The History of Dressage

Dressage aims to produce a harmony and understanding between horse and rider, developing a high level of athletic ability and willingness to participate. The rider instructs the horse with a series of slight body movements.

Loosely translated at 'training' in French, dressage is a display of the skill of the rider, and his steed. Man's association with, and training of horses can be dated back to 800BC with substantial gains in understanding around 3-400BC through the theories of General Xenophon of Greece, once a student of Socrates.

Xenophon understood that reward and kindness were important tools in horsemanship, and placed emphasis on the importance of position and posture. His goal was not to train horses for dressage or carousel, but for battle. An agile and responsive horse in battle was a valuable commodity and his techniques are still held in high regard today.

Ancient Romans developed the first horse shoes, called 'hipposandals' to minimise wear on the horse's hooves. They seem to have followed the base practices of Greek horsemanship, seeing the large advantage a fighter on horseback has over his ground based enemy. Around this time horses were given great care and attention, with high authority guards in charge of their care. There is less information on dressage in the Roman era, and even less in the period following their downfall.

It would seem a more heavy handed approach was adopted in the Dark Ages. Only the wealthy could afford to fight from horseback, and horses became a status symbol of the times. Dressage itself does not seem apparent in warfare of this time. This may be due to the heavy armour and weapons common of this era. Horses able to carry this weight would need to be heavy and less agile themselves, less able to move lightly on their hooves. More work was found in agriculture and the towing of equipment at this time.

The Renaissance brought about a large turn of events with regards to horsemanship. Grisone, a nobleman living in Naples during this period is credited with rediscovering the works of Xenophon, though he himself taught a slightly more heavy handed approach on occasions where he felt it necessary. He did however agree with Xenophon that posture and position were all important. The art of horsemanship became popular once again. Fiaschi, who lived around the same time as Grisone, first indicated the importance of tempo and rhythm which is fundamental in dressage. In 1594 Antoine de Pluvinel founded the Académie d'équitation where French nobility were trained in a number of aspects of horsemanship including dressage. He is best remebered for his gentile and humane training methods, aiming to work the horse's mind and keep him happy during training.

Equestrian sports were introduced to the Olympics in Paris in 1900. The competitive sport evolved from the classic but has been adapted slightly. The Haute Ecole, High School of Dressage, is the most specialised form of dressage and the height of classic training. Dressage was introduced to the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, but also has it's own World Equestrian Games. The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Equestrian Games are held every 4 years since their beginnings in 1990.

In the London 2012 Olympics dressage events will be held in Greenwich Park. The tests will consist of a Team event, an Individual event which are held simultaneously. The 18 highest scoring riders are then pitted against each other with a freestyle test set to music. This final round decides the winners.

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