American dressage riders were thrilled with the attention they received in 2012. What with Rafalca, the horse owned by Ann Romney, wife of the then presidential candidate Mitt, performing at the London Olympics, and TV comedy star Stephen Colbert, in cheeky honor of Rafalca’s Olympic quest, naming dressage “number one sport of the summer!” (complete with giant foam fingers and beer), it was like a football stadium plunked down in the wilderness—with a dressage ring in the middle. We had arrived! Or so it seemed for a brief moment. While European dressage riders enjoy large crowds, good prize money and a degree of fame outside their immediate circle, their American counterparts have long languished in a sports backwater, perhaps a step above trampoline gymnastics and one below handball in the public’s consciousness.
So what exactly is it? Rider and horse perform in a 20-by-60-meter ring in predetermined movements. There is no jumping or pulling or racing. The precise movements and training techniques have evolved over centuries; the name “dressage” comes from the French dresser, meaning “to train.” Contestants compete in dressage tests, consisting of various levels that function like a syllabus, if you will, starting with introductory classes and going all the way to the top: Grand Prix. Horses have three gaits, the walk, trot and canter. The aim is not only the mastery of each gait, but the ultimate expression of harmony between man and beast.
It’s true that the sport requires some money (it’s not cheap to feed, care for and train a dressage horse), and that dressage tends to attract people who like to be around people with money. But there are greater goals in dressage: harmony, power, lightness, balance, understanding. Such things are not so easily bought. The sport’s elusive goals obsess its participants, like squirrels collecting chestnuts, bees spitting honey, kids seeking one more lick of ice cream. Dressage riders are addicts.
1 collection (n.)
This is why people like to ride dressage horses and why they look different from, say, racehorses. During collection, the muscles of the horse engage so that its shoulders and forelegs are carried more lightly, with more weight supported by the horse’s power center, the hind end. The horse’s neck arches and it moves with purpose and pride.
Without a rider encouraging collection, horses will do it naturally, but they save it for special occasions; it’s a lot of work for the body, much as with a dancer in performance. Generally, horses carry more of their weight on the front legs (since they have head and neck to support), while in collection the balance shifts backwards. Battling stallions will move in collection, their lightened shoulders ready to strike or turn. It takes years to build a horse’s strength to carry itself in collection through a Grand Prix test.
Collection is tremendously fun to ride; it’s as though the rider is balancing in a powerboat moving up out of the water. Ideally, all of the horse, the energy, muscles, bones, ligaments—and mind—are collected and focused on the task at hand.
2 on the bit (adj. phrase)
The (usually metal) bit, attached to the bridle, lies across the gums, or bars, of the horse’s mouth, and should be handled expertly. Riders are sometimes told to imagine that their hands, as they squeeze the reins attached to the bit, are holding small birds. However, in training, things do not always go so smoothly. Sometimes the small songbirds turn into large falcons, and there is a disagreement about who is going where and how fast. Ideally—and so much of dressage is based on the Ideal—a horse is on the bit when the neck is raised and arched, the nose dips down perpendicular to, or slightly in front of, the horse’s poll (the joint right behind the ears), the mouth is soft and receptive and the rider is able to control and maximize the energy created from the hind end.
3 extended trot (n.)
One of the big-money moves in the sport. The horse powers across the ring at a trot with each leg maximally extended. The impressiveness of an extended trot often depends on a horse’s natural gifts (a properly sloping shoulder angle, for instance). Here, Carl Hester, a member of Britain’s 2012 gold-medal-winning dressage team, aboard Uthopia, performs a glorious extended trot.
4 piaffe (n./v.)
A piaffe is trotting in place, and the ultimate expression of collection. “If it trots, it can piaffe!” says master piaffe instructor Alfredo Hernandez. In theory, your dog, goat or pet zebra could piaffe. However, try teaching it. This simple-sounding move takes years to perfect, requiring precise timing on the part of the trainer and a generous spirit on the part of the horse. In an ideal piaffe, the hind end of the horse drops noticeably and the front shoulders appear to rise. The piaffe should not be rushed, but it shouldn’t be slow, either, and it must be conducted in a clear, two-beat rhythm.
Here the Dutch-born Totilas, the 21st-century superstar of the sport (sold in 2010 for a rumored $15 million), dances a heartbreakingly beautiful piaffe; he enters in a passage (see below), then soon moves to piaffe. This video was shot at a stallion show, not a competition, and Totilas’s rider Edward Gal takes full advantage, really highlighting what this mega-horse can do. If you continue watching you can also enjoy this horse’s spectacular extended trot.
The piaffe can often go wrong, usually with the horse performing the movement halfheartedly, or quitting it altogether and falling into a walk. Sometimes, the horse steps backward—a significant error—to escape the work. Here, the great rider Isabell Werth unfortunately suffered a major piaffe meltdown at the 2008 Olympics and eventually lost the gold medal. She was actually attempting a piaffe pirouette here (which is turning in place while performing piaffe).
5 passage (n.)
The passage, as opposed to the extended trot, aims for maximum suspension, or height, of the horse’s legs. When horses want to impress each other or feel great in the fall air, they might passage in the pastures. Like the piaffe, passage is an advanced move. Some describe it as a trot in slow motion, but it is really far more animated than that. Juan Manuel Muñoz Díaz of the Spanish team and his great white horse Fuego know how to passage (and piaffe, too!). And here the most recent gold medalists, Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, rehearse passage (among other moves) before a Florida competition.
6 half pass (n.)
This is a strange descriptor for a diagonal movement that can be performed in all three gaits. It is not about moving halfway, but usually at full throttle, all the way across the arena, in a forward and sideways direction. The half pass is a brother to the full pass, where the horse moves sideways without any forward movement at all (the full pass is not shown in competition). In a Grand Prix freestyle test, a classy trot half pass might have a bit of passage thrown in as well. In this clip, the American rider Steffen Peters and his horse Ravel, a recent U.S. Dressage Federation Hall of Fame winner, perform world-class, flowing half-passes (the movement begins at 1:37).
7 half halt (n.)
The mystery signals behind these powerful movements often lie in the half halt, invisible to the uneducated eye (and often even to the educated one!). This is an internal core movement performed by the rider, usually to say, “Heads up! A new move is coming.” A half halt, performed correctly, sets the horse up for greater engagement of the hind end and lightness of the shoulders. Half halts are why dressage riders have rock-hard abs.
8 shoulder-in (n.)
There is much sweat equity spent on this move by dressage riders and horses worldwide. One cannot ride dressage without riding miles of shoulder-in. Although not performed in the Grand Prix, this intermediate-level move helps the horse to learn to coordinate its shoulders and strengthen individual hind legs. Technically, to perform the shoulder-in, the shoulders of the horse are moved in from the rail or arena wall and toward the center of the ring (at about a 30-degree angle). The hind legs remain by the rail, while the horse’s outside shoulder bends in line with the horse’s inside hip.
9 pirouette (n.)
Horses can spin. They can spin in place fast, becoming a blur, like a western horse in a reining competition. Or they can spin slowly, elegantly, as they do in dressage. Performed correctly, the horse loads the hind end, using its stomach muscles to balance and lift its front as it completes a full or half turn. This move is performed either at a walk or canter, and sometimes at a trot (combined with a piaffe). The canter pirouette is an elegant sight. Here are the recent Olympic silver medalists Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands and her horse Parzifal performing to the Nutcracker Suite during a holiday competition. The first canter pirouette is at 3:27.
10 tempi changes (n.)
In the canter, horses have different leads, meaning that different forelegs are advanced or leading during each stride (otherwise, they would hop, which would look weird and be inefficient). Going to the right, the horse will usually be leading with the right foreleg, and likewise to the left. The horse is capable of changing its leads in mid-air; these are called flying changes. When several flying changes are performed in a row (whether at every fourth, third, second, or single stride), they are called tempi changes (from the plural of tempo).
Here (at the 2:00 mark) you can watch the American rider Steffen Peters, on Ravel, perform exemplary changes to Men in Hats’ “Safety Dance.”
Perhaps the most famous series of tempi changes happened at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. On his victory lap after securing the gold medal, the German master Reiner Klimke, on the famed Ahlerich, completed dozens of single tempi changes around the ring—one-handed. It was a great act of showmanship—and horsemanship—and people in the stadium went completely nuts.
Bethany Tarbell writes grants for a non-profit organization during the day, but in the evening she can be found working on a novel or in the dressage ring in Concord, New Hampshire, where she lives and works.