A Brief(ish) History Of Dressage (because I can, that’s why)

I hope you enjoyed that brief history of jousting! Now, I thought I’d spend a few days sharing a (slightly less) brief history of dressage, the riding style featured in Something Unlikely and the rest of the Dogs of War Jousters short story series.⁣

Even though we don’t have records dating back that far, horses have been a part of human history for centuries. In ancient Syria and Egypt, horses much smaller than today’s breeds were used to pull carts, chariots, and other wheeled vehicles beginning around 1500 BC. (source 1)⁣

⁣The earliest written work dedicated to the care and training of horses is one by Kikkuli, squire to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma, and dates back to sometime between 1375 and 1335 BC. This text almost exclusively focuses on training horses in pairs to pull chariots. (source 2)⁣

Then, in approximately 330-350 BC, Greek writer, philosopher, and general Xenophon wrote De re equestri, or “on horsemanship”. This work deals with the selection, care, and training of horses in general. He also penned another work, titled Hipparchicus, or “the cavalry commander” that deals specifically with military training for horses, as well as other topics related to cavalry. (source 3)⁣

There is a common misconception today that Xenophon is the “father of classical dressage” when that simply isn’t the case. De re equestri does have some nuggets of wisdom in it, but for the most part, it deals with training a very different kind of horse for a very different occupation. (source 4)⁣

While there is evidence that some dressage maneuvers were developed by the ancient Greeks, it wasn’t until after the fall of jousting during the Renaissance that dressage began to flourish. Dressage had served as an entertaining pastime for European aristocracy in the 10th and 11th centuries, then began to take formal shape in the 1500s. (from here onward is a mix of sources 3, 4, and 5)

In 1532, Federico Grisone opened a riding school in Naples, Italy, and his teachings were based on Xenophon’s early treatise, De re equestri. It was from his academy that the first modern form of dressage evolved.

Soon after, several more schools sprung up throughout Europe, including the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. Dressage continued to expand and grow as great horsemen added to the discipline. Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere introduced the shoulder-in in the 1700s, and in the early 1800s Francois Baucher introduced flying changes every canter stride, now known as one-time changes or tempi changes.

By the 1900s, dressage was recognizable as the sport we know today. In 1912, dressage was introduced as an Olympic sport, though at the time only commissioned military officers were allowed to compete. At the time, it was more of an obedience test and was not well known.

The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) was created in 1921 to serve as the governing body of equestrian sports worldwide. An official set of rules and protocols for dressage were put forth which also served to clarify dressage as it transformed from a tradition of cavalry schools to being practiced by laymen. From the FEI:

“The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose, and flexible, but also confident, attentive, and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with its rider.”

By the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, standards rose and began to include most modern movements we see today, though riders were still predominantly male and military officers. Then in 1952 women were allowed to compete in the Olympics, and the military-only rule had been lifted to allow civilian competitors in dressage, as well.

That’s all for today, class. You’re dismissed.


1 – http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/Fall08/Scheff/history.html

2 – http://worksofchivalry.com/the-oldest-text-dedicated-to-the-care-and-training-of-the-horse-2/

3 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Horsemanship

4 – http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/2017/12/riding-as-art-a-history-of-dressage-part-one-antiquity/

5 – https://jecballou.com/from-combat-to-top-hats-a-brief-history-of-dressage/

(P.S. You can pre-order Something Unlikely, part 1 in my Dogs of War Jousters short story series, today! It’ll be released on April 14th, and will be available for just $0.99. Grab yours today!)

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