Training in the Right Way: What to Look for in a Dressage Horse, Part 1

This is the first of a three-part series that explores what to look for when selecting a dressage horse. Today’s article focuses on the three parts needed for a successful dressage horse: temperament, conformation, and movement.

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier it is to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

“Dressage is for all horses, but not all horses are for dressage.” This statement is of great importance in our understanding of what dressage training can and cannot do. Good fundamental dressage training helps all horses become better riding horses. Any trainer of any discipline that is educating their horses to be better partners through systematic development of the horse’s athleticism, balance, and understanding of his job is using dressage principles to create this effect. Excellent dressage trainers understand that all horses can learn most or all of the exercises used in dressage training. However, some horses, while they can absolutely benefit from dressage training, will never be “good” at dressage. It is absolutely necessary that people understand the difference between using dressage training to make a horse a better riding horse vs. dressage training with the intent to compete and/or succeed at the upper levels. Both uses have great value, but if your intent is to be successful and competitive at the upper levels, there are certain attributes you should consider when assessing your next dressage partner. To that end, this article will discuss some of those necessary qualities that you should select for.

Historically, horses that have been bred specifically for dressage hail from different areas of Europe. Each breed registry has ideals with which horses are selected or denied for reproduction of the qualities that the registry considers to be ideal for the activity of dressage. In some cases, the registry views their ideal horse as being capable of multiple activities such as driving, dressage, and jumping, leaving the quality and direction of the training to create the excellence. Other registries, however, focus on breeding an excellent specimen for a given sport. These ideals originated through the history, culture, climate, and style (based on necessity) of riding that has developed over centuries in that region.

Photo (c) “The Imperial Horse The Saga of the Lipizzaners” by Hans-Heinricht Isenbart and Emil M. Buhrer, 1986.

The Northern European Warmbloods are distinctly different from the Eastern European Lipizzans and Kladrubers, which are also quite unlike the Iberian Peninsula’s Lusitanos and PREs, for example. However, each of these groups were originally “designed” and bred for the type of dressage training that was practiced in that region. With the globalization of everything — including horse breeding, training/competition, and sales—bloodlines and styles have become less location-specific. The sport of dressage has become a driving force in the registries’ development of their “type,” leaving the individual breeders to choose whether to breed historically culture-based horses or internationally accepted dressage competition horses. Given the current diversity of purpose-bred dressage horses, and then the vast population of available breeds that are purpose-bred for other activities, it is extremely important that a person choosing their next dressage horse have an idea of what they are looking for and why. This is where the consideration of temperament, conformation, and movement begins.

Photo (c) Eighteenth Century copperplate by Johann Elias Ridinger. The Imperial Horse The Saga of the Lipizzaners, by Hans-Heinricht Isenbart and Emil M. Buhrer. 1986.

Temperament, conformation, and movement are the three fundamental aspects that breeders try to influence and breed registries try to measure in order to create a high-quality horse for its given purpose. These three qualities are what make a horse “good” for a particular activity. This is why Quarter Horses, Morgans, Arabians, Saddlebreds, Warmbloods, and Thoroughbreds (in their “ideal” form) all look, act, and ride (at least to some extent) differently. Because dressage is “for all horses” we often will see all of these breeds represented in competition in the US. But it is worth noting that you will not see Warmbloods, Saddlebreds, and Morgans racing against Thoroughbreds. Or Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses competing in the saddle seat divisions. Likewise, it takes specific qualities of temperament, conformation, and movement to make an excellent competitive (or capable of excellence in the upper-level exercises) dressage horse.

While there is no one breed or registry that is objectively “the best” at producing dressage horses – partly because dressage is historically and culturally influenced and because competition is global — horses that can be considered “high-quality” dressage horses share some distinct characteristics, in spite of the historical, cultural, and style of the breed registry that they hail from. And, not all high-quality dressage horses are purebred. Some breed registries are more inclusive and are looking to create a horse that can do multiple activities successfully. Other registries are more scientific and rigorous in their ideals for specific sports. For an excellent education in what to look for in an elite competition dressage horse, refer to the KWPN (The Dutch Warmblood registry in the Netherlands) “Selection for Performance” booklet. This registry has a system of scoring for all the horses that are presented for acceptance into their studbook that is based on actual measurements and performance standards, that have been collected and evaluated against actual performance results. The Dutch breed registry have collected enough data to be able to predict what qualities certain stallions and mares tend to pass on, and what their temperaments, conformation, and movement actually produce in performance (competition). Due to this, the registry can help breeders create a “direction” for their breeding program and make adjustments to the future horses that the registry represents.

Milona DG and Gwyneth McPherson as part of a demo ride at the 2024 KWPN-NA Annual Meeting in Ocala. Photo (c) Jennifer Zauel.

In consideration of all that though, when you go out to search for your next dressage partner, even if you “just want to have fun and not go to the Olympics,” you absolutely must consider the following characteristics.

  • Temperament (ridability)The most beautiful, best moving, most talented dressage horse in the world is of no use to the rider if the temperament is such that even the most courageous and educated rider cannot ride it successfully. The temperament of the horse must be not only be friendly toward people, but also accepting of the equipment and the work. When you choose a dressage horse, you must look for a horse that is happy to be with people, is easy to lead and tack up, and most especially, tries to do what is asked for by the rider. Young horses who are not fully trained yet will sometimes be “difficult” in these situations, but they are still interested in being with people and trying to do what is asked. A good training program will resolve these discrepancies. A horse that is oppositional and defiant to human requests will be difficult to train, and no matter how talented, will require a great deal of specialized training to maybe be successful.
  • Conformation – The conformation of the horse is a critical piece of the selection and training process. There are always stories about horses who are not particularly well-built for the job but they succeed anyway. This is a true possibility, but not one you should bank on when selecting your next dressage horse. At the same time, there is no such thing as perfect conformation. It is just a general guideline for a horse’s potential ability to balance well and be athletic. Whole books can be (and have been) written on the proper conformation of the dressage horse and there is no way to cover all of it here (though we will dive a bit deeper into it in the next article). The most important thing you can do is educate yourself about the biomechanics of the horse’s body in relation to its ability to balance and move under the rider. A few points to focus on are as follows: The balance should trend toward an “uphill’ tendency, with the withers slightly higher than the hips. The neck should be of similar length to the back and the legs should be long enough in comparison to the neck and the back that the horse is just barely shaped like a short rectangle, but not a square.  A horse that is built with the hips higher than the withers, or with a short neck or a long back, will be difficult to bring into balance under the rider and even more difficult to collect.The legs and the feet are crucial to the longevity of the dressage horse. Become familiar with what healthy strong legs and feet are supposed to look like, paying close attention to angles and straightness. Horses with extremely straight or angled joints are likely to have soundness issues. Crooked legs are always a concern for longevity of soundness. A horse that appears unbalanced while standing still or walking will have difficulty with being an upper level partner.
  • Movement – Often the most recognizable characteristic of a top quality dressage horse is the lofty, uphill, floating appearance of the trot. However, choosing a horse with an excellent walk and canter is of greater importance because the trot is the easiest gait to improve with training. Choosing a dressage horse must start with the evaluation of whether it has a 4 beat walk, 2 beat trot, and 3 beat canter. These are absolute necessities to training a high quality dressage horse. When there is a problem in the rhythm, there is a problem in the mechanics of the horse’s gaits. This can be due to temperament, conformation, training or a combination of these things. Regardless, when choosing a horse for dressage you should shy away from horses with rhythm problems.If you have 3 gaits with a clear and appropriate rhythm, the next thing you should look for a horse that moves forward with energy. The movement should be buoyant and athletic in appearance, and the horse’s body should appear loose and supple while in motion. It is not necessary for the horse to have huge flamboyant gaits to be a good dressage horse. If your goal is to take this horse to the Olympics, you had better have that. But otherwise it is not necessary.

It is worth reiterating that the high-quality dressage horse does not need to be of a specific breed, nor does the horse need to be purpose-bred, but it does need to have the necessary temperament, conformation, and movement to be successful. While horses of all types benefit from good dressage training, the trainer must always recognize that being successful at the upper levels, as well as in competition, requires specific characteristics. This will make all the difference in whether the horse and rider can produce harmony and have success, or struggle with the training process.

Hopefully this article serves as a solid foundation for your journey to understand some of the key considerations when choosing a horse to develop for competitive dressage. In next week’s article, I will further cover some of the specifics of conformation that can lend itself (or not) to the development of the horse and the training process.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Next week’s article will further explore the specifics of conformation and how it helps or hinders the horse, and the final article will discuss how dressage can help develop horses, even those with less-than-ideal conformation.

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.