What is the equine discipline of Dressage?
Dressage is a highly skilled form of horse riding performed at exhibition and competition levels, as well as an "art" sometimes pursued solely for the sake of mastery.
Originating from the French word for “training”, Dressage shines a light, up close, on the extraordinary connections a horse and rider can develop together.
The discipline of Dressage is all about controlling the horse through the different stages of walk, trot and canter and showing control in how the horse is directed and steered around the ring.
As an equestrian sport defined by the International Equestrian Federation, Dressage is "the highest expression of horse training" where "horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.”
Origins of Dressage
Originating through a necessity to control a horse on the battle field, there are early writings on horsemanship, describing the foundations within Dressage today, dating back to 400BC. The sporting side of the discipline first begun in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Evolving over time, Dressage first became an Olympic sport in 1912 at the Stockholm Olympics and has remained an Olympic event until today.
Classical Dressage and Western Dressage
‘Traditional' or 'Classic Dressage’ is the Olympic standard of Dressage. Western Dressage is also a popular version of the sport which is gaining popularity across the world and is well established in the USA and Canada.
Western Dressage combines the principles of Classic Dressage alongside the use of Western Tack. Traditional or Classic Dressage requires and English-type saddle whereas in Western Dressage a Western saddle is used. The attire of the riders is also very different - such as the use of helmets or cowboy hats.
Western Dressage can also include 360º turns, replicating the need to do so when managing cattle on horseback, whereas in Classic Dressage routines riders do not include 360º turns. There are also differences in the horses gait and a few changes to their movements.
The principles of both versions remain the same with many Western Dressage riders being trained in Classical Dressage.
Competing in Dressage
Dressage competitions are held across the world at all levels, from amateur to Olympic level. Dressage is also one of the three disciplines within 3-day eventing.
The pinnacle for most of the sport is to represent your country at the Olympics or the World Equestrian Games which are both held every four years.
Riders enter a ring (normally 20m x 60m) and perform a set of movements in front of judges who then score the movements out of 10. The final score is presented as a percentage and the highest percentage score on the day wins!
The highest level of Dressage rider is Grand-Prix level and the highest ever score performed in a professional Dressage competition was by the wonderful Charlotte Dujardin on the iconic horse Valegro who managed to score an unbelievable 94.3% together.
Most Dressage horses are broken between the ages of three and four with an aim to be ready for competition at the age of 5 onwards. The majority of medium-level Dressage horses will achieve this level at the age of 7 with a further two to three years to reach advanced or elite level. As long as the horse is maintained and well cared for their career in Dressage can continue until they are fifteen to twenty years old.
A horse being trained or competing in the discipline of Dressage needs to be well trained, strong, flexible and intelligent. Although certain breeds exceed in the sport of Dressage, 'Dressage horses' can be from any breed.
Away from the horses conformation and temperament; the most important sign of a good Dressage horse is the relationship and connection the horse has with the rider. The horse needs to be intelligent and have a temperament which helps them learn new tricks.
A key aspect of any Dressage horse is ensuring they are sound. Lameness, either early signs of lameness or through historic injuries, can limit the horses ability to perform certain movements. Try and understand whether the horse has experienced any previous injuries to their tendons or ligaments, or any hoof issues as they can often limit their movements and general mobility levels.
Evaluating a horses conformation and how their musculoskeletal system is proportioned is also important, along with keeping their hooves healthy.
The most common breeds used within Dressage are Warmbloods, Oldenburg’s, Hanoverians, and Andalusian horse breeds. In essence, any breed of horse can take part in Dressage as long as they are free from injury and have the right temperament.
There are two sizes of Dressage arenas, smaller arenas which are 20x x 40m and mainly used by preliminary and intermediate levels and large (or ‘standard’) arenas which are 20m x 60m - used at advanced level in most cases anything above intermediate level.
Dressage arenas require space for horses to perform their movements and can be either outside or inside arenas. They can be fitted with a variety of surfaces including grass, sand, synthetic fibres or shredded rubber. Many Dressage arenas use a surface which provides the horse with grip and stability, as opposed to arenas used for disciplines such as barrel racing which require a less firm surface which helps the horse to slide.
During a competition the outside perimeter of the Dressage ring will be outlined by a small white fence or chain; this represents the area in which the competitors take part. A variety of letters on small boards are then placed within the fenced area which indicate where specific movements within the routine are to be performed.
Common injuries in Dressage horses
The discipline of Dressage demands total harmony between the horse and rider, and requires the equine athlete to have balance, suppleness, power and focus. Due to the nature of the discipline injuries and health-conditions directly relating to the sport are common.
Young and novice Dressage horses are more prone to injuries as their muscles, ligaments, tendons and their overall suppleness will be less developed than with well trained and experienced Dressage horses. Once the horse has reached advanced or elite level their training will involve repetitive actions and movements, unlike with younger horses who will have to develop strength overtime. Older Dressage horses are more likely to develop repetitive subclinical injuries which are caused over a period of time as opposed to younger horses who are more prone to trauma injuries such as tears and strains. Advanced-level Dressage horses are however required to complete far more strenuous movements on their bodies - resulting in them having higher risk of injury.
Genetics, correct shoeing, the horses diet and their living conditions all have a roll to play. Establishing the overall wellbeing of the horse, not just their legs, is vital in detecting early signs of lameness.
Hindquarter injuries in Dressage horses
To enable the Dressage horse to be collected, have balance and freedom of movement, extra load is taken onto their hindquarters, which in turn increases the strain on the skeleton and soft tissue structures in these areas of the body. Hindquarters on a horse include their pelvis, hips, buttocks, thighs, croup and quarters. The hindquarters must be strong enough to carry the whole horses bodyweight. These groups have various tendons, ligaments and bones which can result in injury or pain and be subject to degenerative issues such as suspensory ligament desmitis.
Ligament injuries in Dressage horses
It should not be a surprise that the most commonly reported ligament injury within a Dressage horse are tears or sprains to the suspensory ligaments - in both the front or back limbs, and particularly in the upper proximal area. Injuries to suspensory ligaments can result in varying levels of pain and lameness and are likely to effect the future athletic ability of the horse.
If you suspect your horse as a ligament issue then seek medical consultation. Diagnosis tools such as ultrasounds (X-rays) and thermal imaging can shed light on any internal issue and ensure that the correct recovery plan is applied. MRI scans are valued as the ‘gold-standard’ in diagnosing ligament injuries but can be costly. In most cases a ligament injury will result in inflammation and can result in an increase in heat within the effected area.
Treating ligament injuries in Dressage horses can be a long road with many unable to compete at any level until the injury is fully recovered. Applying cold therapy to any inflammation is advised and depending on the severity of the injury painkillers or NSAID anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed.
Rest is the foundation of treatment for suspensory ligament injuries. The pain associated with suspensory ligament injuries is often transient and short-lived. It is common in short term injuries that the horse may “look and feel better” and may be returned to work only to have the lameness return. A rest period of three months would be typical for relatively moderate injuries, with more severe cases taking up to eighteen months or more.
Applying diagnosis techniques, such as MRI scans, are a valuable tool in establishing the healing process and whether the horse can or cannot return back to work. Shockwave therapies have also shown to successfully support ligament injuries and are also commonly used, with surgery often used as last resort.
As with many health-related conditions in horses; rest and recuperation after any ligament injury is key.
Joint issues in Dressage horses
Joint conditions in dressage horses are common and require preventive and ongoing support.
Pain being created from inflammation within the horses coffin joint is a common issue in all performance sports horses, including Dressage horses. The location of the coffin joint - the lowest joint in a horse leg, between the coffin bone and the short pastern bone - is mostly surrounded by the horse hooves. The most common issues within the coffin joint are traumas which result in inflammation of the joint capsule itself, and degenerative joint issues such as arthritis or ringbone.
Diagnosing joint problems is done by using techniques such as radiography and thermal imaging, with joint or nerve blocks used on more severe cases.
Treating coffin joint issues is generally done using NSAID painkiller medications and in some cases injections are done directly into the joint.
Another area commonly affected by joint pain in Dressage horses is within the two lower hock joints (the Centrodistal and the Tarsometatarsal joints). These are low motion joints which take a considerable load during common Dressage movements. When any joint inflammation arises it causes pain and can lead to varying levels of lameness. Hock joint issues, particularly if left untreated, can result in osteoarthritis of the distal hock joints.
Bone spavin is a term used for osteoarthritis and pain in the distal intertarsal and tarsometatarsal joints of the hock and can often be found in Dressage horses. Bone spavin may cause overt lameness or poor performance. Horses with this condition may have an expressive free trot but have a poor canter and in particular have problems in more collected gaits, where there is increased loading of the hock.
The fetlock joints of a horse are also subjected to extreme pressures in Dressage and as with hock issues require the same approach.
Foot pain and problems with the horses hooves, resulting from synovitis or osteoarthritis of the joint, is a commonly diagnosed problem in horses competing in all disciplines but in Dressage in particular. Within the rigid hoof capsule, the ligaments and joints have to cope with higher than normal weight load which can lead to inflammation and pain.
Detecting any joint issue early is important when managing the health of your Dressage horse and helping prevent issues or complications further down to road. Having a farrier and vet who know your horse can be key in protecting your horse from complications and pain.
Maintaining your Dressage horse
To allow Dressage horses to perform at the highest level possible the animal must be finely tuned and faultlessly functioning. This requires ongoing maintenance and an understanding of the individual horse. Many dressage horses are given access to alternative therapies such as massage therapy and hydrotherapy.
Any mild lameness can cause a problem. It is therefore important to train and prepare well, ensure good foot confirmation and to keep an eye out for any changes in their behaviour or gait.
In the discipline of Dressage, the horse’s leg definition and gait are of extreme importance. Ensuring the horse is supple and as flexible as possible is of great importance. Many riders manage their horse with joint supplements, a controlled and balanced diet and regular exercise with adequate rest and rehabilitation periods.
Treatments for the most common health issues in Dressage horses are varied and range from conservative to more aggressive forms of treatment, depending on the symptom. They can involve a change of work surface, shoeing, various medications and even surgery.
Advanced magnetic therapy is now widely adopted to horses suffering from many forms of inflammation or injury as the technology does not create a thermal reaction (heat) in the horses body, as traditional magnetic technologies do. This can be a useful tool from a complementary perspective as they can be used alongside other treatments and therapies. EQU StreamZ advanced magnetic bands are endorsed by some of the leading Dressage riders in the world, such as the wonderful Belinda Trussell (olympic dressage rider).
“I have seen more than a few improvements in several of our horses wearing the EQU bands, and I wear the human band myself. I can say from experience that they have helped us and are worth every penny!”
Sophie Wells - Paralympic, World & European Champion
“For me StreamZ have been a life saver! I first experienced the benefits of StreamZ for myself, since then my horse’s Bling and World Champion Gracie have reaped the benefits too. Natural, non invasive and results driven!”
Julie Moorcroft - World Western Dressage Champion
In all cases of injuries to Dressage horses, treatments and therapies should have a strong emphasis on recovery and rehabilitation with many horse owners using alternative therapies to support their horses ongoing health, with ‘prevention being as important as cure’.
We hope this article has shed some light on the topic of Dressage horses and common injuries they may develop and remember; whatever injury you may be facing with your beloved Dressage horse - you are not alone!