How to explain dressage to non-horse people?

How do you explain dressage to non-horse people? I find the stereotypical explanation of “its horse ballet/ dancing” just confuses people…

I usually just ask the person if they’ve seen videos of horses prancing around to music, like at the Olympics, and say that’s what I do (but not at the high of a level). But some people have never seen those videos before, and that’s where I struggle to explain it

For some reason I have luck when I explain it as being like figure skating.


I’ve always thought the “horses dancing” explanation doesn’t accurately portray what most dressage riders are actually doing.

I think most people can understand it’s like figure skating or gymnastics where you have certain moves you need to execute and you get a score for them.

If by some miracle they are still interested, then I explain that most of the time everyone is riding the same test which is a set pattern of movements in order.


I use the figure skating analogy too. Required patterns that you perform in a test, and a freestyle option to music with required movements but more artistic freedom. Highly athletic endeavour with a goal to make it look as elegant and effortless as possible.


I always say ballet. Strength and flexibility and choreography. Figure skating is a good analogy, too.


I like to say that dressage originated in training war horses in ancient times. I don’t know if that really explains the modern sport, but it definitely sounds less spoiled rich b!tch than “horse ballet.”



I say it is like karate. You perform movements at different levels.


I tell them is gymnastics for horses, seems to help quiet their questions.

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I stay away from the music / ballet component and say it is athletic training that builds on progression to a high standard of physical development and complex skill. And the horse advances the movements are more challenging. Only a select few horses and rider make it to olympic level performance


I can’t figure out how to quote from my phone, but the “if by some miracle they are still interested” had me legitimately LOL.

I struggle with this explanation too. My teams / zoom picture is of my horse and I always get questions about it. I event, and am able to explain the xc / show jumping well enough, but the dressage I definitely struggle. I really like the figure skating analogy! Hadn’t thought of that, but I’m definitely going to try it out.

Friends watching a lesson.
At a break they called me over & asked:
“When do you start doing the Dressage?” :persevere:


I always ask if they know “the White Stallions of Vienna.” Everyone who has asked has known about Lipizzans, so I say “like that but with none of the jumping in the air parts.” :grin:

ETA: Although on occasion, my TBs would throw in some of the airs also. :wink:


I thought the jumping in the air was simply an options, extra!


You dont. :joy:
Oh I have horses…its like owning a boat or a race car…i dont jump i do the fancy prance stuff.


I actually had to do some storytelling at a training recently and was using achieving scores towards my medals as an example of a time I was happy, and at the end the person listening told me he watched Yellowstone and asked me if it was similar to their fancy horse shows (reining I believe?) and I was like actually yes! We are both completing a set pattern and being judged on individual movements. I felt very seen :rofl:


I wish. Certain days, I could have scored in the high 80s.:crazy_face:


Like @hoopoe, I too start with the training and conditioning to create a more perfect athlete. Then I go into the Olympics stuff.

It’s a test of how well I drive my sports car in a set pattern at various low and higher speeds. Clutch control is everything. The invisible pylons MUST stay up to get a good score. Touching the outer barrier is frowned upon and driving through or over it earns elimination.


I find some folks get really interested when I tell them it’s the progression of the original cavalry war horses.


I don’t find myself explaining it to random people very often, but it’s been interesting seeing my dad’s understanding evolve. He usually comes to visit for several days twice a year. A few years ago he was a the “Why do you need lessons? You already know hot to ride!” phase. Then he came with me to a dressage clinic and saw how demanding and exacting even a training level lesson was. I’ve taken him to a dressage show where we’ve watched some mid-level tests, and watched GP on TV and he says “I don’t even understand how someone can get a horse to do those things” and I’ve explained that it starts with learning to control each of the horse’s body parts, the energy, balance, etc. and then slowly building up to the impressive movements that make up an upper level test.

I think I’ve used the figure skating analogy too - in the sense that I say, compared to what you see in the Olympics, what I’m doing is the equivalent of tottering around a skating rink trying not to fall on my ass. :laughing:

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