The History of Dressage – by John Cooley


Submitted April 7, 2012

With the early modern era and with the move away from heavy cavalry and toward light cavalry dressage finally came into its own. Young lords and other officers, armed with early pistols, muskets, and eventually rifles, had not only to maneuver in combat in order to survive, but also to coordinate increasingly larger armies and move quickly back and forth on the battlefield. The tight control of dressage was necessary for this kind of battlefield movement. More maneuvers began to be developed around this time; as well jumps like the capriole could be used to clear entire lines of enemy infantry, while momentary halts like the levante could place the horse in the perfect position for a quick shot or a sabre slash in the right place.

With the advent of modern infantry, cavalry lost nearly all of its military usefulness, and dressage reverted to its earlier, more peaceable form, as hinted at by Xenophon. Of course, the practice of dressage has changed somewhat with the transition of the art from a cavalry discipline to a sport. Some of the flashier moves of modern dressage–jumps such as the ballotade, for example, or many of the more ornamental figures which involve the horse rearing up or otherwise exposing its underbelly–are often counterproductive in a combat setting (as beautiful as a ballotade may be, its beauty doesn’t make up for the possibility of a savvy opponent firing directly into the unprotected underbelly of the horse.) But however the art has grown over the centuries, it’s impossible to understand the beauty of dressage without understanding its dark other half–the rivers of blood and trampled uniforms over which the well-trained horse nimbly leaps.

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The majority of the movements seen in upper level dressage originated directly on the battlefield. The levade, when the horse stood balanced on it hind legs, as a result of a half halt applied when the horse was already highly collected, was a common method of attack for cavalry forces. Other maneuvers, such as the capriole, were designed to attack the enemy. While executing the capriole, the horse would leap into the air. During the highest point of this leap, the mount would vigorously extend its hind legs out in a kicking motion.

Several dressage movements were invented in order to keep the horse and rider safe, such as the piaffe, the courvet and the use of flying changes. The piaffe, an animated trot in place, assisted the horse in avoiding being attacked. Flying changes were used to help the horse remain balanced while quickly changing direction during battle. The courvet, an advanced dressage movement, required the horse to have excellent balance. The horse moved forward by taking several jumps on his hind legs, without his front legs touching the ground. It was used as a defensive tactic to help free a soldier from an enemy attack. These are just a few of the many movements that made the horse a valuable asset from ancient Assyrian time all the way through the Renaissance period.


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