Did you know that the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games start in 57 days? It seems like it wasn’t very long ago that the WEG was a far-distant speck on the horizon, and now it’s just around the corner.
Since the WEG is showcasing eight different equestrian disciplines, and many of you may not be familiar with all of them, I decided that each event needed its own history lesson on this blog. And since dressage could be considered the foundation of every equine sport, I decided to start our nine-week countdown with “ballet on horseback.”
So what is dressage, anyway?
The idea behind dressage comes from a horse’s natural ability to collect when he is at liberty. One theory of dressage training suggests that the first horse trainers witnessed horses playing and fighting with each other and sought to recreate their abilities while in the saddle for use in war.
It is believed, though widely debated, that horses were domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes (present day Ukraine) around 4,000-3,500 B.C. However, it wasn’t until 350 B.C. that Xenophon wrote one of the earliest surviving works, and possibly the most well known, on horsemanship and riding. (The oldest is a book written by Kikkuli about chariot horse training). On Horsemanship focused on several different aspects of horsemanship, including care and the training of military and general use horses. Interestingly, Xenophon actually refers to other works about horsemanship in his book, most often a trainer named “Simon,” but none of the works he mentions are known to exist today.
Xenophon’s book details the basic principles of what we call dressage, and he often speaks about training horses in a manner that is horse-friendly. His theories eventually made their way to the modern era.
“For what the horse does under compulsion, as Simon also observes, is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.” – Xenophon
However, Xenophon’s theories were waylaid for many centuries, his style perhaps too sophisticated for his time. Throughout the Roman Empire and Dark Ages of Europe, the subtle, elegant horsemanship that Xenophon taught was, for the most part, abandoned in favor of rough, rudimentary training, probably due to the immobility of a knight’s armor during jousting competitions and battle. It wasn’t until the 15th century that Xenophon’s horsemanship began making a reappearance, and dressage, as we know it today, began to develop.
We can credit the Renaissance period for bringing back Xenophon’s theories, as people suddenly decided they wanted to be enlightened and sophisticated and riding fit into that equation. The idea of classical equitation soon became popular again, and many young nobles spent years in Italian schools learning all about being aristocrats, which included riding.
Horses were still used for war during that time and were taught the high school (Haute Ecole) movements that have been made famous by the Lipizzaner horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. These movements include the levade, capriole and courbette.
These movements were supposed to enable mounted soldiers to make a quick getaway if they were surrounded during battles. However, these movements may not actually been used during battle, because all of them exposed the horse’s vulnerable underbelly.
During this time period, those nobles noted above showcased their skills in equestrian pageants, which essentially paved the way for equestrian competition. Classical dressage reached its peak in 1729, when the Spanish Riding School was created.
Dressage roots in North America hark back to the Spanish Conquistadors. However, by the 20th century military commanders realized that a new method of riding was necessary in order to better train the large number of new recruits and horses. Frederico Caprilli introduced the “forward seat,” which spread all over the world.
Equestrian events made their Olympic debut in 1900 in Paris, but they disappeared again until 1912. Count Clarence von Rosen was the man behind the movement to bring equestrian events back to the Olympic Games, and in 1912 the first dressage competition was held. The original Olympic test was 10 minutes long, and the difficulty was similar to a fourth level test today. The competitors also had to jump four jumps, which were a maximum of 1.1 meters high with a 3-meter spread. They also had to perform an “obedience” test, which required them to ride by “scary” objects.
The dressage letters were introduced during the 1920 Games, and although no one knows for sure, two main theories exist that explain why they came to be. One theory is that the letters are the initials of the cities that the Romans conquered. The more likely theory is that the letters relate to the Old German Imperial Court. Courtiers would be positioned around the stable yard in a very strict order:
K = Kaiser
F = First Prince
P = Pferdknecht/Ostler
V = Vassal
E = Edeling/Ehrengast/Guest of Honour
B = Bannertrager/Standard Bearer
S = Schzkanzier/Chancellor of the Exchequer
R = Ritter/Knight
M = Meier/Steward
H = Hofsmarshaller/Lord Chancellor
- Free walk
- Easy walk
- Slow trot
- Extended trot
- Slow canter
- Extended canter
- Ordinary turns
- Small circles at slow trot
- 8-meter canter circles
- Figure-eights at canter with flying change and one-loop of counter canter
- Changes on a straight line
- Turn on the haunches
- Rein back
- 10-minute maximum
1920 Antwerp, 1924 Paris, 1928 Amsterdam and 1932 Los Angeles
- Letters on outside of arena first introduced (1920)
- “Slow” changed to “collected”
- Collected walk, trot and canter
- Extended trot
- five-loop serpentine with and without changes
- four-, three-, two-, and one-tempi changes introduced
- Time increased to 13 minutes (1928) and riders lost 2 points per second over
- Piaffe and passage introduced (1932)
- Time increased to 17 minutes
- Eight-second halt
- Half-turns on the haunches at the walk
- Riding one-handed at trot
- Canter pirouette introduced
- Piaffe and passage taken out of test due to insufficient preparation after World War II
- Half-pass and renvers included
- Women and civilians allowed to compete
- Lis Hartel becomes first woman to win Olympic equestrian medal
1984 Los Angeles
- Grand Prix freestyle added to Olympic format with huge success and remains the competition model today
2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen
Dressage has continued to develop and evolve over the centuries, but Xenophon’s theories of kind horsemanship and teaching the horse through patience and understanding rather than brute force have been a recurring theme over the years.
While this century has seen many different controversies in the sport of dressage, everyone seems to agree on one thing: there’s nothing lovelier than a happy, dancing horse.
For a fabulous article about some of the early dressage masters, check out Dr. Thomas Ritter’s A Brief Outline of the History of Dressage: Xenophon to Antoine de Pluvinel.
The dressage competition of the Alltech/FEI World Equestrian begins on September 27, 2010 and ends with the Grand Prix freestyle on October 1, 2010.
One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it’s occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: “History was written on the back of a horse,” she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.
Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she’d love to hear from you!