness

Just like left-handed and right-handed people, horses favor one side of their bodies over the other. A horse’s straightness indicates that he’s balanced and applies strength in equal proportions through both hindlegs. It is important to work on the horse’s symmetry, as this allows him to engage both hind legs evenly.  The horse is considered straight when the hind hooves track forward into the hoof prints of the front hooves when the horse is in motion. This is also known as tracking up.

6. Collection

Many novice riders believe that collection is simply the horse taking smaller steps while keeping the head in a frame with contact. According to the FEI, the Olympic governing body for dressage, “collection is the increased engagement and activity of the hind legs, with joints bent and supple, stepping forward under the horse’s belly.” When your horse achieves collection, he’ll have short, powerful strides with a springiness in the hindlegs and a lightness in the forelegs and forehead.

Once a horse achieves true collection the horse has reached the pinnacle of dressage training. True collection takes years to develop and is shown when the horse has balanced powerful strides which exhibit a springiness in the hindlegs and a lightness in the forelegs. True collection can only be achieved once a horse has mastered all of the previous elements of the dressage training pyramid. 

Dressage movements 

There are many dressage movements, and they get increasingly difficult as you and your horse progress in the sport. All movements are performed at either a walk, a trot, or a canter. Here are some of the movements you’ll encounter within different levels of dressage. 

Dressage levels

Levels of the competition were created to allow the rider to show progression in training. However, this does not mean the rider must do each level test to progress to the next level. Riders may move up, and down the levels, as desired, there are no preconditions before showing at a given level. Riders looking to qualify for regional or national finals will need to achieve a certain score based on whether the rider is competing as an Open rider, an Amateur Rider, or a Junior rider within a given level. 

Introductory Level 

The purpose of this level is to get the horse and rider accustomed to dressage. You’re not expected to have mastered any aspect of the sport at this point, but you and your horse should begin to demonstrate that you can ride at a steady tempo while your horse maintains contact with the bit and that you understand the fundamentals of dressage.

Training Level

At this level, you are just beginning to master the basics of dressage. In addition to maintaining rhythm, your horse should begin to show suppleness in his movements and readily accept the bit. At this point, you should know how to navigate the arena, moving with accurate geometry at a steady tempo. 

First Level

At the First level, you should show mastery of basic dressage techniques and have begun to build on what you demonstrated in the Training level. Your horse’s movements should be balanced and supple, and he should begin to demonstrate impulsion by lengthening his stride. 

Second Level

At this level, your horse should begin to show collection, engaging his hindquarters for movement at medium gaits. He should show improvement in all First-level skills and perform the required movements with ease, which requires all elements of the training pyramid, including collection. 

Third Level

At this level, your horse should begin to show mastery of all the training elements. He should already be proficient in the fundamentals of dressage and demonstrate greater collection and balance uphill and during transitions. Movements become more challenging at this level, and your horse is expected to execute them with ease and harmony in medium and extended gaits. 

Fourth Level

By this time, your horse will be able to perform moderately difficult movements in a walk, trot, and canter with greater collection, impulsion, straightness, and cadence. Your horse should be able to perform the more challenging movements with lightness and self-collection. 

International Dressage Levels

Once your horse has advanced beyond the Fourth level, you move on to international competitions, starting with the Prix St. Georges, advancing to Intermediate I, Intermediate A and B, and Intermediate II, and then finally progressing to the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special. Only the top global dressage riders compete at the Grand Prix. At these levels, a rider and horse must also demonstrate excellence in dressage in a Freestyle Test, choreographed with music and movements that highlight the horse’s strengths. 

You can study the rules of dressage and learn more about the movements and levels of competition in the USEF Dressage Rulebook.

Check out our list of top Equestrian Centers and Elite Training Facilities

What equipment do you need for dressage?

The specifics of dressage equipment may vary depending on which dressage level you’re at, but the following items are essential for every dressage horse. 

A dressage saddle

An English saddle is mandatory for all dressage competitions. The saddle may be black, or brown most riders prefer to stick with classic black.  A dressage saddle is mandatory for competing at the FEI level. Typically a dressage saddle is set apart from all-purpose and close-contact saddles by the notably deeper seat, larger blocks, and long straight flaps. Dressage riders use a long fairly straight leg, with minimal bend to the knee. Dressage style saddles can vary by brand and can have some unique features, such as front and rear blocks, extended knee blocks, and more. These features can assist the rider in communicating effectively with the horse. 

Shop accessories for your horse’s saddle

A dressage saddle pad

Saddle pads must be white or a conservative color. Contrast trim and piping are permitted. Striped, patterned, multi-colored pads and pads with reflective fabric or glitter, are not permitted. Your pad may have a crystal or reflective piping or border.  Logos are not permitted on your saddle pad, however, breed brand marks or nonsponsor logos not exceeding fifty square centimeters (about  7.75 sq. inches) are permitted.

A dressage girth

A girth is used to attach the saddle to your horse. Dressage saddles are designed with a long flap and longer billets than all-purpose or close-contact saddles. As such, dressage saddles use short girth. The shorter girth removes the buckles and bulk from under the rider’s leg to provide closer contact with the horse. 

Learn how to measure a dressage girth.


Dressage requires classic English-style stirrup irons, or safety stirrups are permitted. Safety irons must have closed metal branches or break-away material/mechanism. The foot cannot be fully or partially enclosed and must in no way be attached to the stirrups. For example, your foot  may not attach to the stirrup iron with magnets. 

A snaffle bit 

In early dressage training, your horse will need a solid mouth, single or double-jointed smooth snaffle bit. Although bits with tongue relief are permitted, bits with ports or ridges are not prohibited. Additionally, Waterford bits, which utilize leverage like gags and elevator bits, are also not permitted. For more information about which snaffle bits are acceptable, see page DR27 of the USEF Rules For Dressage here

A snaffle bridle 

This is a simple English-style bridle with a snaffle bit attached to a single rein. The classic cavesson noseband is permitted in one of the following styles: drop noseband, flash noseband, crank noseband, or an adjustable chin strap.  Dressage riders can choose to dress their horse up with an embellished bridle, like the Passier Starlight Snaffle Bridle with small, sparkly crystals.

Riders progressing into the Third and Fourth levels may choose to use a snaffle bridle or a double bridle. A double bridle consists of a bridoon bit and a curb bit, each attached to a separate rein. The double bridle is designed for the hands of a highly skilled rider to communicate subtle instructions for technical movements at the higher levels of the sport. 

Boots & Wraps 

Leg wraps or boots support your horse’s joints and protect him from injury. During training or events, leg wraps keep your horse from splints or strains so he can be comfortable while performing his best. You may school and practice in boots or wraps, however, you can not compete with wraps or boots on your horse’s legs. 

Grooming tools for your horse 

Grooming tools aren’t required for a dressage competition, but good grooming is. Typically in dressage, you trim the sides at the top of the horse’s tail, known as a ‘pulled tail’ though many riders choose to use a razor or clippers to achieve this look. The purpose is so that it lays flush against the hind quarters, dressage riders also like to “bang” the bottom of the horse’s tail, which is to trim it straight across, usually at the point of the horse’s fetlock. Your horse’s mane should lay neatly to one side and be trimmed to 4-6” in length. Using grooming tools helps your horse put his best foot forward in a dressage competition. 

Make sure you’ve got all the tack you need for your dressage event with our Ultimate Dressage Equipment List. And learn how to navigate show dress codes for your next competition.

What to look for in dressage horse

Any horse can be trained in dressage, but only a handful of breeds make it to the top due to selective breeding for traits desirable at the Olympic level. Dressage requires a horse that has strength, stamina, and high intelligence. Even-tempered horses are better at dressage because they respond more harmoniously to a rider. Horses with poor confirmation may have trouble performing high-level movements. He should naturally move with balance and poise. A horse can be trained to carry himself with balance and poise, but horses who do this well naturally are better contenders for dressage. 

What breed of horse is best for dressage? 

The breed of horse you choose doesn’t factor into the judges’ scoring. All types of horses can do well in dressage with patience and proper training, and dressage helps all breeds develop strength and improve their obedience. Warm-blooded horse breeds are some of the most popular breeds in the dressage arena because of their intelligence and reasonableness. The Dutch Warmblood is highly valued for its balanced frame, powerful hindquarters, and muscular neck. The Holsteiner and Westphalian are popular German dressage breeds due to their long limbs and good breeding. And the Andalusian and Lusitano breeds excel in dressage because of their friendly, brave, and gentle temperament. 

You’ll find many other breeds in dressage because they’re all capable of the training, but to compete at the highest levels of dressage,  your horse must have conformation that predisposes the horse to easily perform highly technical movements as well as have high stamina and be mentally and physically strong. 

Learn more: 20 of the Best Horse Breeds for Competitive Riders By Discipline

How to prepare a horse for dressage

When you’re preparing your horse for a dressage competition, make sure he’s received adequate training to complete the required movements. Also, make sure he’s well-groomed because good presentation matters in dressage. Use the questions below to ensure your horse is ready for the big day. Braiding is not required, however, if you do choose to braid, yarn or rubber band braids that are the color of your horse’s mane should be used. Braiding decor like pom poms, crystals, ribbon, etc. is prohibited. 

  • Have you given your horse plenty of time to learn and be confident when learning new skills? 
  • Does your horse respond willingly to your aids?
  • Has your horse learned every movement required for your test? 
  • Does your horse perform the movements with the training elements required at his level?
  • Can you and your horse transition between the required movements without hesitation? 
  • Have you bathed your horse before the competition?
  • Have you brushed your horse’s coat, mane, and tail?
  • Have you cleaned and oiled your horse’s hooves?
  • Is your horse’s hair braided or neatly styled?

Make sure you and your horse are equipped with everything you need for this show season with our ultimate show season checklist. 

What to expect at a dressage show

Before your first dressage test, you should know what to expect. It will be hard to stay poised and relaxed if you’re caught off guard by your surroundings. 

What to know before your test 

The requirements: When you register for a dressage competition, will need to inform show management which test you plan to ride. The judge is responsible for judging how the training is going according to the level of test and the training scale or Pyramid of Training).

The goal: Every movement within a test includes directives that describe what criteria you and your horse will be judged by. Your test will tell you which of the elements in the training scale your horse should possess. 

The arena: Arenas come in two sizes a small ring which is 20 x 40 m, and a standard size ring 20 x 60m. Recognized Dressage competitions will use the 20 x 60m ring, while some para-dressage, as well as the Dressage phase of eventing, will use the 20 x 40 sizing ring.

The arena is outlined with a low chain or fence with letters that will help you know where to perform the movements on your test. The letters around the exterior of the ring start at the opening of the arena on the centerline and (moving clockwise) are A, K, V, E, S, H, C, M, R, B, P, and F. 

  1. The entrance: You will have 45 seconds to enter the arena and salute the judges after you hear the bell or whistle, be sure to practice completing your entrance within the allotted time. 
  1. The judges: You are judged from the moment you enter the arena until your final salute. You’ll be evaluated by at least one judge behind marker C (Note, at many recognized shows and all championship classes you will be judged by two or more judges). The judge is ALWAYS  seated with a scribe. The scribe will write down the scores and remarks noted by the judge at each movement on the test. A scribe helps by letting the  judge watch your test instead of looking down to mark the test sheet.  

What to expect during your test

Before: Before your test, the ring steward will check your number and your horse’s bit to ensure your equipment complies. After checking your equipment, the steward will let you know when it is your turn to go to the ring. It is important to note that while the ring steward is there to assist, the rider must be at the ring on time.  When the judge is ready, he or she will ring a bell or blow a whistle indicating that you can enter the ring to begin your test. 

During: You’ll perform the movements outlined by your test at various letters along the perimeter. Be sure to memorize your test in advance, if you struggle with memorization, some levels allow for a caller to read out the test as you ride. 

After: Once you’ve performed all the movements, you’ll make your way back to the center in a straight line, halt and face the judge, and make your final salute. Your halt should be approximately 3 seconds and once complete you may make your way out of the arena at a walk. 

How to read your dressage test:
Once everyone in your class has completed their test, they are sent to the office where they are tabulated, and ribbons are awarded. Your test will also be available for you to pick up.  Collective marks are given for the horse’s proficiency in the training elements, as well as the rider’s posture and successful use of aids. Riders also receive four general impression scores. Points are then added and divided by the total number possible to get the final score in a percentage.

How is dressage scored?

Each dressage movement earns a score out of 10 using the following scale. Difficult movements earn double points. 

  • 0 = Movement not performed
  • 1 = Very bad
  • 2 = Bad
  • 3 = Fairly bad
  • 4 = Insufficient
  • 5 = Sufficient 
  • 6 = Satisfactory
  • 7 = Fairly good 
  • 8 = Good
  • 9 = Very good
  • 10 = Excellent

There are 5 scores in the collective marks in USDF tests – Gaits, Impulsion, Submission, Rider’s Position, and Rider’s Effectiveness.  FEI has only one score at the end called General Impression. All marks on movements and collectives are calculated for a final score.

What is a good dressage score? 

In dressage, scoring a 10 for a movement or receiving a final score above a 90% is rare. No dressage rider has ever scored a 100%. Charlotte Dujardin of Britain with her horse Valegro earned a 94%, the highest dressage score ever received, for their Grand Prix freestyle in 2015. But for the average equestrian, anything over a 60% would be a good score. 

What to wear for dressage

The United States Dressage Federation is the governing body for Dressage and falls under the heading of the United States Equestrian Federation.  You can find all the rules for dressage attire in full detail, but we’ve listed the essentials for your dressage wardrobe along with some of our favorite show clothes. 

A riding helmet 

Your riding helmet must meet safety standards and be worn at all times during your test and while mounted on competition grounds. While there is no rule on the color of your helmet, we suggest choosing one in black, navy, or another dark color that matches your show jacket, but it can include colored piping and/or crystal accents at the rider’s discretion.  Check out our blog post on how to wear your hair in your helmet

Choose from our hand-picked list of the 12 best riding helmets

A show jacket 

From the Introductory level through the Fourth level, riders can wear a single-color show jacket or a cut-away coat (modified tailcoat). The coat may have subtle pin striping, checks, or tweed patterns. Striped or multi-colored show coats are not permitted. Additionally, where jackets have underarm or side body panels or venting, these panels may be black or the same colors as the garment fabric. 

Riders can choose discreet accents to customize their coat with custom collars, modest piping, or crystal decor. Riders in FEI classes require a shadbelly jacket, a formal show jacket with long tails. It should be noted that riders may also wear a shadbelly if competing in classes for FEI 7-year-old horses, and/or FEI junior classes. 

Choose from our hand-picked list of the 6 best horse show jackets

A show shirt & stock tie 

Any solid color show shirt is permitted and may have a subtle pin-stripe, check, or tweed pattern. Your shirt must be worn with a tie, choker, or stock tie in any color. Integrated stand-up collar shirts are also acceptable. If management excuses coats, a sleeved shirt of any color is permitted.

Choose from our hand-picked list of the 13 best show shirts for English riders.
Learn how to tie your stock tie


Breeches or jodhpurs for young riders must be worn in either white, light, or dark shades without bold patterns or bright colors. Dressage riders prefer to wear full-seat breeches for extra grip. Full-seat breeches offer a leather, suede, clarino, or silicone grip placed at the seat of the rider and along the inside of the rider’s leg. 

Choose from our hand-picked list of the 10 best riding breeches

Riding boots

Dressage riders below the fourth level can choose between tall English riding boots or paddock boots with half-chaps or garters. Tall English-style riding boots, including dress or field boots or variations thereof, are required above Fourth Level.

Choose from our hand-picked list of the 10 best riding boots


English-style spurs may be worn but must be made of metal. If the spur’s shank is curved, it must point downward. Spurs without a shank are also permitted. It should be noted there are rules as to how long your spurs are permitted to be in competitions. Spurs are required for FEI classes. 


White, light, or any solid-color gloves are recommended for riders below the Fourth level, but they are not required. Riders competing above the Fourth level must wear white, black, or brown gloves to compete. 

Dressage Whip
Riders may choose to compete and/or school with a dressage whip. For competitions, the whip may be no longer than 120 cm (47.2”), for pony classes, the whip may not exceed 100 cm (39”), including the lash. *It should be noted that whips are prohibited at CDI’s,  regional, and national Dressage championship competitions under penalty of elimination. 

A safety vest

Vests are optional but may make you feel more polished or offer protection if you choose to wear an air vest.  

Choose from our hand-picked list of the 10 best riding vests

Now that you’re ready to start dressage training or register for your first competition, here are a few resources to help add the finishing touches to your look.

If you’re brand-new to dressage, learn how to shop for the best dressage riding apparel with our buying guides. 

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