Training in the Right Way: What is Dressage and Why Do We Do it?

“Whenever you see a rider and horse in harmony and balance, performing their jobs fluidly and enthusiastically, you are witnessing the product of horse training and riding in the right way. No matter what, that is a product of what dressage was initially meant to be.”

Gwyneth McPherson is an FEI rider with over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage. Her education began in the 1970s and was developed largely by Lendon Gray, Carol Lavell, and Michael Poulin. Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage, is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and the art of dressage, as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.

Her first article explores a bit about what dressage is (and is NOT), its history and origin, and why it is valuable to all riding disciplines.

I have devoted most of my life to learning as much as I can about the purpose, origin, skills and variations of dressage training. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to see the vestiges of dressage in many styles of horsemanship, and I have come to appreciate the best training in competition, classical riding, and in circus training (more commonly called liberty and trick training these days). What I have learned is that good riding and good training is recognizable regardless of the riding discipline, and the best trainers and riders are more alike than different in their philosophies and approaches to training, regardless of what their end product is supposed to be. 

Whenever you see a rider and horse in harmony and balance, performing their jobs fluidly and enthusiastically, you are witnessing the product of horse training and riding in the right way. No matter what, that is a product of what dressage was initially meant to be.

So, what exactly is dressage? Why pursue it? And how does one end up venturing down that specific rabbit hole anyway?

To begin to answer those questions, let me take you back to rural 1970s Maine.

My parents were both mental health professionals and were very much a part of the 70s Back to the Earth movement. My mom raised and showed Nubian dairy goats and my dad was deeply involved in renovating our newly acquired 1790s farm house and barns. We produced and sold our own milk, cheese, meat, eggs, and produce. At this point in time, at the age of six, I had achieved my single most important life goal: I had my very own pony.

Gwyneth and GrayLady 1978.

She was a dapple-grey Welsh pony and absolutely beautiful and perfect; she looked just like a unicorn (to me, anyway). Her name was Gray Lady and she was also six. And any time I tried to do anything with her, I got hurt. She bit me. She kicked me. She ran me over. Her favorite game of all, if my mom and I managed to wrangle her into tack, was to take the bit in her teeth and trot as fast as her little pony legs would go, then slam on the brakes and deposit me on the ground in front of her, still holding the reins in my hands. At which point she would perk her pretty little ears up and gaze down at me with big brown eyes and an angelic expression as if to say, “Oh my! How ever did you get down there?”

My mom, who knew absolutely NOTHING about horses, had latched onto the “you have to get right back on when you fall off” thing and would immediately put me back on the pony who would then repeat this same routine over and over and over until either I was crying too hard to keep riding, or my Mom was too frustrated to keep putting me back on.

After I eventually broke my arm coming off of my pony, yet again, I was all for quitting this riding nonsense. But as soon as the cast was dry, my mom –- she really meant well— dragged me to the barn and literally picked me up kicking and screaming and made me ride the pony “one last time, then you never have to do it again.”

This was a big mistake on her part. My parents could have lived blissfully free from riding lessons, horse shows, horse trailer ownership and maintenance, and eventually competitive dressage, which I apparently had a knack for at a young age. Instead, they ended up hiring a riding instructor who would come to our farm and teach me and my pony once a week for $20. This was literally a life altering decision for all of us.

Judy was new to the area. She had moved from Philadelphia with her husband, who was a dentist, and had brought her horses with her. Unbeknownst to any of us at the time, Judy was classically trained in dressage. So, rather than allowing my angel of a pony to take me on a merry romp, she longed her in side reins for many lessons, only putting me on at the end for a little walk around on the lead. When the pony was schooled well enough in longeing that she could walk, trot, and canter reliably on command, then I commenced with my own longe lessons. I had no stirrups, no reins and I did lots of balance building, stretching, and strengthening exercises. Judy also gave me titles of books to read. I still have all of them. One was The White Stallions of Lipizza, by Marguerite Henry. I remember my excitement that the boy in the book was learning to ride and had to do some of the same exercises I was doing!  

Eventually, I got to take my reins and stirrups, and Judy told my Dad to build a fence in the pasture that was shaped like a rectangle. That area was only to be used for riding. The pony was not to be turned out in it. In time, using that space and taking my weekly lessons, I could walk, trot, and canter as well as do school figures on my pony, without any help from the longe line or my instructor. After two years of this, I was finally allowed to go to the horse show at the county fair down the road where I won my first ever class, at my first ever horse show, at age eight. 

Gwyneth and GrayLady 1980.

Judy’s training came from a Russian immigrant who left Europe around WW2. His name was Mikhail. I don’t think I ever knew his last name. He trained her in the classical dressage tradition. It is worth noting here that I had no idea that that was what was happening to me and my pony when she trained us. At no point in this process was I trying to become a “dressage rider.” It was simply the basis from which any further riding would be developed. 

Eventually I was allowed to trail ride all around the farm on my own as my pony and I had become a team. Gray Lady remained with me until her death, when we were both 30 years old. It was my experience with her that taught me the value of systematic training—which, it turns out, is exactly what dressage is. Essentially, my entry into the world of dressage began aboard a small Welsh pony.

Dressage is systematic training. Although many think of it as a sport, and it does have an offshoot that has developed into a sport that is known by the same name, at its core, dressage is supposed to be a system of training that makes a horse better at being ridden and teaches riders to be better at riding horses. When done in the right way, it is a systematic approach to training that answers all the problems that people have riding horses and that horses have being ridden. It’s important to note that horses naturally (instinctively) have only four ways to solve problems. Fight. Flight. Avoid. Surrender. Dressage training addresses this and allows the rider to help the horse solve the problems they are exposed to when being ridden by using the rider’s logic, knowledge, and guidance. It also gives the rider/trainer a framework to make training decisions that will allow the horse to become better suited to its job of carrying humans.

The concept of dressage originated on the European continent. It is widely accepted that Xenophon was the first person to write about dressage training around 430-354 BC, thus making the discipline of dressage a system of training horses that is over 2,000 years old. The word dressage, however, is French, so it clearly came later in history. Dressage still wasn’t meant to be the name of the activity though. Instead, it was just a word that meant training, or preparing. In some very old books on dressage, you will read that it is a system of horsemanship for “dressing” horses. Certainly, they do not mean clothing, they mean training. 

From Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere’s book, School of Horsemanship, 1733.

There are multiple schools of dressage in different regions. Each school has a mildly different approach based on the culture and the horse types most commonly bred in that region at that time. There was a school at Versailles and there is, of course, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, which is still active today. But there were also many others all throughout Europe. These schools were funded by the regional royalty/nobility and were most often built on palace grounds. Each school had a Riding Master, some of whom wrote books and shared their knowledge and experiences with other riding masters of their time. A few of the better-known examples are Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere and Antoine de Pluvinel of France, and William Cavendish, the Duke of New Castle, of England. In a similar vein, it is thought that Henry VIII was responsible for bringing classical (dressage) training to England during his rein in the 1500s. 

The purpose of these riding masters was to train the horses for the royal/noble benefactors to ride and look royal and noble on, as well as to train the highest-ranking horseman in their armies (can’t have those noble royals and high-ranking people falling off all willy-nilly). These horsemen then trained those below them. The most talented and well-trained horses were reserved for royal/noble use in ceremonial events and processions. These horses were the examples and were not the battle-trained horses who were more “expendable.” The riders and horses within each school were trained in the same ways, with the same aids and the same expectations. The reason for this played out on the battlefield. If the soldier, Larry, was wounded or killed, and his horse was running free, and Fred’s horse had been taken out from underneath him, Fred could jump on Larry’s horse and continue fighting because the controls were all basically the same. This would not work out particularly well if everyone had different aids to control their horses. 

German soldiers in World War 2. From The Noble Horse, published in 1985.

Despite our belief that horses are for riding on, people sitting on horses is not natural. This is true based primarily on two facts. The first is that horses are instinctually prey animals and humans are one of their predators (however small and entirely clawless). It is completely unnatural for a prey animal to allow a predator to get near it, never mind sit on its back. Instinct is hard-wired into the prey animal to fight, flee, and avoid predators. Given that backdrop, it is obvious that it takes something other than force to create trust of a predator in a prey animal. Secondly, horses are immediately thrown out of their natural balance when the weight of a rider is added to their back. This is true in the same way as when a human carries a backpack. The lighter the backpack, the easier it is for the person to carry the load for long distances or in exertion. With heavier weight, and especially when exertion is increased, a person must adjust their posture to effectively carry the backpack. This is something they will need to learn.

A horse carrying a rider is more like a hiker carrying a backpack on the Appalachian Trail, or a soldier carrying his weapon and survival gear vs. a student with light book bag or going for an easy walk in the woods with a map and a water bottle. While humans have the inherent brain capacity to adapt to carrying light loads for short distances, especially in the absence of exertion, without any training, they do need to be taught how to efficiently carry heavier loads for longer distances, and at a higher level of exertion. Not only do they need to learn the proper body mechanics, but it is also necessary to spend time building strength and stamina. Much like people, horses do not inherently know how to carry a heavy load for long distances, during exertion, they have to be taught. This is where dressage comes in.

A horse in natural balance. Photo credit: Morgane Schmidt.

In order to teach a horse how to balance under a rider and carry that weight, especially while performing specific and perhaps complex or difficult maneuvers, we must systematically teach them exercises that physically create the necessary balance and strength. To do that though, we must first have a systematic way to teach horses the aids that create these exercises (you can probably already see how this process builds on itself). Because horses do not possess a human brain (specifically they lack the parts of our brain that allow for developing abstract concepts and imagining how to solve problems), they will never understand these concepts. Instead they can only react to their environment, sometimes very intelligently, but it is ultimately up to the humans to educate the horse in a way that he looks to the person for guidance and reassurance, not just to his own fight or flight instincts.

Horses cannot learn by reading a book, watching a video, or listening to a lecture, so we are only left with using the sense of touch, primarily, and some sounds to teach them. This is where the concept of using aids that mean specific things comes from. Whenever I teach this concept, I start to wonder about that first person that got on a horse (specifically about his sanity, among other things). There was absolutely no system, no widely accepted equipment, and no predetermined idea of how this was supposed to work. I have hard time believing it went well. 

Natural balance enhanced by the rider. Gwyneth and Flair in extended canter in the Grand Prix test. (c) flatlandsfoto.

There is a saying that “dressage is for all horses, but not all horses are for dressage.” Using dressage training for all types of riding is appropriate, but not all horses are mentally or physically capable of being competitive in dressage (or anything else for that matter) or performing all the movements in dressage training. This is where things get murky for a lot of folks learning about horsemanship and training and what their riding discipline requires of their horse. Many people believe dressage is an activity that one chooses to do on a specific day of the week, or as their selected sport. But really it is meant to be what one does every day with their horse to systematically help them become more rideable—regardless of the end goal. Once the horse is educated in being ridden by a human (low level dressage), then one can add jumps, barrels, cows, trails, obstacles, terrain changes or upper level dressage movements to the training. 

Keeping that in mind then, low level dressage really just means “good riding practices for all riders and horses.” For definition purposes, low level dressage is anything below the United States Dressage Federation’s Third Level. Upper-level dressage can then be defined as anything after Third Level. The name Third Level is somewhat arbitrary and purely useful for competition practices as each country that has competitive dressage has its own levels and names, but the systematic requirements of training are the same. The exercises that are tested in Third Level are what were considered necessary to make an “adequate” riding horse in the old (cavalry) days. The Third Level tests require a horse to be strong and supple enough while carrying a rider that they can move sideways and show a consistent level of collection (shifting more of the weight of the rider to the hindlegs) in all three gaits. The horse can change leads while staying in the canter (flying change) and lengthen and shorten their stride and frame. These exercises prove that the horse has the general basic qualities needed for all riding activities. 

And this is where people get confused between competition quality and training. Not all barrel horses need to be able to perform a competitive Third Level test in order to be able to do their job of running barrels. But, the best barrel horses will have many of the abilities and qualities that are developed through the thoughtful and systematic training that one uses to train a horse to Third Level. This applies to show jumpers, eventers, reining horses, and all the other ones that I’m not naming specifically. Some styles of riding specialize well beyond this level of training. Some barely meet it.

Comparison of balance in Levade and taking off for a jump. Photo credit unknown.

It is important to understand that every exercise in our dressage tests (except arguably the one-tempis) is hundreds—if not a couple thousand—years old and each has a specific purpose that teaches the horse something about being ridden. The dressage test then is meant to be a literal test of the horse’s and the rider’s basic training. It is not a test of just getting through the movements or pattern. Performing the movements in balance, with suppleness, and in harmony with the rider is proof that the training has been completed in the right way. The way the performance of the exercise is determined to be “correct” is based on what the exercise is supposed to educate, supple, and/or strengthen the horse to do. An example would be the exercises that humans do in the gym, such as squats or planks. When performed “correctly” they strengthen or stretch specific muscles or improve certain skills or balance. When performed “incorrectly,” at best, they have no positive result and, at worst, they cause injury. This is also true for dressage exercises and horses. Dressage training, when done in the right way, enhances the horse’s natural abilities. It does not degrade them. 

Gwyneth and Dio de la Guerra in Spanish Walk. Photo Credit: Morgane Schmidt.

As in all things that people do, some will do it with knowledge and kindness and others will do it in ignorance, or with greed, or with malicious intent. Dressage, the sport, is getting a bit of a bad rap these days. While that is sad, in many cases it is also appropriate as the sport of dressage often rewards things that are incongruous with the systematic training that is dressage. Dressage itself, by definition, is not cruel, excessively expensive, or oppressive to the animals involved. Unfortunately, all those things can be found in the sport of dressage, as well as in other areas of horse training where ribbons and egos play a larger role than knowledge. To be clear though, nor is dressage all lightness, and dancing, and perfection of partnership— even when done in the right way. It can be hard—mentally and physically, and frustrating, and at times vexing, but it is in those moments that having a systematic approach to training will provide the path forward (even if it isn’t an ‘easy’ one).

Ultimately, there is a right way to train a horse (with kindness and knowledge), and there is a wrong way to train a horse (with ignorance, pain and fear). Correct dressage training ends where forcing begins. I have a very wise teacher who teaches that being a good parent and being a good horse trainer require essentially the same characteristics in a person. Parenting isn’t always being nice but it does always involve kindness– which does not equate with being a doormat. Kindness is being in the position of authority and requiring that another performs an activity or duty, but the exertion of the demand is done with empathy and awareness of the other’s physical and intellectual limitations. Training a horse in the right way is very similar to being a good parent. Sometimes you may have to raise your voice or provide a consequence for an undesirable behavior with a child, but the majority of the time you proactively provide a structure that prevents the undesirable behaviors and increases the opportunity for harmony and reward. Dressage training is the equivalent structure that has been designed over centuries to train horses and we use it because doing so produces horses and riders who can perform together in harmony and balance, fluidly, and with enthusiasm. 

This is training in the right way, and what dressage was initially meant to be.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.