Dressage is one of three equestrian sports featured in the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France.

Known as the highest expression of horse training, dressage is an equestrian discipline that develops the horse’s strength, balance, and rideability. In competition, dressage athletes perform elegant and precise movements that showcase their training in front of a panel of judges.

Dressage has been part of the Olympic Games for over a century. Today, equestrian events are the only Olympic sport in which men and women compete directly against each other.

Dressage is beautiful to watch but sometimes challenging to understand. This Olympic Dressage Guide covers everything you need to know about the competition, scoring, teams, and schedule for dressage at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Dressage in the Olympics

Like other sports, dressage has several levels of national and international competition. At the Olympic level, dressage athletes perform the most difficult movements.

Training a horse to reach the top level takes years, but all dressage training is based on the same fundamentals. The Olympic dressage competition follows similar rules to other international dressage events.

History

Competitive dressage evolved from ancient methods of training cavalry horses and classical schools that developed riding as an art form. Dressage first appeared in the Olympic program at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. [1]

Initially, only male military officers could compete in dressage at the Olympics. Early versions of the sport resembled obedience tests used by the cavalry.

Dressage events at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games included most movements seen today in the modern competition arena. Females and civilian males first became eligible to compete at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. Since then, men and women have regularly shared the medal podium.

As with other recent Olympic Games, Paris 2024 includes the equestrian sports of dressage, eventing, and jumping. The equestrian events are also confirmed for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Arena

Olympic dressage athletes compete in a 20m x 60m arena. White railings line the arena’s outer border, while letters mark specific locations on the perimeter. The standard dressage arena is set up in the middle of a larger ring in the Olympic stadium.

Riders enter the arena at A, on the short side. C marks the center of the opposite short side. Seven judges sit at different letter locations around the arena, with the President of the ground jury sitting at C.

When the judge at C rings a bell, riders have 45 seconds to enter the competition arena and begin their test. They may ride around the arena’s border until the bell rings.

Tests

A dressage test is a sequence of movements performed at specific locations in the arena. The test sheet uses the arena letters to describe where riders should perform a movement.

The Olympic competition is held at the Grand Prix level. Grand Prix tests include the most complex movements and patterns dressage horses can perform.

Some movements seen in Grand Prix dressage tests at the Olympics include:

  • Piaffe: A highly collected and elevated movement where horses appear to trot on the spot
  • Passage: An elevated trot with a prolonged moment of suspension and pronounced engagement
  • Tempi changes: A sequence of flying changes performed every second stride or every stride at canter
  • Canter pirouette: A turn on the spot around the inside hind leg in a highly collected canter
  • Half pass: An advanced lateral movement in which the horse bends in the direction of travel

Riders create their own choreography to music for freestyle tests in the Olympics.

Scoring

Judges score each movement in the test on a scale from 1 (very bad) to 10 (excellent). Horse and rider combinations get a 0 if they don’t perform a movement called for on the test sheet.

International dressage tests also include a single collective mark for overall impression.

The final dressage score for a test is a percentage calculated by dividing the total points earned by the total possible points in the test. Scores from each judge are added together and divided by the total number of judges for a final result.

Going off course, or performing movements in the wrong order, results in penalties. The first error reduces the final score by two percentage points. The second error results in elimination. Dressage riders can also be eliminated for rule violations. [2]

The Olympic Games have a mandatory dressage judges supervisory panel. This panel has the authority to change movement scores if a judge misses a mistake or if a single judge’s final score varies by 5% or more from the average scores of the other judges.

Scores over 75% are competitive for team medals. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the gold medal-winning team had an average score above 80% in the final team competition.

Freestyle tests typically have higher scores due to artistic marks. All individual medal winners at Tokyo 2020 scored over 88% in the freestyle.

Attire and Equipment

Dressage riders wear tall boots, white breeches, white gloves, and a tailcoat. Some national teams have matching tailcoats.

Historically, top hats were traditional head attire for international dressage competitions. However, they started to fall out of fashion after 2010, when safety awareness increased in the sport.

Some riders chose to wear helmets in the Olympics at London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016. Helmets became mandatory for all international dressage competitions in 2021. Tokyo 2020, held in 2021, was the first Olympic Games to require athletes to wear helmets.

Horses wear a dressage saddle, white saddle pad, and double bridle. The double bridle has two bits, which enables more refined rein aids. Wraps and boots are not allowed in the competition arena, but horses often wear leg protection while warming up.