Dressage for beginners: How to get into the sport
Thinking about getting into dressage? Then you’ve made a great choice! Not only does the sport offer a fantastic way to enjoy time with your horse and build a deeper bond, but there is room for lots of progression and personal achievement as you move through the levels.
However, getting started can be a little intimidating, with a few rules and regulations to follow. Thankfully, our guide for beginners will show you how to get involved and have fun with the sport. We will cover:
- What is dressage?
- What are the dressage levels?
- What is a dressage test?
- What is a dressage arena?
- How is dressage scored?
- What are the rules of dressage?
- Dressage clothes and equipment: What outfit and tack will I need?
- How should I prepare for my first dressage test?
- How do I progress through the levels of dressage?
What is dressage?
In a nutshell, dressage is an equestrian sport that requires a horse and rider to perform a sequence of controlled movements within a rectangular arena. Participants are required to do this in front of a panel of judges, who mark each move performed.
The goal of dressage is to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness. The way to show this prowess is through a series of standard movements, which are progressively more difficult at each level. The horse should be athletic but calm and graceful, and, when performed, the movements precise to earn good marks.
As the rider and horse improve through training, they can go on to compete at higher levels of the sport. The sport is often seen as the linchpin to other disciplines too — if you have great mastery of your horse’s movements, you will have the foundations for success in areas like showjumping and cross-country.
Internationally and at global competition level, dressage is overseen by the International Federation for Equine Sports (FEI). In the UK, the sport’s authority is British Dressage (BD), who run all affiliated competitions at more than 180 venues.
Dressage competitions can be run as a purely dressage event, or they can be held as part of a three-day event, where a horse and rider compete across three riding disciplines: dressage, show jumping, and cross country.
What are the dressage levels?
Dressage really is a sport that suits all stages of expertise, ranging from those just starting out at a beginner level all the way through to Olympic-level equestrian competitors.
To reflect this, there are a number of dressage levels to progress through:
- Advanced Medium
- Prix St Georges
- Intermediare I
- Intermediare II
- Grand Prix
The Introductory level is the most straightforward, testing you and your horse’s ability to walk and trot. Then, as you progress, you will find that the technical skills required increase, until you reach the final level, Grand Prix. This is the top level of competition and will require you to perform complex movements like piaffe, passage, tempi changes and canter pirouettes.
We asked Winne Murphy from British Dressage about what to expect as riders move through the British Dressage levels. She said: “Generally, Intro to Novice tests are looking at the basics — regular paces (walk, trot and canter (not Intro) with a degree of lengthening of the paces, circles, turns, halt, transitions, giving and retaking the reins, and loops, to demonstrate the fundamentals of training.
“At Elementary to Advanced Medium, lateral work is introduced, with more variation (collection and extension) in the paces and the degree of difficulty rises so circles are smaller, there are more movements to compete and the more specialist training comes into force.”
Dressage level sections
Within each level of competition, there are three different sections: Gold, Silver, and Bronze. The section that you enter into for the test is determined by the rider and horse’s experience, as well as the number of points accumulated at each level of dressage.
- Bronze: This section is for inexperienced riders and horses who are new to their respective level of dressage. They will compete against others with similar abilities in this class.
- Silver: This section is for riders and horses with more experience at their respective level, and who have shown they are fairly advanced.
- Gold: This section is for riders who have shown they are competent at their respective level, or riders with experience at higher dressage levels but who are riding a less experienced horse.
What is a dressage test?
A dressage test is an event where riders and horses are required to perform a series of movements that they must master at their skill level. They are then scored by a panel of judges, and points are awarded. In a dressage test, riders and horses perform alone but their scores are competing against other riders taking part in the event, which is why they are also commonly referred to as dressage competitions.
For each level of dressage test, you will be required to perform certain movements with your horse that match the skill level you’re trying to achieve. The event organiser will give you a choice of tests to perform, so you will need to choose one then practice and learn it with your horse before the big day. You can purchase test sheets that outline what you need to master from the BD shop.
British Dressage membership
Riders and horses must be a member of BD if they wish to take part in affiliated events and progress through the levels of dressage.
There are a number of types of British Dressage membership:
- Full membership: Access to all competitions and benefits.
- Club membership: Access to competitions up to Preliminary Bronze level and access to many of the benefits of full membership — ideal for someone just starting out.
- Premier Club membership: Access to competitions up to Preliminary Bronze level, the same benefits as Club membership, plus the option to become a judge, coach, or steward with BD.
BD also offer types of membership, including Trial membership, which offers a six-month free trial of full membership, and Winter membership, for those only competing October to March. There is also Associate membership for those interested in the sport but not ready to compete.
For full details of the different levels, please visit British Dressage’s membership package advice.
What is a dressage arena?
The dressage arena is the rectangular, enclosed area in which dressage tests take place. The space can be outside or indoors, and the surface can be either grass or sand. Letters are located around the edges and through the middle of the arena to indicate where movements should be performed.
What size is a dressage arena?
There are two sizes of dressage arena: the small arena (20m x 40m) and the long (or standard) arena (20m x 60m). Each arena size has its own set of lettering: small (A-K-E-H-C-M-B-F) and long (A-K-V-E-S-H-C-M-R-B-P-F), though both have an centre spot (X on the plan). In the vast majority of dressage tests and in both arena sizes, the horse and rider enter the arena at point A. The small arena is used for lower levels of competition, while the longer arena is for more advanced levels.
See the below diagrams for the layout of each arena size and layout.
How is dressage scored?
During a dressage test, a panel of judges will mark each movement you perform with your horse out of ten, as well as award marks in other areas. These scores are added together for a total at the end and penalty marks are deducted, before the number is converted into a percentage. The rider and horse with the highest percentage is the winner of the competition.
When you are scored out of ten for each movement, each number has a meaning:
- 0: Movement not performed
- 1: Very bad
- 2: Bad
- 3: Fairly bad
- 4: Insufficient
- 5: Marginal
- 6: Satisfactory
- 7: Fairly good
- 8: Good
- 9: Very good
- 10: Excellent
Depending on the test you are performing, some sections are marked out of ten and then doubled to put towards the final score. Judges are also allowed to assign half marks, if necessary.
As well as scoring for your movements, the judges also award marks for categories that are known as collective marks, which are marked out of ten then doubled when added to your final score.
These marks are awarded for:
- Impulsion (forward movement of horse with controlled power)
- Regularity of paces and freedom of movement
- Responsiveness and willingness
- Balance and correct performance of movement
- Rider position and correctness
- Effectiveness of aids
What is a good dressage score at each level?
As you can see above, the scores out of ten are pretty self-explanatory, ranging from not performed (0) to excellent (10). Looking closer at the top end of the scale, getting a 10 in any category of dressage is difficult and only given for exceptional performance of a movement or category, while 9s and 8s are still thought to be a very good performance.
We asked Winnie Murphy from British Dressage what makes a good score and she said: “A good total score depends on what each rider’s goals are. If your goal was to score 1% more than last time and you did, that’s good. If your goal was to finish in the top ten and you scored enough to achieve it, that’s good.
“The minimum level to score points on your record with BD is 60% so that’s considered to be the target for everyone. The majority of competitors sit between 60 and 70%. A score of 70%+ is getting into impressive stuff and anything 80% or above is what dreams are made of.
“Many years ago, a score over 70% was seriously impressive, but the standards have risen so much that now it’s said 80% is the new 70%. Charlotte Dujardin is the most successful British rider in the history of the sport, and, with her horse Valegro, has a number of scores over 90%, but it’s vital to remember this represents the pinnacle of competition.
“It’s most important what you score is relative to where you are with your training. As you improve your skills, develop ability, and build your partnership, your scores should increase. Charlotte and Valegro scored 64% in their first Grand Prix and look what they built up to!”
What are the rules of dressage?
There are a few rules to learn if you are going to compete in dressage competitions. They cover lots of different aspects of the sport, ranging from what you and your horse should be outfitted in on the day, to how you enter and leave the arena properly. They can also vary depending on what level you are tested at and who organised the event. In addition, British Dressage review and update the rules on an annual basis, so everything is subject to change.
As the rules are far reaching and under constant review, it’s tough to provide a full overview of them in a beginner’s guide. The best way to get up to speed is to view British Dressage’s competition rules, where you can find copies of the current member’s handbook and a list of rule amendments for the current year. These documents are essential reading before you start training or competing in dressage.
Dressage clothes and equipment: What outfit and tack will I need?
To be able to compete in dressage, you and your horse will need to be kitted out in the right clothing and tack to ensure you meet competition regulations. It’s key to remember that this is a sport that is steeped in tradition and the appearance of the rider and horse is considered very important.
What to wear for dressage competition
As a beginner who is planning to undertake their first test, you will need to wear the following items in the dressage arena:
- Riding hat: A peaked riding helmet or skull cap that meets current safety standards (see BD rider handbook) in black, navy, or a conservative dark colour that matches your jacket. Hats must be worn at all times when mounted, including warm-ups and exercising.
- Riding jacket: A short or tweed jacket in muted tones with no bold patterns or colours. It can have subtle pinstripes, as well as a coloured collar or contrast piping to the collar, lapels, pockets, and vents.
- Shirt and stock or tie: A white or cream shirt in a traditional or more modern style, as well as a stock or tie in white or cream. Men can wear a collared shirt.
- Gloves: A pair of black, white, beige, or cream riding gloves must be worn.
- Legwear: A pair of breeches or jodhpurs in white, cream, beige, or, if necessary, a colour to match a uniform.
- Footwear: A pair of long boots or jodhpur boots in black or brown with matching gaiters. You can wear patent top boots, but must avoid patterned or fringed footwear and gaiters. The footwear should be designed for riding.
There are also a few optional items you’re permitted to wear:
- Body protectors and air jackets: These are permitted but optional.
- Whips: A rider may carry one whip in most competitions, but there are some where they are not permitted — please refer to British Dressage guidelines.
- Spurs: A set of spurs can be worn at all levels (mandatory from Advanced level upwards), but must be made of metal, as well as being a matching pair and unmodified (as manufactured). Sets with a smooth rotating rubber, metal, or plastic ball on the shank are allowed.
What are the dressage tack rules?
Like with your outfit, there are some types of equestrian tack that are permitted for use in dressage, as well as some items that are not permitted. For a beginner, you should use:
- Saddle: A black, brown, grey, or navy saddle in an English or continental style with both a cantle and a pommel can be used in dressage. A side saddle is permitted but you must tell the event organiser in advance. Your saddle can have stirrups of any conservative colour and you can add a gel, foam, or sheepskin seat pad provided it matches the saddle colour and isn’t obtrusive.
- Saddle cloth or numnah: A saddle cloth or numnah should be white, cream, or another conservative colour.
- Bridle: A snaffle bridle must be worn at Preliminary and Novice levels of competition. Your bridle needs to have a noseband, which can be cavesson, drop, or flash in style, as well as being black, brown, grey, or navy in colour with no extra decoration.
- Bit: Your bit must be one of the approved styles that go with a snaffle bridle and can’t include bitguards. The permitted snaffle bits are:
- Loose ring snaffle
- Snaffle with jointed mouthpiece (middle piece is rounded)
- Eggbut snaffle
- Racing snaffle D-ring
- Eggbut snaffle with cheeks
- Loose ring snaffle with cheeks
- Snaffle with upper cheeks only
- Hanging cheek snaffle
- Straight bar snaffle (mullen mouth and eggbut rings)
- Snaffle with rotating mouthpiece
- Double jointed with roller in the centre
- Other items of tack: There are also other items of tack which are permitted for use in dressage – but there are that are not! Make sure to check the BD handbook carefully, as some items will result in a disqualification.
|Breastplates, breast girths and cruppers
|Martingales and bearing, side, running or elasticated insert reins
|Neck straps or balancing straps
|Bandages, boots, blinkers, or tongue straps
|Plastic or glued on shoes
|Hoof boots or any shoe replacement
|Rugs of any type
|Nose nets and face masks (not for FEI rules competitions)
|Nasal strips or body/belly bandages
|Ear plugs (apart from prizegiving stage)
It’s also worth noting that, although it may look nice, obvious decoration on your horse is generally forbidden at dressage competitions. This can include ribbons, flowers, and glitter. Some items that serve a practical purpose, such as red ribbons on tails to indicate a kick-prone horse, or items that are inconspicuous, like decorative plaiting bands, are permitted.
Please note: British Dressage update their rules annually, so always refer to their competition rules.
How should I prepare for my first dressage test?
So, now that you know about the basics of dressage, what you should wear, and what tack you need for your horse, it’s time to think about preparing for your first test. It’s likely that you’ll be starting at the Introductory level, so we’ll share some advice about starting your journey there.
What is the best type of horse for a dressage beginner?
Simply put, any horse can do dressage! British Dressage judges are not biased towards a particular colour, age, or breed of horse — instead, they are looking for a complete performance from both rider and horse. So, as long as your horse can be trained to complete movements of dressage, it is more than suitable for your equestrian journey.
It is worth mentioning that, at the elite levels, you are more likely to see “warmblood” breeds taking part. This is because they are thought to have the ideal conformation, movement, and temperament for the sport at the highest level. But, for those not aiming to get to the next Olympics, you can have a very successful participation on any horse.
We asked Winnie Murphy from British Dressage what to look for in a good dressage horse and she said: “Dressage is all about training to develop the harmony between horse and rider and their partnership. We’re looking for a happy, athletic horse who is moving well and receptive to what the riders asks. This doesn’t require a specific type, just a rider and horse with the right outlook and who are well matched and prepared to invest the time in each other.
“Horses of all sizes and breeds can excel given the right conditions. Warmblood horses are generally associated with dressage for their paces, attitude and ‘trainability’ but reaching a reasonable level in the sport is within the capabilities of any breed or type. Riders who’ve got the basics in place might try a dressage lesson with a schoolmaster — a horse that knows all the movements already — to get a feel of what’s possible.”
What dressage movements do I need to learn for my first test?
At the first Introductory level of dressage, you will be tested on the basic paces, which are walk, trot, and canter. While you may be able to perform these movements already with your horse, it’s vital to remember that the judge will be looking for proof that you can ride, change direction, and transition through the moves at a steady tempo and with good balance and contact.
Below, you will find some of our most popular masterclasses to help you prepare for your first dressage test. You can access these and even more content by subscribing to Horse & Country.
Improving or establishing the paces (i.e. walk, trot, canter)
Learning or improving movements relevant up to BD Novice
Learning or improving a dressage test
Though working on mastering the basic paces is still necessary before your first test, you’ll need to focus on rider and horse development if you want to improve across the board and achieve better scores in the sport. The best way to do this is to follow the scales of training, which are the time-tested foundations that almost every dressage rider learns from.
What are the scales of training?
The equestrian scales of training are the building blocks for any learning rider that wants to train their horse, especially in dressage. They also form the basis of what judges will look for in any test you compete in. The scales are based on a German system of horsemanship developed in the early 20th century, laying out a succession of training phases for riders to work through.
There are six scales of training and each is designed to be worked through in order, from rhythm right through to collection. The British Dressage level progression also reflects the scales as they get more advanced so, by following them, you should naturally be improving your dressage performance.
The scales are:
In your dressage test, the judges will be looking for the correct rhythm in your horse’s movements. For each gait, you will need to ensure that the technique and tempo are correct: a walk should have four hoof beats, a trot should have two hoof beats, and a canter should have three hoof beats. And, if you are moving at the right tempo, this rhythm should be pronounced and constant, which indicates that you aren’t moving at an uneven pace.
Even some experienced riders can be guilty of tensing up as their horse transitions into another gait, which can cause their legs to squeeze in and signal that they wish to speed up or slow down. This will affect the rhythm of your horse and cause you to lose marks. Therefore, it’s wise to practice staying relaxed and maintaining an independent seat as you transition.
A good way of getting some practice is to ride at a rising trot, where you rise for one hoof beat and sit for the second. As you do, focus on the rhythm and moving in time with it, which should help you to ease tension. Then, when you have a handle on the rising trot, you can try a sitting trot, where you can focus on relaxing and not tensing your legs.
The aim of suppleness is to ensure your horse can move freely without feeling stiff. A supple horse will have toned muscles and loose joints, and won’t tighten against your riding aids. Your horse should be able to perform each movement fluidly during a competition.
In your dressage test, you will need to ride 20m circles, which is one of the ways the judges can see how supple your horse is. You can practice this on your own by placing a cone down at the centre of your arena or work area and riding 20m circles around it, making sure you maintain the same rhythm. It’s a good idea to record yourself or get someone to spot whether your circles are smooth and concentric.
You can start to build your horse’s suppleness by slowly moving closer to the cone as you complete each one of your circles, which is an activity known as spiralling. If your horse starts to struggle and lose rhythm, don’t tighten the spiral until they find it again. Once you reach a small spiral around the cone, you can work back out to the 20m mark. Doing this will gradually boost your horse’s balance and coordination and help them bend through their movements. Remember to perform spirals in both clockwise and anti-clockwise directions to work both sides of the horse.
Contact is the quality of control that the rider exerts over the horse. The best contact is achieved through the legs and seat, not the hands, and there should only be a light, balanced feel in the reins with a little elasticity. Because your legs are the main driving aid, with good technique, your horse should step more and work his top line muscles, creating the elastic energy felt in the reins. As a result, your horse should not have hollow steps and should be springy in the trot and canter.
At a basic dressage level, you can build an understanding with your horse so that only light contact is required. When practicing, start with a light touch on the reins and see how your horse reacts. If they ignore the contact, increase the pressure slowly until you get a response. Take care not to apply too much pressure, as you could cause tension and create a resistance to your control. When you do get a response, back it up with some positive reinforcement to show them they’ve done well. As you repeat this exercise, you can train your horse to react to a lighter contact.
Your horse’s impulsion is the power they have to move, allowing them to take energetic steps. But, while it’s important to build this up, it’s equally as important to be able to control it through rein contact to ensure your horse uses energy in a balanced, efficient way as they move around the dressage arena. Any stiffness or resistance will make achieving impulsion more difficult, so both contact and suppleness scales feed into this one. A skilled rider will be able to create energy and not have their horse speed up unnecessarily or pull on the reins.
One way to train controlling impulsion is to practice transitioning between a walk and a trot and back again. Doing so will make sure your horse begins to learn when to apply more energy and when to hold back. So, try doing a few rounds switching between these two gaits. You’ll also be practicing a key area of your first Introductory test.
Did you know that horses have a favoured side, much like people are right- or left-handed? Well, this is something that affects their movement, as they will tend to go forwards with their bodies curved one way or the other. This can make it more difficult for a horse to stay nicely balanced and to develop impulsion. A crooked riding problem can get worse if you develop a habit of sitting to one side of the saddle or keeping an uneven contact on the reins.
During your test, a judge will be looking for your horse’s hind legs to follow the tracks of his forelegs, whether you’re going straight or performing a circle, as well as checking you have even contact on the reins. You can check on your horse by getting someone to spot or record you riding in a straight line. If you’re crooked, you might have developed a bad habit, or your horse might need more work to become supple.
Your horse’s collection is their ability to carry weight on their hindquarters. In a young or untrained horse, they put most of the rider’s weight on their forehand but, as they become better trained, disciplined, and stronger, they will be able to shift this to their hindquarters. This is a more desirable quality in dressage, as the horse becomes an easier, uphill ride that can handle smoother transitions and more complicated movements, like piaffe and passage.
At the beginner levels of dressage, you will not be asked for collection. However, all of the training and movements that you undergo will begin to build the strength necessary for it at later stages. So, just by training correctly for your dressage tests, your horse will become more athletic and lay the foundations for excellent collection eventually.
How should I groom my horse for dressage?
A big part of dressage is showing off your lovely horse to the world, so you will want to ensure that they look the part. With this in mind, you should aim to bathe and groom your horse before the big competition. You can do this the day before or, if you have time, on the morning of the event.
Follow this process to get your horse ready for the event:
- Brush their neck and body using a curry comb, which should break up any dirt clinging to their coat. You can then remove the rest of this debris with a hard brush. Be careful to avoid their face and legs.
- Use a soft body brush to smooth down their coat, mane, and tail to ensure that it looks as shiny and silky as possible.
- Move onto their legs with the soft brush, focusing on the fetlocks and pasterns, which are hotspots for dirt to accumulate.
- Dampen a sponge and gently clean your horse’s face.
- Use a hoof pick to remove any debris and apply hoof oil for a healthy look.
Finally, you’ll have to decide whether you wish to plait your horse’s mane and tail. This is not compulsory, but many dressage riders choose to do so as it neatens their horse’s appearance. If you’re not sure, it’s best to try it out before the big day to see how it looks.
Typically, most horses require an odd number of plaits to fully cover the mane, often 11 or 13. But, the more plaits you create the longer your horse’s neck will look, so you may wish to adjust this to suit their body shape.
What can I expect at my first dressage test?
Your test will begin with a bell, whistle, or car horn to signal that it’s time to begin, and you will enter the dressage arena at the letter A. The judge will be located directly over from you at the C mark and you will move towards them along the centre line. The straightness of your entry is important.
You will then have a series of walk and trot transitions to make at various markers, as required by your test. When you reach the stage of your test where you need to perform 20m circles, it’s easy to turn them into something more similar to squares if you are not careful. The key is to use your horse’s natural bend to achieve a curve, rather than having to overcorrect and turn at more of a right angle.
The last movement of the Introductory test will see you move down the centre line again and halt squarely at the marker facing the judge. You will need to perform a salute once your horse has stopped completely, by taking your reins in one hand, dropping your other hand to your side, and nodding towards the them. Make sure that if you are using a whip, you use the opposite hand to perform the salute — otherwise the movement is incorrect. Once the judge nods back, you can take your reins back in both hands.
At this point, the test is considered to be over and you can exit the arena at point A on a long rein.
How do I progress through the levels of dressage?
For a beginner, the best place to start with dressage is the Introductory level, as this will help you get a taste of what the sport is all about, and the training will help you to cover the basics, like walking, trotting, and cantering. Then, when you feel ready, you can move up to Preliminary and beyond.
It’s important to remember that there isn’t really a strict system for moving up the levels like in a lot of other sports. Up to the Advanced level of dressage, you can enter you and your horse at any level, but whether you can handle the demands of the test will be something only you will know.
Therefore, most people adopt the approach of moving up a level only when they are confident that they can handle the step up. Here are some tips for knowing when the time is right:
- Pay attention to your score: If you’re continuously getting a good score at your current level (60% or higher) then it might be a sign that you’re proficiently skilled and could benefit from challenging yourself at the next level.
- Read up on the movements for the next level: Curious about what you will be required to do at the next level? Then get hold of the test sheets and have a look to see what movements you can already perform and what you’ll need to work on.
- Consider whether your horse is ready: Is your horse physically ready for the demands of the next level? Do they recover quickly enough after each movement? Are their transitions well balanced? Get someone you trust to watch and give their honest opinion.
- Run through the test at home: Stepping up a level typically requires the mastering of new movements or more complicated versions of ones you know. Try running through the test routine at home or at the stable to see how you handle the more advanced actions.
Remember: Don’t be too disheartened if you try a new level and score poorly in your test. Even if you can perform the basic movements required, judges will also be looking at those collective marks for the likes of your position and correctness, balance, and responsiveness and willingness, which usually only improve with practice and time.
British Dressage points system
When you compete at any affiliated tests from British Dressage’s Preliminary level or above and are scored more than 60%, you are awarded points that count towards the horse or rider’s eligibility for other competitions. The number of points awarded are dependent on your score:
|Score in dressage test
|60.00 – 61.99%
|62.00 – 63.99%
|64.00 – 65.99%
|66.00 – 67.99%
|68.00 – 69.99%
|70.00 – 71.99%
|72.00 – 73.99%
|74.00 – 75.99%
|76.00 – 77.99%
|78.00 – 79.99%
For example, if you were to score 73% in your latest dressage test that was at the Novice level within the Bronze section, you would be awarded 7 points. Then, as you look to compete further at the Novice level, the points you’ve accumulated might mean you’re advised to move up to the Silver or Gold section, or even try your hand at an Elementary test.
Dressage is an incredibly rewarding equestrian sport that will also be tonnes of fun for you and your horse. Hopefully, this beginner’s guide will help you to get started.
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