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From Combat to Top Hats: a brief history of Dressage

It might surprise riders to learn that the sport most of them find so serious and stuffy originated in a dangerous and raucous place. What we know today as horse ballet once had more to do with battlefields than judging booths. Initially invented to train horses and soldiers for hand-to-hand combat, the sport evolved throughout the centuries to become a regal pastime of aristocracy before growing in to its currently recognized form of horse sport for civilians of all ages and abilities.

Most fans know dressage as the highly stylized manner in which a horse is trained to execute exceptionally difficult movements with utmost grace that require years of progress to achieve. The evolving storyline of dressage, though, dates back around 350 BC. This is when Xenophon, a Greek historian and military commander, wrote The Art of Horsemanship, describing the use of horses in war. His book was the first known description of what we now call dressage and even included detailed references for high level movements such as piaffe and passage. For this reason, most historians and scholars credit Xenophon with being the father of the sport.

A French word, dressage translates most simply as “to train.” Implied in this definition is the use of specific gymnastic maneuvers that stylize the animal’s physical and mental development. Today, dressage utilizes a standardized progressive method of training horses that is intended to enhance their natural athleticism in order to maximize their abilities as good riding mounts and improve their overall health and soundness. It also deepens the bond between horse and rider, due to its system of imperceptible cues that form the pinnacle of the sport. Except at the highest levels of competition, the requirements of competitive tests vary between each country worldwide but all are based on an increasingly difficult standard for performance at each level.

After a period of serving as an entertaining pastime for European aristocracy in the 10th and 11th centuries, dressage began to take formal shape by the 16th century. In 1532, Federico Grisone opened the first modern riding school in Naples, Italy with teachings based on Xenophon’s early treatise. At that time, a good riding education was considered to be a requirement for young gentlemen to be successful in a courtly society. Eventually, similar schools sprung up throughout Europe, including the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

Through cavalry schools and royal courts of Europe, dressage continued to mature and grow, being expanded upon and written down by great horsemen along the way who added their own flare, such as Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere’s invention of shoulder-in the 1700’s and Francois Baucher’s flying changes of canter lead every stride in the early 1800’s.

By the 20th century, dressage was recognizable as the sport we know today. In 1921, the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) was created to serve as the governing body of equestrian sports worldwide and wrote down an official set of rules and protocols for dressage. This also served to clarify the aims of dressage as it transformed from a tradition of cavalry schools to being practiced by laymen. The FEI Rules for Dressage Events states:

The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider.

Until fairly recently, dressage continued to be preserved and developed primarily in military schools like the Cadre Noir in Saumur, France and similar European institutions. Dressage was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1912, but only commissioned military officers were allowed to compete. This rule held until 1952 when non-military officials were allowed at the Helsinki games.

Dressage competition tests have undergone huge alterations to arrive at their current incarnation. For instance, early competitions were held in smaller arenas measuring 20 meters x 40 meters (as opposed to today’s 60m x 20m) and used entirely different marker letters around the perimeter. The letters and arena size we use today were eventually adopted from 3 Day Eventing competitions. Early Grand Prix dressage test included such things as various loops and circles, transition to halt from a gallop, rising trot, and then negotiating five compulsory 3-foot jumps at the end of the test. Piaffe and passage were included from the 1932 tests onward.