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Everything you need to know about dressage at the Olympics


  • What is dressage?

    Dressage is one the three Olympic equestrian sports – the others are eventing and showjumping. The word “dressage” comes from the French word “dresseur”, which means training, and the sport involves showing off a horse’s training by performing a set of prescribed movements in front of a panel of judges.

    What is the purpose of dressage?

    Dressage is all about the rider working in harmony with their horse, developing suppleness, flexibility, obedience and athleticism – which ultimately help make a horse more pleasant to ride. Dressage as a concept dates back to 350 AD, and it has its roots in battle – a better trained horse would be more effective and efficient on the battlefield. Over time, this developed into a way of demonstrating horsemanship, as well as the relationship between horse and rider.

    What do horses and riders have to do?

    In a dressage test, rider and horse perform certain movements specific to the level at which they are competing. Each of these movements is scored out of 10 by a number of judges – up to seven at Olympic level – who are seated at different positions around the arena. Some particularly difficult movements received double marks, and the rider’s skill is also marked. The total marks are then converted into a percentage score for the combination – the higher the better.

    How difficult is dressage?

    Dressage competitions take place at a range of different levels across the UK, governed by British Dressage, but the highest level within the sport is grand prix. It usually takes many years of training for a rider, and a horse, to reach this level.

    What is dressage at the Olympics?

    At major championships, such as the Olympic Games, competitors perform a standard grand prix test, followed by another, even more difficult test known as the grand prix special.

    At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, 15 teams of three will take part, with the grand prix special deciding the Olympic dressage team medals – a new format for this year. The countries who have qualified teams for the Tokyo Olympics are: Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia, Russia and the host team, Japan. A further 15 riders will also take part as individuals.

    At top competitions, including the Olympics, the very best combinations also perform a grand prix freestyle test to music. For this, the rider performs a floorplan of their own design, set to music, which is professionally produced and choreographed specifically for the horse in question. The rider must include certain movements, but can design the programme to best suit their horse’s particular strengths. Both the technical elements and the music are marked by the judges, and combined to form the final score.

    Who is the world’s best dressage rider?

    Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin is the reigning Olympic dressage champion, having won individual gold riding Valegro at the 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics. Germany is the current team gold medal holders.

    The highest score ever given in dressage is 94.3%, awarded to Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro for their grand prix freestyle test at Olympia, London, in December 2014. Charlotte and Valegro also hold the current world records for both the standard grand prix test (87.46%) and the grand prix special (88.022%). Valegro was retired from the sport in 2016, aged 15, and Charlotte’s top horses at the moment at Mount St John Freestyle and Gio.

    Is dressage cruel to horses?

    Dressage done well is not cruel to horses. The point of dressage is to demonstrate harmony and trust between horse and rider, which is achieved using correct, gentle training. There are, however, some training methods that are not allowed by the FEI, the international governing body of horse sport, on the grounds that they compromise horse welfare.

    Is dressage harder than jumping?

    All equestrian sports, especially at top level, require high levels of rider fitness, as well as timing, balance, intuition and in-depth knowledge of horses, but their individual requirements vary and can be difficult to compare. Dressage in particular demands a very high degree of core strength and body control from both horse and rider, as well as meticulous attention to detail. It also forms the basis in training for other horse sports – all equestrian disciplines involve elements of dressage to a certain degree.

    How dangerous is dressage?

    While falls of horse or rider are more common in equestrian sports like showjumping and eventing, than in dressage, any sport that involves working with horses comes with a certain level of risk. Horses are large, powerful, often unpredictable animals and therefore handling and riding them comes with an inherent risk. However, with proper training and using correct, up-to-date safety equipment, serious accidents while doing dressage are relatively rare.

    Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find out more about getting the magazine delivered to your door every week.

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