Dressage riding is a complex process that requires effort, hard work, commitment, discipline, and dedication on the part of the rider.
In this in-depth article, we drill down into the qualities that can turn an average dressage rider into one of the greats.
Qualities of a great dressage rider
First of all, let’s take a brief look at the most important qualities that mark out a great dressage rider:
1. Communicate clearly
Clear communication between a horse and rider is crucial in dressage.
Harmony is a vital element of your partnership with your horse that’s included in the collective marks on all dressage sheets throughout the levels. Good harmony is only achievable when clear communication between horse and rider is established.
If your horse doesn’t understand what you want of him, he won’t be able to work with you.
2. Understand each horse
Every horse is different. The top dressage riders have an uncanny ability to get on board any horse in the yard and produce good work, regardless of whether they have ridden that horse before.
Learning to understand an individual horse’s quirks and personality are part of the challenge of dressage riding. Great dressage riders are able to do that consistently, sympathetically, and successfully.
3. Gain riding experience at every opportunity
Great dressage riders aren’t just born that way!
The most successful and talented dressage riders spend a lot of time in the saddle.
That time can be spent having coaching, practicing the movements that they find most challenging, or schooling their horse along the Scales of Training to build a firm foundation for the more advanced work that is to come.
4. Dedicate yourself to knowledge and improvement
That maxim can be applied to pretty much any sport or art, and it is certainly true of dressage.
Great dressage riders are humble enough to admit that they still have much to learn. They’re also curious, never missing an opportunity to learn from their peers.
You must have the attitude that good is never good enough. Aim to make your “good” excellent!
Great dressage riders and other sportsmen are committed to improvement, and they take whatever action is required to achieve that.
5. Cultivate mental wellbeing
Competing at the higher dressage levels is stressful and can be a source of anxiety and tension. Great dressage riders are ice kings and queens, seemingly able to absorb and thrive on the pressure that comes with competing at the very highest levels.
All top dressage riders have developed a mechanism that enables them to cope with the stress of competition. What works varies between individuals. Some riders like to socialize, chat, and joke with friends. Others prefer to remove themselves, get focused, and chill-out. It’s really just a matter of personal preference and finding out what works best for you.
6. Appreciate what you have
Every rider loves what they do, no matter what discipline they compete in.
That’s essential for professional dressage riders and for amateurs who aspire to become one of the greats.
Dressage riding requires a tremendous amount of dedication, and if you don’t consider yourself incredibly lucky to be able to school and compete your horse, you’ll never have the motivation that you need to succeed.
7. Love and respect your horse(s)
Dressage riding requires so much emotional commitment and discipline that sometimes the horse can finish up being regarded as a machine by riders whose determination to succeed overrides their love and respect for their equine partner.
Loving and respecting horses as magnificent, empathetic animals is what brings most riders into working and living with horses in the first place, and that’s a crucial thing to remember.
8. Be insightful
Great riders are masters at spotting small details that may be impeding their horse’s development or their own riding.
Learn to be more insightful so that you can find the “key” to your horse’s and your own performance.
9. Spend time with your horse out of the arena
Although you might be prepared to spend every waking hour in the dressage arena schooling your horse, your equine partner will appreciate some downtime and a change of routine.
A work-life balance is just as important for your horse as it is for you. Horses that are over-schooled can become stale and resentful. Give your horse a change of scene by taking him trail riding, schooling over a few poles, or lungeing.
10. Pay attention to detail
Great dressage riders are masters at paying attention to detail.
You must be picky and detail-oriented when you’re schooling your horse. Pay attention to every single stride, recognize problems and areas that could be improved, and take action to address issues before they become ingrained.
Within your schooling systems, be sure to build flexibility so that you can adjust your methods as required.
11. Be honest to your own failings
Don’t always blame your horse for getting it wrong; look at yourself!
When things go wrong, great dressage riders look first at themselves and their riding.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the fault is with the pilot, not the horse! You must be big enough to accept that you got it wrong and take whatever action is required to correct your error without punishing your horse for your failings.
Essential mechanics of a great dressage rider
1. The rider’s balance and seat
Great dressage riders pay close attention to their seat and balance.
To be a great dressage rider, you must sit straight and be supple and balanced in the saddle. If your balance is not good, you will negatively affect your horse.
You must sit squarely in the center of the saddle with an independent seat that doesn’t rely on the reins for balance. A well-balanced rider can ride with one hand, allowing a long rein so that the horse can stretch, and offering their mount a reassuring pat when necessary.
If you’re not balanced in the saddle, you won’t be able to do any of these things, and that will limit your ability to work effectively and in harmony with your horse.
Although there is just one collective mark for the rider’s position, that mark also covers the effect of the aids. If a rider is unbalanced, his influence over the horse’s way of going will be negative. Good judges will recognize that and penalize the rider accordingly.
Great riders always have lessons that are solely geared to improving their position and suppleness.
However, most leisure riders can’t afford the time or justify the cost of having a lesson every day, so here are a few simple ways of improving your suppleness and balance in the saddle:
- Ride with shorter stirrups in a jumping saddle from time-to-time
- Ride without stirrups
- Ride on varying terrain, including up and down hills
- Ride in different saddles
- Ride horses of different sizes and with different gaits
If other riders in your barn or yard take part in different disciplines, go with them! Try shortening your stirrups, gallop along trails, pop over hedges and ditches, and ride outside of your comfort zone.
All these exercises will give you more confidence, as well as improving your balance and suppleness in the saddle.
Only when you are supple and balanced will you be able to follow your horse’s movement in the extensions without restricting him or causing him to tighten through his back.
Lessons on the lunge are a vital tool in improving your balance and suppleness, and even the top dressage riders spend time working on the lunge.
2. Establishing a correct connection with the horse
The dressage horse is described by the FEI as a “happy athlete.” A happy athlete should be willing in his work, and the partnership between horse and rider should always appear harmonious.
A great dressage rider will understand how to create and maintain the correct connection through the horse’s back to the bridle.
Experts are of the opinion that schooling a horse in his natural direction and developing the connection, or “bridge,” between his hindquarters and his forehand will make for a happier, sounder horse.
The bottom line is that your horse will be more willing and you will have fewer vet’s bills if your horse works in a relaxed, correct connection.
If your horse is not accepting the bit, he will eventually suffer from pain in his back. Also, soundness problems can result from a horse being tense and tight in his joints and being forced to carry himself in a false frame or working too much on his forehand.
The correct connection comes from the horse being supple through his back.
3. The use of artificial aids
Great dressage riders use some of the artificial aids that are available. When used correctly, a whip and spurs can work to refine the rider’s aids, enhancing and improving the horse’s performance in the dressage arena.
The dressage whip
A standard length dressage whip measures around 40 to 45 inches. The length of whip you choose will depend to some extent on the size of your horse. For example, if you have a small, short-coupled horse, a whip that’s too long will only get in your way and could accidentally catch the horse, making him tense and disrupting his rhythm.
You should not use the whip on the horse’s back end in an attempt to make the horse go forward. Using the whip in this way only serves to reinforce the tendency of the hind legs to go out behind the horse, and he will most likely become irritated too.
A dressage whip can be used in three positions:
- Position #1 – Shoulder
Tap the whip on the horse’s shoulder.
The shoulder is not as sensitive as the horse’s hind end. Also, you don’t need to worry too much about the timing of the tap you use.
You can use the whip on the horse’s shoulder whenever you need to.
- Position #2 – Behind your leg
Tapping your horse just behind your leg helps to reinforce your sideways and forward leg aids.
- Position #3 – Horse’s hind leg
When your horse is working forward from your driving aids, you can use the whip on his hind leg.
When used correctly, this aid can encourage the horse to develop more cadence.
However, timing is crucial here; you must use the whip only as the hind leg comes off the ground if this aid is to be effective and correct.
Many dressage riders at the lower levels regard spurs as some kind of fashion accessory, rather than using them to enhance their aids!
A horse that’s ridden in spurs all the time quickly becomes irritable and can even be dead to the spur.
Spurs are there to allow you to give a lighter aid, not as a means to persuade a lazy horse to liven up!
When fitting your spurs, take care than they do not point upward. Also, make sure that you don’t need to lift your heel in order for the spurs to come into contact with the horse’s sides.
4. Ride transitions correctly
All great dressage riders are able to ride transitions correctly, and you should learn to do that too!
Although riding transitions may seem like a simple, routine thing, the ability to do so is essential if you are to become a top-class rider. So, you must pay attention to riding proper transitions every day.
Ride your transitions from the leg, not by using your reins. Remember to ride smooth transitions within the gaits and utilize the half-halt to good effect.
Once the horse is accepting of your forward and slowing aids, you can begin using your rein aids. Always give rein aids without “closing the door” on your horse. Great dressage riders do not use their reins to pull their horse into an outline, to change direction, or to ride downward transitions.
When using the rein aids, great riders understand the horse’s natural flight instinct when he feels trapped. So, when the horse begins to become tense and upset, the good dressage rider will ease their hand so that the horse feels that he has an escape route and is not being confined by a closed hand.
In the wild, a horse will only fight against an attacker for a second or so, before running away. If you fight your horse for a whole lesson without giving him a chance to escape, the horse will feel threatened, and tension will result. To achieve and maintain the harmony that you need for dressage, you must allow the horse to feel that he can leave if he wants to.
- How to Ride a Forwards Downward Transition
- How to Prepare Your Horse for Transitions
- Other articles on how to ride common transitions
5. The double bridle
Using a double bridle should be regarded as a privilege, not a right.
Once a horse reaches advanced level, most dressage riders use the double. The double bridle should be used to make the horse lighter in the hand and to enhance his already established self-carriage.
You cannot use the double bridle to create self-carriage. If you try to do that, you risk shortening the horse’s neck and stifling his forwardness, and you will damage the freedom and expression of his paces.
6. Reading your horse’s body language
Earlier in this article, we discussed the importance of empathy and working in harmony with your horse.
Another skill that’s possessed by all the great dressage riders is the ability to read a horse’s body language. The horse’s body language tells you how he’s feeling during his work and afterwards.
Reading equine body language is also a skill that good dressage judges possess. For example, if the horse has a swinging tail, floppy ears, and a calm expression on his face, the judge can instantly see that the horse is relaxed and happy in his work.
Other signs are more subtle, and it’s up to you to learn to interpret them. For example, if the horse immediately shortens his stride and drops behind the bridle when you begin working in walk, you should recognize that your mount is tense and unhappy about something. Then, it’s up to you to work out what the problem is and fix it!
Great riders can pick up tiny signs of tension or discomfort from their horses, such as a swishing tail or increased heart rate when new, difficult work is introduced.
Of equal importance is the great rider’s ability to understand the cause of the problem and having the knowledge to correct it.
7. Correcting mistakes
How those mistakes are corrected by the rider can also have a big influence on the horse’s body language.
The best dressage riders always use their aids to make a positive correction that sympathetically puts the horse back on track. If your correction confuses the horse, he will become tense and resentful.
For example, if your horse jogs in the free walk and you punish him by flicking him with your whip, he won’t understand the correction. Instead, quietly bring the horse back to walk, repeat the exercise, and praise him when he gets it right.
The bottom line is that when you correct your horse for making a mistake, you must make what you want absolutely crystal clear.
8. Bend and straightness
Good dressage riders have an understanding of the judge’s comments on their dressage score sheets. Less experienced riders can misinterpret some comments, leading to confusion for both horse and rider!
9. Do you need money to be a great dressage rider?
Owning a horse is expensive. Period. But do you need pots of money to be a great dressage rider?
Not necessarily. Anyone can be a great dressage rider if they are prepared to do the work, put in the hours, and pay close attention to the correct schooling and development of their horse.
That said, most professional dressage riders who compete at the very highest levels have sponsors behind them.
Unless you can find someone to help you with the expenses, it can be very difficult to compete successfully at the very highest levels.
In addition to the everyday running costs of livery, vet bills, insurance etc, that you would incur for any horse, you’ll need to find the cash to pay for expenses that are directly associated with seriously competing in dressage competitions, including:
- Entry fees
- Registration costs for horse and rider
- Transport (home and overseas)
- Overnight stabling
- Clothing and equipment
When you compare the final bill for all that, the prize money that’s on offer at the vast majority of competitions appears trifling and certainly won’t cover your outlay!
Most professional dressage riders make most of their money through training, product endorsement, bringing on and selling horses, and various forms of consultancy work.
The modern dressage horse comes in all shapes and sizes. In theory, as long as the horse has three correct, regular paces and is correctly schooled, he should be able to perform a good dressage test.
However, most dressage riders competing at the highest levels are mounted on big-moving horses with price tags that match the size of their extravagant natural paces!
That said, you can still be a great dressage rider if you apply yourself diligently, strive to increase your knowledge base, and work hard, regardless of the horsepower that you have at your disposal.
Great dressage riders are the ones who do their homework.
When riding dressage, there are certain things, as discussed above, that you must do correctly. Doing them approximately or more or less correctly is not good enough! Great dressage riders take the time to recognize their faults and make the time put them right.
There’s no doubt that some riders are naturally gifted. But an average rider can still achieve greatness if they are prepared to apply themselves, pay attention to the points in this article, and school their horses correctly.
Have you been inspired by the thoughts in this article? Use the comments box below to tell us how you plan to transform yourself from a good rider into a great one!
- How to Build a Good Dressage Foundation
- How Any Dressage Rider Can Become a More Professional Equestrian
- Why ALL Dressage Riders Need to Know The Scales of Training
- How to Ride the (Nearly) Perfect Dressage Test