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How to Get Started in Dressage

How to get started in dressage

Dressage caught the world’s attention back in 2012 when television coverage of the London Olympic Games drew unprecedented audience numbers.

All over the world, viewers watched, enthralled by the grace, beauty, and athleticism of the “dancing horses” and their elegant riders.

Suddenly, a sport that had previously been viewed as somewhat elitist and only for those who owned big-moving warmbloods became so popular that riding schools were inundated with newbies wanting to learn how they could emulate their equestrian dressage heroes.

Dressage has never been as popular as it is today, so if you want to get started in dressage, here’s what you need to know!

The horse

Your first requirement for dressage is a horse.

It doesn’t matter what size, breed, color, age, or previous job the horse had, as long as he is sound and has correct paces.

You can begin competing in dressage competitions once your horse is at least four years old, and there’s no upper age limit for horses or riders.

The most important thing about your horse is that he has regular paces and is not in any way unsound. If the horse possesses a naturally good rhythm, that’s a bonus, although that’s something that you can work on and improve through correct schooling.

Essentially, the dressage horse’s paces must be correct. To a certain extent, the quality of the paces can be improved, but the correctness and regularity of the gaits cannot. That means his walk has a clear four-beat sequence, the trot is clearly two-time, and the canter is three-time.

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What tack and equipment do you need?

The rules for the tack and equipment that you are permitted to use for dressage competitions are quite strict:

  • Dressage must be ridden in an English saddle, preferably either a GP or dressage cut.
  • You must ride all tests up to British Dressage elementary level in a snaffle bit. From elementary level upward, you can use a double bridle if you prefer.
  • Martingales are not permitted.
  • Running reins, draw reins, and the like are not permitted for working in or for the actual test.
  • The horse not permitted to wear protective boots of any kind in dressage tests, although they can be used for working in.
  • For regular competitions, you may use a dressage whip, and spurs may be worn.

The rules for your own attire vary, depending on the level of competition at which you’re riding, so we recommend that you check the rules of events before you enter.

Get some professional help

Dressage is all about schooling your horse correctly in accordance with the Dressage Scales of Training, i.e., Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness, and Collection.

Although you can read about the Scales and learn the theory of what you want to achieve, you won’t get far without the help of a good instructor. An experienced, knowledgeable eye is crucial to point out where you’re going wrong and to help you to make progress, and regular lessons are definitely a worthwhile investment.

Related Read: What to Look for When Selecting a Dressage Trainer


If your horse is a dressage newbie too, it’s a good idea to have some lessons on a dressage schoolmaster.

A schoolmaster is a horse that has basically been there and done it and is, therefore, perfect for a dressage beginner to learn on.

On a horse like that, you can learn what it feels like to ride an animal that works correctly and what buttons you need to press to get the response you want. So, when you begin having dressage lessons on your own horse, at least one of you will have an idea of what feel and response you’re aiming for!

Watch videos … lots of videos!

When you’re not in the saddle, you can continue your training by watching videos of successful dressage riders who are competing at the top of the sport.

Check out YouTube, and you’ll find plenty of footage of world-class riders schooling young dressage horses too, and you can pick up some brilliant tips here.

There are also videos of riders competing at the lower levels, and watching a few of these can be a really useful way of finding out what to expect, learning where you’re currently at, and seeing how far you need to progress before you’re ready to compete.

Forums and websites

Forums and websites that feature lots of useful articles on dressage are a brilliant source of information for dressage newbies.

Here, you can learn from both other beginners and experienced competitors, as well as picking up vital tips from dressage trainers and judges.

Learn the rules!

The rule book for the dressage governing body in your country or state is also an extremely valuable mine of information for anyone wanting to get into the sport of dressage.

The rule book sets out all the rules on the tack and equipment that you’re allowed to use, as well as explaining how the tests should be ridden.

Also, you’ll find information on the various national championships that you can qualify for and on special classes and competition series for specific breeds, for example, ex-racehorses and Spanish horses.

Most rule books also contain a section of definitions pertaining to each movement that is included in each dressage test at every level. That can be incredibly helpful in giving you an understanding of what the dressage judge is looking for.


When you’re ready to start competing, it’s always advisable to begin with a local, unaffiliated show where the competition is low-key and friendly. That way, you can dip a toe in the water without feeling overwhelmed and out of your depth, which could happen if you entered a large affiliated event.

Perhaps go along to watch a couple of events before you enter, just to get an idea of what’s expected of you and your horse and to learn how the competition runs.

Whether you compete at an unaffiliated or affiliated level, the general rule of thumb is to be riding confidently at home at a level above that at which you intend to compete. The reasoning here is that if you and your horse can easily cope with more challenging work in your home arena, there should be no problem when you take on an easier standard under pressure in the competition environment.

When to affiliate

All dressage riders aspire to enter the world of affiliated competition one day.

Affiliating does have lots of benefits, especially for beginners to the sport. Most dressage bodies publish a magazine that has lots of essential news, informative articles, adverts for training courses, and competition results. Often, there’s a classified section where you’ll find a list of recommended trainers too. And of course, there will be a schedule of all affiliated competitions together with details on entry fees, how to enter, etc.

The main drawback to affiliating is that it can be quite expensive, as you need to register your horse and yourself to be eligible for competitions. Also, entry fees for affiliated classes tend to be quite a lot pricier than those at small local unaffiliated events. That’s why you must be sure that you’re ready to take the step and affiliate yourself and your horse.

As a general guideline, you should ideally be regularly posting results of at least 65% in your dressage tests at unaffiliated level before you affiliate. The standard at affiliated dressage level is generally much higher than unaffiliated, and you will be competing against some very good riders and quality horses. So, even if you don’t win, you want to be confident that you can get a decent score and pick up some grading points in doing so before you spend a lot of money on registration fees.

In conclusion

Dressage is a wonderful sport that anyone can enjoy taking part in, provided that they have a sound horse with regular paces.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can enter local competitions with a view to affiliating when you and your horse are good enough.

We’d love to hear about how you got started in dressage, especially if you went on to become successful at affiliated level. Share your story with us in the comments box below.

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