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Corro Stories

Corro 101: Dressage Breaking Down “Equestrian Ballet”

By Amy Smith dancing...ballet on horseback. It’s so pretty, but what exactly is going on here? Don’t worry, Corro is here to break down this “equestrian ballet,” so the next time you’re wondering about watching or even riding dressage, you have the #CorroConfidence to sound like an expert or know just how technical and demanding this sport truly is!



“Dressage” is a French term that translates to “training,” which makes sense as the discipline is rooted in the training of cavalry horses during ancient Greece. Dressage was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1912 where only commissioned military officers were allowed to compete. With these training practices producing highly obedient and easily maneuverable horses, dressage morphed into an art form during the Renaissance period, resembling what we know today as modern dressage.


One could argue that dressage is the reason us equestrians hear, “bUt aLL yOu Do iS siT tHeRe.” The essence of dressage is to have the horse willingly respond to almost invisible aids. Horse and rider are expected to be in such harmony and unison with one another, that they appear to be moving as “one” in both body and mind. Dressage is somewhat like a combination of riding ventriloquism and playing the drums — at the same time. You have to use your and your horse’s body to their full athletic ability, moving parts individually and collectively for a show-stopping performance, in a way where people can’t tell you’re moving at all.


In competition, horse and rider can compete at two different, individual “testing” levels — National and International. There are five National levels in the United States: Training, First, Second, Third, and Fourth. While there are four International levels: Prix St. Georges, Intermediate I, Intermediate II, and Grand Prix. All of the tests that you see at the Olympics are performed at the Grand Prix level.


During competition, each horse and rider combination completes what is called a “test” within a standard 60x20 meter arena. The test requires each horse and rider to complete a predetermined pattern of maneuvers involving movements and gaits that vary in difficulty based on the level they compete in. Standard arenas have 12 letters around the perimeter and five through the centerline. They are not in alphabetical order and thought to have originated in Germany from either the royal stables or the calvary stables. All of those letters around and within the arena mark points in the pattern where maneuvers take place.

The duo is scored for each maneuver on a scale from one to ten, with ten being considered “excellent.” At the end of the test, all the scores are added together and turned into a percentage with the highest percentage winning. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, the winning individual score was 93.857. However, riders that score 70% or over are considered very good, those who score 60%-70% are “good,” and a consistent score of 60%+ indicates a rider who is ready to move to the next level.

As a duo progresses further through the levels, they’ll be expected to perform not only more maneuvers, but the maneuvers will increase in sophistication as well. So, for example, when horse and rider reach the Grand Prix level, they’re in expert mode - striving to perform all of the things with expert execution, which means the rider’s communication with the horse will look almost non-existent.


Collected gaits are marked by shorter strides where the horse brings their hindquarters under them at the walk, trot, or canter. 

Alternatively, when a horse lengthens their stride at the walk, trot, or canter, they’re performing extended gaits.

A half-pass is a more advanced move. It is performed when a duo moves diagonally while maintaining a slight bend in the direction of travel, slightly around the rider’s inside leg. The horse’s outside hind and forelegs cross over their inside legs, and the horse’s body moves parallel to the arena with his forehand leading. When executed properly, the horse is forward, balanced, and bent — moving with cadence. 

You may be familiar with flying changes, where the horse changes its lead in one complete stride with the front and hind legs changing at the same time. Riders may be asked to show flying changes during their test, or tempi changes, which is when the horse and rider change their canter lead every fourth stride.

A passage is a collected gait performed at the trot where the horse is asked to not only over elevate their feet, but pause momentarily before bringing them back down — essentially suspending their hooves in mid-air. Remember when you were a kid and you would skip down the sidewalk? Well, it’s kind of like that. A passage is also a movement you will find at the more advanced levels. 

If you’ve watched the Olympics or an advanced level of dressage competition, you may have seen the horse perform what is called a piaffe. A piaffe is a highly-collected trot, where they look like they’re trotting in place. The technicality of this movement is high in that the center of gravity of the horse should be more towards the hind end, with the hindquarters slightly lowered, while the front end of the horse is light and free. The piaffe was originally used in battle to keep the horse focused, warm, and ready for battle.

Like ballet, a pirouette in dressage is an advanced movement where the horse spins on one foot. It is a two-track lateral movement, where the horse makes a circle with its front end, while its hind end is making a smaller circle. It is performed at the canter and can be either a 360-degree full circle or a 180-degree half-circle.


Perhaps you’ve heard of professional football players attending ballet classes to improve their athleticism - moving, using, and controlling their muscles in ways they don’t while on the field. Players have also reported having fewer injuries with this kind of cross-training. Similarly, practicing dressage can do the same for horses and riders who train within other disciplines.

The ability to collect and extend, suspend, pivot, bend, and more can sharpen skills that all pleasure and sport horses can use. And performing these maneuvers on a dime with little ask is applicable to those training in everything from hunters and jumpers to barrel racing, carriage driving, and trail riding. The obedience, mental and physical fortitude, confidence, balance, and finesse that comes with dressage is a great foundation and, at its peak, a beautiful display of horsemanship.

To learn more about dressage and download training programs, visit the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) and the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI).

Did you find this helpful? Check out our Corro 101 on the Rodeo here!