The Sport of Dressage

Learn about the history behind horse showing in a dressage saddle.

From the United States Dressage Federation, an AQHA Alliance Partner

Dressage is one of the Olympic equestrian sports. The modern Olympics commenced in 1896, with equestrian events appearing in the 1900 Paris Games. It was the 1912 Stockholm Games where the “military test” first appeared and evolved into the separate Olympic disciplines of dressage, eventing and stadium jumping.

Horses have been used as mounts for the military since early history. As the horses had to be obedient and maneuverable, a system of training was developed, first documented in the writing of the Greek Xenophon. The system of training was built upon throughout the ages, with many well-known riding masters, military and civilian, writing books expounding their methods.

As the equine in the past centuries was used primarily by the military, it only stood to reason that a test of the military horse be the standard during the inception of the modern Olympics. The military test included obedience and maneuverability (or what would become dressage) and the ability to jump obstacles.

No matter what type of riding you do, dressage can benefit your horse. Whether you want to improve horse and rider balance, sharpen your equitation or horsemanship patterns or execute better circles, the instruction in AQHA’s FREE Riding Dressage report can help you.

By early 1912, the equestrian disciplines as we know them (dressage, jumping and eventing) were included. However, the riders continued to be all male and predominantly military for a few decades. The United States Cavalry at Fort Riley exchanged ideas and instructors with the schools in Europe and started the trend that brought dressage training not only to the military but also to civilians in the United States.

After the U.S. Cavalry was disbanded in 1948, the focus for dressage shifted from military to civilian competition and sport and began to gain momentum. Women as well as men became passionate about dressage, and in 1952, the first women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. The growing enthusiasm for the sport, supported by increased access to knowledgeable military and foreign trainers, finally brought together 81 pioneers of dressage in 1973 to found the United States Dressage Federation.

Rider Seat, Aids and Position

In dressage, the rider uses his weight, legs and seat to influence the horse. These are known as the “aids.” To use the aids correctly, the rider’s body must be aligned and balanced. From a side view, the ear, shoulder, hip and heel of the rider should be in a straight line at the halt.

From the back, the rider should sit evenly on both seat bones, and the length of the stirrups should be the same.

By shifting his hips and his weight, the rider can ask the horse to move in different directions and step into different gaits. In the simplest terms, the rider should have his hips do what he wants the horse’s hips to do and his shoulders do what he wants the horse’s shoulders to do.

A Word From AQHA – Dressage and Quarter Horses

Quarter Horses are called America’s horse for a reason. Their athleticism and agility mean they are built perfectly for various disciplines. One of these is dressage, a sport that involves clear communication between horse and rider in order to perform and move up through levels of difficulty, which vary from Training Level to Grand Prix.

Is my horse capable of doing dressage? The answer is yes! No matter what type of horse you own or your discipline of choice, dressage can improve communication and balance between you and your horse. Download AQHA’s FREE Riding Dressage report to get started.

AQHA began recognizing dressage competition in 2010. Dressage competitors can now earn Incentive Fund payout, year-end awards and AQHA points aboard their American Quarter Horse.

AQHA recognizes levels of dressage competition starting with Training Level, continuing through First Level, Second Level, Third Level, Fourth Level and the international levels of Prix St. George, Intermediate I, Intermediate II and Grand Prix. Freestyle is not recognized.

Dressage is based on percentage scoring. Since the Quarter Horse show industry has always been a point-driven system based on numbers of class entries, AQHA has created a conversion table to allow dressage participants to accumulate points towards the Register of Merit award, AQHA Incentive Fund and year-end high-point awards.

Points earned in all dressage levels, with the exception of Training Level, are eligible for Incentive Fund payout. A horse must be enrolled in the Incentive Fund, with a current competition license on file, in order for the owner to receive payback for points earned.

The Incentive Fund is a multimillion-dollar program involving stallion and foal nominations with paybacks to the stallion nominators, foal nominators and owners of the competing horses. Each point earned at an AQHA-approved show in the open and/or amateur division by an Incentive Fund-nominated horse will be worth a specific amount. For more information, see