First things first, to begin with, dressage doesn’t rhyme with “message.”


So, reach back into those French lessons in the memory bank for that “ahhj” sound. Think “garage” or “massage.”

Now that everyone has that down, it’s time to move on to the foundation of any equestrian event — the horse.


What kinds of horses compete in dressage? In the words of Western Dressage Association of Florida president Lynn Shinkle, it’s simple: “Any and all.”

Frequently, horses in English dressage have a body structure comparable to racing thoroughbreds, termed warmbloods.

Western dressage often features typical American breeds such as Appaloosas, paints and quarter horses. However, the sport is open to horses of all types.


The term “Western” might bring to mind images of old-time cowboy stars like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.

Actually, Western dressage largely resembles the traditional, or English, school of dressage — the version that appears as part of the equestrian competition at the Olympic Games.

Related: Style and intricacies of Western dressage are catching on in region

The most dramatic difference is the saddle. Where traditional dressage uses a classical English saddle, Western dressage uses a heavier saddle with a horn.

Shinkle said that training methods and subtle differences in movement also differentiate Western dressage from its English counterpart.

“It’s very similar except for the way the horse moves ... you’re not going to have as much brilliance as you do with the warmbloods, as much flashy movement and high stepping,” she said. “It’s going to look more Western versus your English horses.”


In dressage, riders conduct horses around a ring in a predetermined sequence of arranged movements that lasts seven minutes in all.

These range from introductory sequences with only a small number of steps to elite levels, in which scores of elements — walks, turns, circles, trots and more — are involved.

“Think of it as a pyramid,” Shinkle said. “Your horse can only do this, and once he learns this, he goes here and here. Each new level has the horse doing something a little more difficult or more technical.”

Each level contains several “tests” — intermediate steps within each level that should be cleared before advancing to a subsequent level.

Lynn Palm, an Ocala-based instructor with 43 years of teaching experience and a world championship winner as a rider, said this path is a key for riders of all levels.

“Dressage gives you that layout and you follow the steps that they have,” Palm said. “It’s a learning progression.”

Even for a seasoned rider like Maya Lundquist, riding at Level 3 in February’s show, the gradual progression is important.

“It’s just important that you master each of the movements before you move up a level, because the judges will expect more precision and accurate movements the higher up the levels you go,” she said.


To the outsider, scoring dressage events can seem subjective. But there are keys to success.

“You get a score sheet and the judge tells you exactly where you could improve — what’s good, what needs improvement,” Shinkle said.

Although Western dressage calls for certain differences from English dressage, the basic principles are unchanged.

Grace, smoothness and harmony are the attributes that win the judges’ approval, as horses and riders acquire mastery of complex elements.

“They don’t want abrupt halts, they want a smooth halt. When you transition from walk to jog, we want it, again, not herky-jerky,” Shinkle said. “Just think of starting a car, nice and easy.”


For the equestrian enthusiast looking to get started in Western dressage, there’s a lot to keep in mind — but also a wealth of resources.

“To do the sport well, you have to have the time to put into it,” Palm said. “You’ve got to build a relationship with the animal. That’s the fun part.”

In addition to the websites of national and state associations, Shinkle said there are many online guides, often including video of individual elements, geared toward the dressage beginner.

She also recommends that newcomers attend the shows to become familiar with the procedures and find a qualified trainer who can help them begin their dressage journey on the right hoof.

For more information, refer to the Western Dressage Association of Florida ( and the Northeast Florida Dressage Association (