Dressage 101: Understanding The Basics

Dressage is an equestrian sport in which a horse and rider perform a series of movements. The goal for the rider is to have their horse perform these movements in as elegant a manner as possible.

Dressage for Beginners
Understanding the basics of dressage is crucial for riders of all levels.
Dressage movements and exercises can improve communication and partnership between horse and rider.
Attention to detail, proper equipment, and consistent practice are key components of success in dressage.
Additional resources, such as books and guides, can provide valuable insights and information for improving dressage riding and training.
Always work with a qualified instructor and prioritize safety when participating in dressage activities.

What is Dressage?

Dressage is a sport that is performed on a horse. It is a form of classical equestrianism, which means it’s one of the oldest Olympic sports. 

Dressage tests your ability as a rider to communicate effectively with your horse, while also demonstrating excellent posture and balance in the saddle.

Make sure you have all the necessary equipment before your next ride. Check out our guide on 15 essential horseback riding equipment pieces to ensure you’re well-prepared for a successful ride.


The gait is a horse’s natural way of moving. The gait plays an important role in defining breed and conformation, as well as movement quality.

Horse gaits can be divided into two categories: walk/trot/canter/gallop (WTCG) and rack/pace (R&P). The WTCG are the four standard gaits that all horses should be able to perform, though some might have trouble doing so due to conformational issues or training problems. 

A horse with good conformation should have no trouble with these gaits–they flow naturally from one step to another without hesitation or awkwardness. 

R&Ps are less common than WCTGs but still important because they show off the horse’s ability at high speed while giving you information about their legs and feet during movement patterns like trotting across country where there aren’t any fences around them!


Maneuvers are movements that the horse performs. The more advanced a horse’s training, the more complex these maneuvers become. While there are many different types of maneuvers, they are generally broken down into four categories:

  • Straight lines
  • Circles (or curves)
  • Half-passes
  • Piaffes
Straight LinesMovements performed in a straight line with even strides and consistent rhythm. Examples include the halt, trot, and canter.
Circles (or Curves)Movements performed in a circular pattern, with the horse traveling on a curved path. Examples include the serpentine and volte.
Half-passesSideways movements performed at an angle, with the horse moving diagonally across the arena. Examples include the leg yield and shoulder-in.
PiaffesA highly collected, elevated trot that requires a great deal of strength, balance, and control. It is considered one of the most advanced dressage maneuvers.

Maneuvers are movements that the horse performs, typically broken down into four categories: Straight Lines, Circles (or Curves), Half-passes, and Piaffes. The more advanced the horse’s training, the more complex these maneuvers become.


The walk is a four-beat gait in which the horse’s legs move in diagonal pairs. The trot is a two-beat gait in which the legs on each side move forward together, as with any other running animal.

The canter/lope (the terms are interchangeable) is also known as “the rack” or “running walk.” It’s an intermediate between walking and trotting that has three beats per stride rather than four or two.

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The Walk

The walk is the most important gait to learn first. It’s also the foundation of dressage, and it’s the gait that you’ll use to teach your horse all of the other gaits.

The walk is a slow, collected gait with a high head carriage and arched neck. You can think of it as similar to how you would walk if you were wearing high heels–you’d be taking small steps, lifting each foot off the ground carefully so as not to trip over them or break an ankle (or fall flat on your face).

The Trot

The trot is a two-beat gait that is the most common gait used in dressage. It’s also usually the fastest gait, as it moves the body sideways rather than forward.

The horse moves its legs in diagonal pairs: right front down, left rear up; then left front down, right rear up. The horse’s head remains straight ahead during both parts of this lateral movement pattern (left lead).

The Canter/Lope

The Canter/Lope is a four-beat gait in which the horse travels one foot at a time, with each foot striking the ground independently. It is sometimes referred to as a lateral two-beat gait because it has two beats in each direction (one forward and one back).

The Canter is often used for teaching young horses how to move their bodies from side-to-side as well as forward and backward.

Beat NumberFoot PositionDescription
1Outside hindThe horse pushes off from the outside hind leg, creating forward momentum.
2Follow-throughThe outside hind leg continues to move forward while the inside hind leg steps under the horse’s body.
3LeadThe horse’s outside foreleg reaches forward and touches down before the inside foreleg.
4Follow-throughThe inside hind leg follows through and steps under the horse’s body, creating a “rocking chair” motion.

The Canter/Lope is a four-beat gait with each foot striking the ground independently in a specific pattern. It is sometimes referred to as a lateral two-beat gait because it has two beats in each direction.

The Gallop

The gallop is a very important gait to master because it’s used in many dressage tests, and it also helps you develop a smooth, long stride. In order to perform the gallop, your horse must pick up their front feet quickly while keeping their hind legs engaged. You’ll need to help them do this by pushing down on their shoulders (with your hands) or pressing into the saddle with your legs so that they go forward at an even pace rather than running out of control.

If you’ve never trained a horse before and don’t have any experience riding one either, then start by practicing trotting first; this will give both of you time to get used to each other before attempting any other gaits. Once both of those things feel comfortable for both of you–and only then–move on!

Protecting your feet while you ride is crucial. Learn about the importance of properly fitting horseback riding boots in our guide to ensure you avoid unnecessary injuries.


The canter pirouette is a difficult maneuver that requires the horse to make small circles with his front legs while remaining on the same spot. 

This takes a lot of strength and coordination, but it’s also one of the most impressive moves you’ll see in dressage. 

To do this, you have to ask your horse for a canter and then move your reins so he goes into half-pass instead. 

Once he’s moving in half-pass, ask him for more bend (see below) and then slowly lower your hands until they’re almost touching his neck. Make sure not to drop them too quickly or else he’ll lose his direction! 

As soon as he starts turning around with both hind legs together, raise up quickly again so as not to confuse him into thinking he has completed half-pass already!

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Transitions are the most important part of dressage. If you don’t have a good transition, your horse will not be able to perform well. 

Transitions should be smooth and fluid; the horse should not have to stop or slow down at any point in the movement, it should maintain its balance throughout, and you should be able to maintain your position on its back without having to adjust yourself or change your weight distribution in any way.

The history of horseback riding is fascinating and has evolved over time. Learn more about how it has changed through the years in our guide to the history of horseback riding.


Dressage is a beautiful sport, and it’s important to understand the basics before you dive in. We hope this article has helped you do just that! 

Now that we’ve covered the basic concepts of dressage, let’s move on to some more advanced topics, such as paces and gaits.

Further Reading

Here are some additional resources to learn more about dressage:

Jane Savoie’s Dressage 101: A comprehensive guide to dressage basics in an easy-to-understand language.

Dressage 101 by Horse & Rider Books: An informative book on the basics of dressage riding and training.

Jane Savoie’s Dressage 101: Take your riding to the next level with this comprehensive guide to mastering the basics of dressage.


What is dressage?

Dressage is a competitive equestrian sport in which riders and horses perform a series of movements and maneuvers to demonstrate their level of training and skill.

What are the benefits of dressage riding?

Dressage riding can improve communication and partnership between rider and horse, as well as enhance balance, flexiblity, and strength for both horse and rider.

What are some dressage basics?

Some dressage basics include movements such as the halt, walk, trot, canter, and rein-back. Additionally, riders focus on elements such as rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, and collection.

How do I get started in dressage?

To get started in dressage, it’s important to find a qualified instructor who can help you learn the basics and progress at your own pace. You’ll also need appropriate riding equipment, such as a well-fitted saddle and helmet.

What are some common dressage errors to avoid?

Some common dressage errors to avoid include leaning forward, gripping with the knees, and overusing the reins. Additionally, incorrect posture, lack of collection, and poor preparation can hinder your performance and progress.