Friday, June 29, 2012

Olympic Dressage 101: A Tutorial for London 2012

Dressage is an incredibly beautiful equestrian discipline – especially if you have some idea what you are seeing. French for “training,” dressage is often described as ballet on horseback. Here’s what you need to know about dressage in general and the Olympic format before the Games in London this summer

What To Look For In An Olympic Dressage Test

Dressage originated in the Renaissance Era, when it gained recognition as a good training method for European cavalries – and is used today as the basis for training across many equestrian disciplines. This competition tests the obedience and agility of the horse and its coordination with its rider.

Dressage Movements

As you work your way up through the dressage levels, which start at Intro level and go up to Grand Prix, you perform dressage tests, or a series of compulsory movements in a particular order. At the lower levels, these may just be basic transitions, circles, and changes of directions. At the Grand Prix level performed at the Olympics, they include half passes, canter pirouettes, piaffe (trotting in place), half passes (moving across a diagonal with body straight and legs crossing), and one and two tempi changes (a lead change every one or two strides) among others.

Be sure to check out my overview of basic dressage movements. These include leg yield, haunches in, haunches out, and shoulder in and are the foundation for all of the higher level movements.

Dressage Training Scale and Scoring

Each individual movement (as well as the transitions between) receive a score on a scale of 1 to 10. The quality of movement is judged according to the dressage training scale or pyramid. The idea is that each skill builds on the ones below it. Here's the dressage training scale starting with the ones you need to develop first:

  • rhythm
  • relaxation
  • connection
  • impulsion
  • straightness
  • collection


A panel of judges assess each movement and transition, awarding each a mark from 0 to 10. Once totaled, these scores produce a percentage and the rider or team with the highest total score is declared the winner. Generally, a 70-75 overall is considered a competitive score. However, at the Olympic level it’s not uncommon for the medal winners to score in the 80′s.

Olympic Dressage Competition Format

Two sets of medals are awarded to Dressage competitors at the Olympics; team awards for the highest scoring countries and individual medals for the best riders. Each country is allowed three riders on their team and one alternate. All of these riders are eligible for individual medals. Other riders whose countries did not qualify for the team event (which is limited to 10 nations) may qualify as individuals. A total of 50 horse and rider teams may compete, not including the alternates for each nation.

Team Dressage Format

The team competition is determined by the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special tests, and all three rider scores count toward the final team score.  All Olympic riders (team and individuals) compete in the initial Grand Prix phase. The scores of all three riders on a team are combined to make the team’s score. The top 7 teams after the Grand Prix then move on to the Grand Prix Special phase. Team medals are awarded to the nations with the highest total combined scores from both the Grand Prix and Special rounds.

Individual Dressage Format

Individual competition for Olympic Dressage includes three tests: the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Special, and the musical Freestyle. The Freestyle is developed by the competitor and set to music using the same movements required in the regular Grand Prix test  – but combined according to the rider's individual musical and artistic goals. Riders try to pick music with tempos that match their horse's gait, with the goal of the entire Freestyle being performed in time to the music. And when they can pull that off, it is one of the most impressive things in the whole world!

Team and individual Olympic dressage competition are held in tandem – with the first two phases counting for both sets of awards. After the Grand Prix round, all riders who are members of the top 7 teams plus the top 11 individuals (not already qualified with a team) progress to the next round, the Grand Prix Special. Then, the best 18 riders in the Special qualify to move on to perform their Grand Prix Freestyle test (determined by performance in the Special only). The final medals are determined by performance in the Grand Prix Freestyle.

Olympic Dressage Rules and Procedures

The arena is a perfectly flat and level sand surface; 60 meters long and 20 meters wide; marked at the enclosure of the arena and separated from the spectators by a distance of not less than 15 meters.

The FEI Grand Prix test contains a series of compulsory movements. The Grand Prix Special is a slightly shorter and more concentrated version of the Grand Prix test. The Grand Prix Freestyle is a freestyle composition of Grand Prix movements performed with the rider's own choreography to music of personal choice. Judges award marks out of 10 for each movement and a collective assessment.

Horses must be at least eight years of age.

The horses are inspected once before the Grand Prix to ensure they are fit to compete.

Olympic Dressage Schedule

  • Aug 2, 2012 – Grand Prix (All riders, team and individuals)
  • Aug 7, 2012 – Grand Prix Special (Top 7 teams plus 11 individuals not already qualified on a team. Determines Team medals)
  • Aug 9, 2012 – Grand Prix Freestyle (Top 18 after Special. Determines Individual medals)

Watch the 2012 London Olympics Dressage Events

All Olympic coverage in the US is provided by NBC. They have exclusive rights, so you can only get online streaming or TV coverage on their channels.

Olympic Dressage on TV

The Grand Prix Freestyle is popular with audiences, and is the phase most likely to get a little airtime (if dressage gets any at all). You can check your local listings for specific times on the NBCOlympics website.

Olympic Dressage Live Online Streaming

Live online streaming for ALL Olympic events will be available on and on an app for smartphones and tablets. Here's the catch: this year (unlike 2008 when it was available to anyone) you can only get access if you have cable or satellite TV. You have to login to using your login credentials for your service provider in order to see any of the online video.

Personal rant: I'm part of the Netflix/Hulu Plus generation and don't pay absurd amounts to get the same shows from a cable or satellite provider. As the girl who watched every single minute of all of the equestrian events in Beijing/Hong Kong in 2008, I'm disappointed that NBC is restricting access. I'm removing all of the brownie points I gave them four years ago for their awesome coverage.

2008 Olympic Dressage Flashback

2008 Dressage Team Medals

Gold: Germany
Silver: Netherlands
Bronze: Denmark

Days 5-6 Recap: Dressage team recap

2008 Dressage Individual Medals

Gold: Anky Van Grunsven (Netherlands)
Silver: Isabell Werth (Germany)
Bronze: Heike Kemmer (Germany)

Day 8 Recap: Individual Grand Prix Special
Day 11 Recap: Individual Freestyle and medals

Read this article here

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