From cavalry to classical and competitive – The evolution of dressage

Dressage, love it or hate it, its importance in all equestrian activities can’t be denied. If you are anything like me you probably have a vague fuzzy idea that dressage has its origins in the military but didn’t know much more than that. So here’s a little potted history of the evolution of dressage for those who are interested…


430-c.354 BCE
The earliest record of dressage training is a work published by a Greek cavalry officer and historian Xenophon called ‘Hippike’ which translates as ‘On Horsemanship’. His approach was that horses should be trained by gaining their trust and allowing the horse to enjoy itself while performing complex cavalry movements. His approach was the exact opposite to older methods which involved punishing the horse when it got things wrong.

5th-15th century

With the rise of mounted armies came the need for horses trained in dressage. In battle they were required to perform accurate and athletic moves in order to allow their rider to effectively attack their opponent, and if need be also nimbly escape a sticky situation! Knights in heavy and restrictive armor could not ride with the sensitivity required to perform complex dressage moves and so the skill and art of the practice took a back seat for a while.

Capriole (in hand)

15th – 20th century
The move from heavy cavalry towards light cavalry saw a need once again for finely tuned dressage horses and a skilled rider. Cavalry horses were trained to perform movements such as capriole, levante in order to jump to safety in a battle situation. By the 19th century indoor riding had become a sophisticated art, with both horse and rider training for many years to reach the highest levels of dressage training.

Haute Ecole
The highest level of classical dressage is called ‘haute ecole’ and when a horse is trained to this level it can perform ‘sauts d’école’ aka ‘airs above the ground’ as well as Grand Prix movements


Classical Dressage and Competitive Dressage
The competitive dressage we see today evolved from the classical cavalry dressage of previous centuries. Competitive dressage does not require ‘airs above the ground’, but despite that, in theory it should follow the same training principles as classical dressage. Many people who are of ‘the classic school’ criticise competitive dressage for it’s ‘quick fixes’ and bio-mechanically incompatible and controversial training methods such as Rollkur!

Here’s a fab video of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna strutting their stuff!

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