di Enzo Truppa

This chapter deals with the fundamental requirements for a correct execution of a dressage class, the absence of which, as stressed in courses for dressage judges, represents a serious fault. In addition to constituting the fundamental aspect in the judgment of each single figure, for the purpose of the score sheets the evaluation of these elements is summarized under the item “overall marks,” each of which reflects the assessments of some of these essential elements in aggregate form. In practice, the definitions are: first overall mark, second, third, and fourth overall mark. Recently, at FEI level, these end overall marks have been taken away replaced only by one mark for general impression.

The reason for attributing priority importance to these essential elements in judging the performance of a combination (that will be examined individually further below) lies in the fact that their observance reflects the accuracy and quality of the training that the horse has received, which undoubtedly represents the most important point that the judge must determine with his or her work.

Unfortunately, it often happens that some judges, who probably lack sufficient experience, do not (or are unable to) take these aspects into due consideration, and they tend not to polarize their attention on the correctness of the method of training the horse reflected in the presence of the basic elements that we will examine in detail, and that provide an experienced judge with a view of what happens behind the scenes. Contrary to this correct interpretation of their role, they tend to focus on listing a series of minor errors that anybody, even in the public, could immediately perceive, such as an error in a sequence of canter changes.

The ideal dressage judge should be able to immediately recognize and determine, in the short period of time available during the execution of a dressage class, the fundamental points underlying a correct training plan for a dressage horse (called the “Scale of training and judgment”).

The long process of training a horse for dressage implies first of all the definition of a physical training program, conducted systematically, or if we wish to simplify, continuous exercise with the aim of developing to the greatest extent possible the horse/athlete’s physical and mental capabilities, improving what nature has given the horse and making it obedient and a pleasure to ride. Such a training program leads to the listing, in the order they are obtained, of the basic qualities required of a dressage horse that is properly trained and of the phases of development of these qualities in the training program itself.

The diagram presented here, used by the International Equestrian Federation in training courses for International Judges, shows the interrelations between the various basic requirements for the proper training of a dressage horse (essential points of the judgment of a dressage class) and the three principal phases of that training.

None of the six basic qualities listed above, all of which are essential in the training of a dressage horse, can be examined in isolation, as they are all interdependent. In fact, those qualities are to be developed, in the order expressed above, through a systematic working plan, and not singularly or in just any order.

The diagram presented above also allows for seeing that the three essential phases of training are related to each other, and what the points of contiguity between them are.

Horses thus trained will be decontracted and “through” (durchlassigkeit) and the training program will be valid for both the systematic training of a young horse, and as a preliminary basis for a complete training session of a more experienced horse.

A decontracted and through horse, as the result of proper training, will certainly be agile, obedient, and a pleasure to ride (“HAPPY ATHLETE”).

This principle is valid in general for all horses, regardless of the their intended use, and not only for high-level dressage horses.

Let us examine these basic qualities in detail.


This term is linked to the correct sequence of the three gaits (walk, trot, canter).

Naturally, it is necessary to have good knowledge of how the horse moves in the three basic gaits, and in that regard we refer to the in-depth examination in the chapter of this book that deals with these aspects.

2- LOOSENESS (Decontraction)

Looseness (decontraction) can be defined as a fundamental prerequisite to take each step in the scale that ideally represents the correct training program for a dressage horse, and together with the correct rhythm, represents the essential goal to be reached in the preliminary phase of training.

It should be immediately noted that, despite maintaining a proper rhythm, the movement cannot be considered correct if the horse does not move with its muscles free any form of tension and without using its back. Indeed, only if the horse is physically and mentally free of tension and forcing will it be able to work with full looseness, using itself and its muscular system to the fullest.

In this regard, it must be clear what we mean in dressage by “ease and naturalness of movement.”

“Ease of movement” means the absence of negative tension, which constitutes an essential element in the horse’s movement and its proper bearing. A contracted and tense horse will always respond with irritation, agitation, or other signs of physical and mental resistance to the rider’s aids, that cannot be either refined or imperceptible, with the result of negatively influencing the correct execution of the movement requested.

Some of the visually perceptible signs of reaching looseness (decontraction) and thus ease of movement are, for example, the extension of the head and the neckline forward and low in all three gaits, simply upon request from the rider, the evident elasticity of movement in trot and canter, the ease and calm showed in the execution of the class and also the calm oscillation of the tail in unison with the movement of the diagonals of the trot, the calm mobility of the ears that indicate the attention the horse pays to its rider and the trust manifested in general by the horse’s eyes, that must remain open and attentive. That ease of movement, that derives from the general looseness (decontraction) of the horse, must be evident even during the execution of a particularly difficult movement; in fact a contracted horse will almost never have good submission and thus it will be difficult for it to properly execute the movements requested.

It should also be clarified that this form of tension is mainly due to erroneous aids from the rider, and thus incorrect training. Yet this must not be confused with the fact that a perfectly trained horse can be incidentally disturbed in its execution by external events such as the slamming of a door, a sudden noise, a waving flag that appears, a deafening noise, or other causes that remind the horse of its nature and the reason why, unlike many other animals, it has been able to survive over the centuries with the principal element at its disposal, the ability to flee. In order to evaluate this particular aspect, the judge must observe the ease and quickness with which the rider restores order when the horse is disturbed by an external event and the consequent continuation of the class based on the expected standards.

In this regard, I recall, in my experience as a judge, that I have rung the bell on various occasions and had a figure be repeated because its execution was amply disturbed by an external event (I even remember the bursting of a balloon near a horse that was executing an extended canter).

The process of decontraction implies that the horse’s joints bend and extend to the same extent, on both sides of its body, giving the impression that it is fully physically and mentally engaged in the work it is doing.

A decontracted horse will have a back that oscillates and will move through the three gaits rhythmically and without lunging forward, meaning that it does not hurry up or “rush.” That horse will accept the aids given by the rider, who will be able to sit during the horse’s movement and thus will not be “thrown out of the saddle,” so to say.


“Acceptance” can be defined as a light but continuous connection between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth; the mouth should move forward and thanks to the use of the rider’s aids should “seek” contact with the rider’s hands through the bit.

Acceptance of bit is in reality a broader concept that involves all of the surfaces of contact between horse and rider, i.e. seat, legs, and hands, in the order of importance.

There is a very pertinent German saying that goes like this: “The horse must seek contact and the rider must offer it.” Correct and continuous contact allows the horse to stabilize its balance beneath the rider’s weight and to also find the right rhythm in each of its gaits.

We cannot provide a definition of the ideal tension of the reins in order to establish the degree of contact desired. The level can vary as a function of the horse’s gait, but in any case the judge must be well aware that insufficient or even totally absent contact, indicated by the lack of tension in the reins (which does not mean pulling!) is an evident sign of improper training or poor coordination of the rider’s aids, and in some cases, of a poor seat.

A horse that properly accepts the bit can be defined as a “horse in hand,” which implies a bending at the poll that should always be the highest point of the neckline. This is not to be considered an objective per se, since the horse should come “in hand” as a consequence and as an effect of appropriate training.

This is one of the greatest misunderstandings in dressage. When working with a young horse in the preliminary phase of its training or when working on looseness (decontraction) with a more experienced horse, the rider should avoid attempting to use force and being rushed in bringing the horse “in hand.”

Indeed, if this is obtained with only the use of the hand, there will certainly be significant problems in the search for looseness (decontraction) and in the development of the correct activity of the horse’s hind legs, with the result that the main goal of the training will not be achieved; rather, the horse will be led to concentrate on “fighting” the rider’s hand, that could even seem irritating to it.


Dressage impulsion is called “schwung” by the Germans so as not to create ambiguity with the impulsion present in nature that each horse shows, for example, when it gallops freely in a paddock. Dressage impulsion is one of the fundamental elements in the evaluation of the execution of a class, and there are certain points to be clarified that might give rise to many misunderstandings. The most recurring example in practice is that of a horse that shows all of its tension with what is defined in English as “floating trot” or “swimming trot,” or “trot passage”; that situation gives the exact indication of an impulsion that is not acceptable.

One of the principal signs to judge whether the horse possesses dressage impulsion or not is given by the elasticity of the gaits: a gait with impulsion and a “forward” tendency cannot be conceivable if the horse’s hind legs are not sufficiently engaged under its body and if the back is not elastic. If the back muscles are inactive they will not be able to coordinate the movements of the horse’s front and hind legs.

Impulsion can be directed forward and upward, and this is why one of the fundamental concepts of dressage is repeatedly stressed: impulsion and speed are not the same thing.

It should also be underscored that consenting submission is a prejudicial condition for the development of correct impulsion, and if the rider is forced to use its legs with excessive force, he will not be able to remain in harmony and be “united” with the horse. Likewise, the absence of harmony between the horse and rider will be negative in terms of the development of dressage impulsion.

Ultimately, we can say that a horse shows impulsion when the energy created by its hind legs is transposed into the gait in every phase and aspect of the movement, that will be clearly characterized by a tendency to move forward. We can say that a horse works with impulsion when it lifts its legs energetically from the ground, thus moving forward decisively.

In order for the horse to be able to work with impulsion in trot and canter, it first needs to have reached the necessary looseness, to have a back that oscillates rhythmically, and to be ridden with a light and correct hand contact.

Impulsion is visible only in trot and canter, while there cannot be impulsion in walk because in that gait there is no moment of suspension.

To promptly judge the quality of impulsion, the judge must observe the horse’s hocks, brought energetically upward and forward immediately after the hooves are lifted from the ground, rather than being projected only upward or even pulled backward. This implies that the horse’s movements are absorbed by its back muscles and that the rider can sit gently in the saddle and be “in movement.”

Note. It is important to note that dressage impulsion is created principally by training. The rider makes use of the horse’s natural gaits, but adds decontraction and the desire for forward movement that must originate from the hind legs. The goal is to obtain what is defined as a horse who is “through” (durchlassigkeit). It should also be noted that if the horse is pushed forward too energetically, to the point of rushing its gaits, the phase of suspension will be reduced because the horse is forced to put its front legs down too early. The final result will be that the tempo becomes too fast, although the rhythm has been maintained, and this will have a negative influence on impulsion.


The horse’s movement must be straight so that it can equally and efficiently distribute its weight on the front legs and its rear haunches. This can be obtained through systematic training whose prerequisite consists of a correct decontraction of both sides of the horse’s body.

The “straight horse” has always been considered, by anyone who has written about dressage, as one of the most important conditions to use the pushing force of the hind legs and to be able to control and improve the horse’s balance.

As many probably already know, almost no horses are born straight, and as a consequence the hind legs do not engage in a uniform manner in the direction of the center of gravity.

We also need to consider the fact that the horse’s shoulders are narrower than the hind quarters, and this morphological aspect further contributes to the horse’s tendency to move forward in a crooked way.

It has been observed that in most cases, the horse’s right rear footprints fall further inside than the corresponding prints of the right hoof on the same side. The result of that tendency is that the right hind leg must push further forward, while the left hind leg is required to bend more.

Proceeding in training, more weight is transferred onto the hind legs and thus they need to bend more. We will also note that the back left leg will be ready to accept that greater bending as required, and that the back right leg will try to avoid it by moving laterally, that is, outside of the track of the corresponding front right leg.

What has been explained to this point, far from being a morphological quirk, is based on specific reasons present in the dynamics of the horse’s movement, that must be made “straight” for very specific reasons:

  • to be able to push equally with both of the hind legs and thus optimize the forward thrust;
  • to equally distribute its weight on both of the hind legs;
  • to allow the rider to develop the looseness of the horse and put and maintain it “through”;
  • to ensure that the horse’s contact with the rider’s hand is of the same quality on both sides;
  • to obtain proper collection.

Only a horse that is straight will be decontracted on both sides and will be “through.”

The horse’s tendency to move in a somewhat crooked manner is almost always aggravated at the beginning by the unbalancing effect that the rider provokes by adding their weight to that of the horse, which makes it clear that the condition of being straight is strictly correlated to achieving good balance and the development of clear impulsion. In fact, a horse that moves with impulsion seeks contact with both reins confidently, since the tension of the reins is the result of an engagement of the hind legs and not the effect provoked by the rider pulling the reins forward and backward.

Thus impulsion is the most important factor in this sense, and the rider must not attempt to make the horse straight without having used both legs to create impulsion first of all. If during an elementary class the judge notes that a horse is not perfectly straight, and despite this the horse shows that it moves with impulsion keeping light contact with the reins and obeying the rider’s instructions promptly and calmly, the judge must not be particularly severe at that level of dressage in punishing a horse that is not completely straight, which however should be expected in higher-level classes.

There is a reason for that different evaluation: the dressage judge must decide if at that level (elementary classes) he prefers a horse made straight by severe aids that somehow penalize the ease and elasticity of movement or if he prefers a horse that is not yet completely straight, but moves with ease, lightness, and most of all, is balanced, thus laying the foundation for progressing properly in its training in order to one day produce performance at a much higher level, and at that point demonstrating that it can be absolutely straight in its movements.

The judge must pay proper attention to the excessively active use of the hands, even if that it justified by the “necessity” to make the horse straight. That goal is to be pursued without destroying the horse’s calm attitude and balance. For that reason, it is very important for the judge to be able to recognize the good quality of the contact, indicated by the fact that a rider, for a moment, releases the horse from contact, finding that the horse remains in complete balance without the need for continuous support from the hands. That demonstration of balance is included in many classes.

Note. If the horse is straight, the two hind legs will push in exactly the same direction of the center of gravity and thus the containment aids will pass correctly through the horse’s body by way of the mouth, poll, neckline, and back, reaching the hind legs, and thus they will act on both hind legs in a balanced manner.

Note that making a horse straight is a task that never ends, because each horse tends to lose this quality in a certain manner.

A straight horse is a precondition for collection, because if the horse moves straight the riders will transfer its weight equally on both of its hind legs.


On the concept of collection in dressage, there is some confusion. Many believe that a horse cannot be collected until it has reached a high degree of training and therefore that collection is only required in high-level dressage classes.

This misunderstanding is also born from the fact that some gaits and some figures, that must be executed by a very collected horse, become difficult, if not impossible, for a horse that has not been trained for this purpose, both mentally and physically, for a rather long period of time through appropriate exercises.

In general, horses show different abilities in collection, which depends on the fact that that a long period of training is necessary for the development of the muscles necessary to reach that goal.

Although this is all true, already at the beginning of training, and thus even in the elementary stages of dressage, the horse must demonstrate what I defined in a seminar for judges as “the seed of collection,” meaning a certain initial degree of balance and thus a certain degree of compression of forces by way of an “anatomic spring”; in fact, a spring is always necessary to produce or govern movement or also to cushion concussions. Thus, it is clear that the spring must be compressed before it can perform its task. This preliminary condition applies to any form of the horse’s performance, or better, the bending of the horse’s joints must be proportionate to the effort requested of it as a function of the figures performed.

It is entirely evident that the improvement of the horse’s ability to collect is an important and continuous process that is to be progressively developed during the entire period of its training.

The goal of all the training is to make a horse ready and willing to perform the task for which it has been selected. In order for the horse to be put in this condition, the weight of the horse and that of the rider must be distributed as uniformly as possible on the four limbs. This means considerably reducing the weight that falls on the front legs, that in nature bear the most weight, shifting it to the hind legs, which at the beginning of training had the main goal of creating forward movement (the “thrust” phase).

In collection, the hind legs must bend more, coming under the horse’s body in the direction of its center of gravity, thus bearing a greater portion of the overall weight of the horse and rider, with the result of lightening the front legs and thus giving them more freedom of movement (“uphill” horse).

It should immediately be added that it is incorrect to state that the extent of the bending of the horse’s poll and the potential shortening of the neckline are a proper criterion for judging if the horse is more or less collected. For that reason, I believe it is appropriate to examine the true origin of collection, meaning the particular mechanism of the joints of the horse’s hind legs that lead to proper collection.

A green horse, who has not yet been trained, uses practically all of the muscle power of its hind legs almost exclusively to produce thrust; in that case, the hind legs send all of the force necessary to project the horse’s body forward, in both trot and canter. Each time a hind leg is set down, although the joints of that leg are needed entirely for the production of a forward movement at that moment, they must in any case be sufficiently compressed and bent under the animal’s weight in order to store the force necessary to produce the subsequent tempo of the trot or stride of the canter. Naturally, the movements of the horse’s trunk, head, and neckline also contribute to the production of this forward movement.

If the forward movement thus produced is burdened by the rider’s weight, it is necessary for this not to disturb the horse, and thus the rider must move attempting to harmonize his movements with those of the horse, but most of all the “springs,” the joints of the hind legs, must be compressed even more to ensure the actual propulsion of the combined horse-rider mass.

This increase in the bending of the joints of the hind legs becomes arduous if the muscles of those legs have not been adequately developed through proper exercise, linked to methodical work, whose success will avoid any potential resistance and contracture on the part of the horse.

With the burden of a rider on its back, and, for example, with the hind legs not bent, a horse will in fact have to move its hind legs with greater vigor and more rapidly to maintain the same speed. An extreme example of this greater rapidity required of the hind legs can be seen in the canter of race horses.

To return to collection, the development of the muscles of the hind legs through appropriate horse-riding exercises will also lead to improvement of the elasticity of the joints, and their ability to bear weight will increasingly rise, to the point of showing movements in true collection, but without any loss of energy and activity. Impulsion will thus be fully maintained in trot and canter, and as a final result the movements will become more expressive.

Note. A horse is built in such a manner that its front legs must bear more weight than its hind legs. By sitting right behind the horse’s shoulders, the rider ends up adding additional weight on the front legs and thus the overall distribution of weight becomes even less uniform. Therefore, the training of the horse with the aim of shifting more weight to its hind legs will also mean reaching another goal, that of keeping the horse in good health as long as possible. Every horse will certainly derive benefits from even a minimal amount of proper collection.

Through proper training, it is possible to obtain the harmonious and systematic development of the horse’s muscles, and this makes it possible to increase the ability of the hind legs to bear weight. On the other hand, the front legs, that have a function more of support than thrust, can be strengthened only in a limited manner through training. This produces the necessity to orient the exercises in the horse’s training towards an increasing transfer of weight to the hind legs.

To summarize

1. The purpose of collection of the horse is to:

1.1 further develop and improve the horse’s regularity and balance, which balance is more or less altered by the rider’s weight;

1.2 develop the horse’s capacity to lower the croup and engage the hind legs to the benefit of the lightness and mobility of the front legs;

1.3 improve the horse’s naturalness and ability to bear weight and make it more pleasant to ride.

2. The best means to obtain these results are lateral movements, such as travers, or renvers, and above all the shoulder in and half-halts.

3. In other words, collection results from the increase of the engagement of the hind legs, with the joints bent and soft under the body, thanks to the action of the rider’s seat and legs, that push the horse forward on a hand that is more or less still and ready to open and that maintains and allows the proper impulsion to filter through.

As a consequence, collection is not the result of shortening the gait by an action of the hand that resists, but to the contrary, by the use of the seat and legs in order to engage the hind legs under the horse’s body.

4. However, the hind legs must not be too engaged under the body; otherwise, the movement will be obstructed by an excessive shortening of the (horse’s) base. In this case, the line of the upper part will lengthen and rise in relation to that of the base of support, the stability will be compromised, and the horse will have difficulty finding a harmonious and correct balance.

5. On the other hand, a horse whose base is too long, that cannot or does not want to engage the hind legs under the body, will never attain proper collection, characterized by ease and support, and by a marked impulsion coming from the activity of the hind legs.

6. The position of the head and neckline of a horse in the collected gaits will naturally depend on its degree of preparation. In any event, it must have a neckline that freely rises in a harmonious curve from the withers to the poll, the culminating point, with the head slightly ahead of the vertical.

However, at the moment the rider’s aids act to obtain momentary collection, the horse’s head can come close to the vertical.


Agreeable submission does not mean blind subjection, but rather obedience demonstrated by attention, good will, and continuous trust in all of the horse’s conduct, together with harmony, lightness, and fluidity in execution of the single movements. The degree of agreeable submission is also manifested in the way the horse accepts the bridle with light, soft contact and a decontracted poll, not resisting or avoiding the rider’s hand, which leads the horse to be respectively “ahead” or “behind” the hand.

If the horse sticks out its tongue, if it passes the tongue above the mouthpiece, and if at the same time retracts it, in most cases this is a sign of nervousness, tension, or resistance. The judges must take this into account in their marks, both in the movement considered and in the overall mark on “submission.”

Impulsion is the term used to describe the transmission of pushing energy that is vibrant and active, but controlled, that also originates from the hips and stimulates the horse’s athletic potential. Its best expression can be shown only through the horse’s soft and elastic back, guided by the rider’s hand with soft contact.

Speed per se has little to do with impulsion; the most common result is a leveling of the gaits. A visible characteristic of impulsion is a more marked flexibility of the hind legs, in an action that is continuous rather than jerky. When the hind legs are lifted from the ground, the hocks must initially move forward rather than upward, and especially not backward. One of the main components of impulsion is the horse’s tendency to remain suspended in the air rather than on the ground. In other words, it is the expression that this tendency adds to the gaits, always clearly distinguishing between collected trot and passage.

Impulsion is characteristic of gaits that have a suspension time, that is, trot and canter.

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For Chapter 4 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 5 CLICK HERE

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