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How ‘Ordinary’ Horses can Excel in Dressage Competitions

How 'Ordinary' Horses can Excel in Dressage Competitions how to dressage


If you have an “ordinary” horse with regular but unspectacular paces, you may wonder if you have a hope of beating the big-moving, warmbloods and sports horses that you’ll come across in dressage.

In fact, the higher up the dressage ladder you climb, the more big-moving horses you’ll come across.

So, do the horses with flashy paces always win?

In this article, we take a look at how ordinary horses can excel in dressage and beat those fancy movers with huge paces every time!

Is dressage judging fair?

Dressage judges are required to judge every horse that comes down the center line on the same scale.

Each horse is assessed against the dressage Scales of Training and the criteria that are put in place by the FEI.

Judges accumulate knowledge and experience in assessing horses throughout their judging careers. Every judge is required to attend regular training and assessment to remain on the judging panel and progress up the levels.

(Read: How to Become a Dressage Judge (British Dressage))

So, each judge should assess every horse to the same standard judging criteria, regardless of the horse’s breed, movement, and type, the rider’s experience, and the level of the competition.

In a nutshell, yes, dressage judging should be unbiased and fair.

Dressage is a verb that literally means “training.”

Ultimately, it should, therefore, be the horse that is most correctly trained that will be awarded the highest score.

Subjectivity in dressage judging

Judges are human, and there is, therefore, a degree of subjectivity that can be applied to dressage judging.

Some judges will see certain movements slightly differently (from different angles) or place a higher emphasis on particular modifiers more or less than some of their colleagues. This is often the case when you ride in front of a panel of judges who are viewing your test from different points around the arena.

But regardless of the horse’s breed or paces, dressage judges should adhere to their standards and assess your performance against the judging scale.

If a horse with big paces is not trained correctly, he won’t get a high score for the overall work, although the paces mark would probably be a good one.

However, if an “ordinary” horse with correct but “plain” paces demonstrates good rhythm, suppleness through his back, acceptance of an elastic contact, a lively impulsion, straightness, and good balance, he will always be awarded a higher mark than the flashy mover who shows none of those qualities.

Point-earning dressage movements

Every dressage test contains movements where the ordinary horse can pick up valuable marks. Those movements include halt, rein-back, and walk pirouettes.

Other places where you can earn good marks, regardless of how your horse moves are:

  • Straight, accurate center lines
  • Correctly positioned, fluent lateral work
  • Accurate circles
  • Well-balanced transitions
  • Accurately ridden movements

Ordinary horses don’t know that they’re ordinary!

Dressage is all about the harmony between the horse and his rider.

When you achieve perfect harmony with your horse, it’s a wonderful feeling for both parties. You’ll float along with the feeling of freedom, balance, lightness, and perfect communication, as though you and your horse were one.

When you’ve achieved that feeling, your horse’s paces will be as good as they can be.

Never be dissatisfied if your horse’s paces aren’t fancy. Be proud of what you have achieved together and enjoy the moment.

What about the horse’s paces?

Regardless of the breed of your horse, his paces must be correct and regular to gain good marks in dressage.

For example, the fancy warmblood might have an enormously extravagant trot and massive, ground-covering canter, but if his walk is lateral, he will not get a good mark for his paces.

However, a horse whose paces don’t cover acres of ground with every trot step, doesn’t head skyward in canter, and fails to achieve an outrageously long overtrack in the extended walk can still be trained to make best use of what he naturally has.

The flashy-moving horse with an irregular trot or an incorrect walk will always finish up down the line, regardless of how well-schooled he is. Period.

Another very important point to note when discussing big-moving horses is that they are not the easiest to ride!

That massive, bouncy trot can be a nightmare to sit to, and the huge length of stride can be almost impossible to balance in canter.

So, unless you’re a very accomplished rider with a secure, independent seat, you will get along much better with an ordinary horse that, for you, will be much more rideable.

How to turn a 6 into a 7

Now, you might think that just because your horse has ordinary paces, the highest mark you can hope for is a 6.0 or a 6.5. And of course, those lucky riders who are mounted on horses with huge, expressive movement are automatically guaranteed a mark of 7.0 or 8.0.

The good news is that you can turn 6.0 into 7.0 and even 8.0 if you have trained your horse correctly.

So, a mark of 7.0 is achievable for a horse that usually gets a 6.0 by riding the movements with ease, fluency, and confidence.

Remember, a correctly trained and schooled horse with ordinary paces can still make it to Grand Prix level. And let’s face it, a score of 60% at Grand Prix is not to be sniffed at for most amateur riders.

(Read: How to Ride the (Nearly) Perfect Dressage Test)

Are you over-horsed?

It’s actually easier to ride a horse with plain paces than it is to ride something that moves to die for.

So, if you are a non-professional rider of average ability, you can still have an advantage over those who are more powerfully mounted purely by training your horse correctly and riding him well.

The best advice for you if you’re thinking of buying a dressage horse is not to choose a horse with paces that are beyond your riding ability.

If you find yourself unable to sit to your horse’s huge, bouncy trot, you’ll never progress up the dressage ladder, even though your horse might be bred for the job. That leads to frustration, disappointment, and loss of confidence in your ability.

(Read: How to Know if You are Over-Horsed)

What’s so good about warmbloods in dressage?

Take a glance along the line-up of horses competing at the very top level in international dressage and you’ll see that the majority of them are warmbloods.

So, what’s so good about warmbloods, and do you need one to succeed in dressage?

First of all, it’s important to understand that any breed of horse can develop the suppleness, stamina, and athleticism that’s required to succeed in the dressage arena. However, if you want to compete successfully at the top levels of dressage, a warmblood could be your best bet.

Warmbloods are bred for the sport of dressage. That means that a warmblood has the right conformation that allows for easy collection. Warmbloods also have a natural ability to develop “schwung.” (Schwung is a German word that refers to the circuit of energy that runs from the rider, along the horse’s topline, and into the contact.)

It’s all about biomechanics

The key to perfect conformation for dressage lies in the horse’s pelvis. The dressage horse’s pelvis should be long enough to provide a large area of attachment for the propulsive muscles of the horse’s hindquarters.

Also, the pelvis should have a moderate slope to allow it to tilt. That has the effect of lowering the horse’s haunches, and allowing the hind legs to step under the body, making collection and uphill balance possible.

However, an ordinary horse with well-let-down hocks and a sloping pelvis could find the collected work just as effortless as a warmblood would, provided that he’s trained correctly.

In conclusion

An ordinary horse can excel in the dressage arena if you focus on developing a harmonious, happy partnership and correct school your horse in line with the dressage Scales of Training.

Strive to make your best better and better.

Avoid comparing your horse to others with more expressive paces and a higher price tag! Whether you’re training at the very first level or right up to Grand Prix, the correct way of going, relaxation, and harmony are far more important than your horse’s value and breeding.

If you are the proud owner of an ordinary horse that’s achieved greatness in the dressage arena, we’d love to hear your story. Tell us in the comments box below!

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  1. Hi there! I am a professional dressage trainer but my current most successful horse is a 14.2 hand West Virginia bred Morgan pony! We were recently our USDF GMO’s Prix St. George horse of the year and that was against all breeds! He will show Intermediate -1 next year and we’re developing his piaffe as we speak. He is built downhill (in fact he measures 15.1 at his croup yet he has his permanent pony card). What he lacks for in scope he makes up for pure joy of dressage. I frequently get seven for submission and impulsion, in fact he often gets a seven for gaits even though in the field he is not more than a 5 1/2 mover by nature. Dressage has improved his movement significantly and he looks like a different horse under saddle than he does in the paddock. The judges always comment on our harmony and partnership and we have not scored below 60% at the FEI levels! Although I have my gold medal and I have competed at Grand Prix on a horse I trained all the way up the levels myself, this pony is the accomplishment I am most proud of. It can be done people! I am proof!

    1. Amazing!!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us. It’s great to hear of your success in the dressage arena with this pony, and I’m sure you’ll inspire lots of other riders to progress in this sport no matter what breed/type of horse they own.

      It’s a fantastic achievement and we wish you the very best for the rest of his training – we hope you make it all the way to Grand Prix with him! 🙂

      Thanks so much again!
      HTD x

  2. My Ordinary Horse

    My ordinary horse is my trail horse, Alpenisto. His dam was an Arabian/Welsch pony cross, his sire, Merlin, is an Andalusian. “Nisto” is about 15.0 hands and he has modest, comfortable gaits that definitely reflect his pony heritage. If you saw trotting around in the field with his dinky little pony trot, you would never chose him as a dressage horse. He spends most of his time on trails, but if the weather is nasty or I’m pressed for time, we will be in the ring doing dressage. He recently got his first 70 at Third Level. It was just a schooling show, but the judge was an FEI “I” judge. Dressage training his turned that dinky pony trot into something lofty and beautiful. I am sharing this because I want everyone to know that you can succeed in dressage on your ordinary horse. Dressage is about the training, not the breeding. Please don’t ever feel your ordinary horse isn’t good enough. Enjoy him, ride him, work on your training, and the scores will take of themselves.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing!! As the saying goes, “dressage is for the horse, the horse is not for dressage.” And your trail horse just proves that!
      We wish you both all the best with the rest of your training – both in the dressage arena and out on the trails.
      Thanks again
      HTD x

  3. My 17yr old daughter has an ordinary horse. He is a warm blood but not a big flashy leg mover he also has a lateral walk however he is very trainable and obedient and willing. She has trained him up to Inter 1 level with affiliated scores of up to 69% despite the fragility in the walk. Her goal is to compete him Grand Prix.
    It’s not been an easy road with many disappointments along the way but her current coach is super hot on the basics and scales of training and it has made an enormous difference and suddenly those scores have shot up.

    1. LOVE THIS! The Scales of Training are paramount for dressage. We talk about them all the time and we’re glad to hear her coach is keeping them at the forefront of her training. And it’s great to hear that her horse has such a willing attitude towards his work – We’d much prefer a horse that tries hard over one that has flashy movement.
      69% at Inter 1 is a fantastic achievement and wish your daughter all the best in getting to GP.
      HTD x

  4. I have a 14 hand Haflinger mare competing at 4th level, schooling all the movements for PSG in Wellington Florida .We compete with all the big horses and professional riders. It has been an incredible experience for both of us. Every horse person loves a cute pony… especially a sassy one. We have been very well received here and always cuteness comments.
    I’m small and past middle aged so Georgia the wonder pony is the perfect partner for me. Train love and enjoy the horse YOU want not what you or others think you should ride.🦄

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