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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

The History of Dressage

Did you know that dressage dates back to classical Greek horsemanship & that the earliest written work on how to train horses goes back as far as 430BC!? Dressage stems its roots stem from the military who worked to train their horses to perform specific movements to aid their intensions on the battlefield when evading or attacking the enemy.

Pioneers of Dressage in the Early Days

Ever heard of Xenophon? No I hadn’t either! Well Xenophon was a Greek Military Commander who is our earliest reference to written work relating to training specific & intelligent movements to horses, aptly it was named ‘On Horsemanship’.

Moving forward through time to the Renaissance period where equestrian pageants were a common event, military personnel would frequently include displays of highly trained horses for audiences to enjoy. Members of the military studied horsemanship in detail to help produce horses that made valuable assets as they headed into battles with their enemy. One of the most famous products of the military roots forming dressage as we know it today is the Imperial Spanish Riding School of Vienna, formed in 1572, whose training principles are recognised in the sport around the world.

The 16th century also saw “The Rules of Riding” first  published in 1550 by Federico Grisone, coming over 1,000 years after Xenophone’s writing back in ancient Greek times. It reflects many of the principles typically associated with classic dressage training from its original birth in cavalry movements from soldiers opting for the benefits of a strong, agile and easily controlled horse.

Dressage History in the Olympic Games

With such ancient Greek roots, you’d have probably expected dressage to be a long-standing sport within the Olympics, but in fact, it wasn’t recognised as an Olympic event until 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden. However, the event was only open at that time to military officers with civilian men & women not able to compete until 1952 during the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.

Image from DressageDifferent.com

During its first open Olympic Games, there were 27 competitors from across 10 nations, and surprisingly there were four women who were amongst the field. One woman stands out – Lis Hartel from Denmark. Just eight years before, Lis had been paralyzed when she suffered polio, and despite regaining much of her muscle function remained paralyzed below the knee. Lis won Silver in the 1952 individual dressage Olympic event. An incredible achievement…

The Gold medal was won by Swedish rider Henri Saint Cyr on his horse Master Rufus. The Swedish team also won Gold for the team dressage event the same year, with fellow teammates Gustaf Adolf Boltenstern Jr (riding Krest) and Gehnall Persson (riding Knaust), and picked up a total of four equestrian gold medals that year!

Today's Dressage Governing Bodies

During the 1952 Olympic Games, Britain picked up just one medal – a Gold in the team jumping event. But just nine years later, the first UK dressage organisation was formed and is still going strong today. The British Horse Society Dressage Group held eight competitions during its first 12 months and had only 123 members, compared to the 92,000 direct members and 34,000 British Riding Clubs member that it has today!

Image from DailyMail.co.uk
I’ve been surprised to learn that British Dressage wasn’t formed until 1998 to become the UK’s official governing body of dressage, and in 2019 has built up a membership of around 13,000 riders with approximately 10,000 horse, and is responsible for over 2,000 dressage dates throughout the UK each year. The US governing body (USDF – United States Dressage Federation) started in 1973 when 81 pioneers of the sport came together to build a united organisation to drive the sport into the future within the US.


  1. Being a dressage nerd I already knew about it's history, but it still to this day always surprises me that BD wasn’t formed until 1998 - feels so late!

    1. I know, right! I also can't believe it stems so far back in time, but only became an Olympic sport in 1912!


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