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United States Dressage Federation

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History of Dressage

Dressage is one of the Olympic equestrian sports. The modern Olympics commenced in 1896 with equestrian events appearing in the 1900 Paris Games. It was the 1912 Stockholm Games where the 'military test' first appeared and evolved into the separate Olympic disciplines of dressage, eventing, and stadium jumping.

Horses have been used as mounts for the military since early history. As the horses had to be obedient and maneuverable, a system of training was developed, first documented in the writing of the Greek Xenophon. The system of training was built upon throughout the ages, with many well-known riding masters, military and civilian, writing books expounding their methods.

As the equine in the past centuries was used primarily by the military, it only stood to reason that a test of the military horse be the standard during the inception of the modern Olympics. The military test included obedience and maneuverability (or what would become dressage) and the ability to jump obstacles.

By 1912, the equestrian disciplines as we know them (dressage, jumping, and eventing) were included. However, the riders continued to be all male and predominantly military for a few decades. The United States Cavalry at Ft. Riley exchanged ideas and instructors with the schools in Europe and started the trend that brought dressage training not only to the military but to civilians in the United States.

After the US Cavalry was disbanded in 1948, the focus for dressage shifted from military to civilian competition and sport and began to gain momentum. Women as well as men became passionate about dressage and in 1952 the first women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. The growing enthusiasm for the sport, supported by increased access to knowledgeable military and foreign trainers, finally brought together 81 pioneers of dressage in 1973 to found the United States Dressage Federation.

Early Dressage Horses

Heavy horses carried the knights of the middle ages in full armor. As modes of warfare changed, the type of horse changed with it, giving way to the lighter horse used for the cavalry. The hot blooded breeds, such as the Arabian and Thoroughbred, were introduced to add swiftness and greater maneuverability to the cold blooded, heavy horses of the armored knights. The resulting “warmbloods” formed the basis for most of the breeds most commonly successful in dressage today.

Separate studbooks in principalities throughout Europe were maintained by the local lord or prince, with the result that many of these warmblood bloodlines can be traced back through a surprising number of generations. Arabian and Thoroughbred lines have continued to be used to further refine the warmblood that we know today: a leggier, elegant horse, sometimes with extravagant movement. These modern-day warmbloods predominate in international dressage competition.