USDF-Misty Caffey (c)United States Dressage Federation, courtesy of Misty Caffey
 © United States Dressage Federation, courtesy of Misty Caffey



Dressage is a French term meaning “training” and its purpose is to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider.


Dressage is one of the Olympic equestrian sports. The modern Olympics commenced in 1898 with equestrian events, and the “military test” first included in 1900 which evolved into the separate Olympic disciplines of dressage, eventing, and stadium jumping.

Horses have been used as mounts for the military since early history. As the horses had to be obedient and maneuverable, a system of training was developed, first documented in the writing of the Greek Xenophon. The system of training was built upon throughout the ages, with many well-known riding masters, military and civilian, writing books expounding their methods.

As the equine in the past centuries was used primarily by the military, it only stood to reason that a test of the military horse be the standard during the inception of the modern Olympics. The military test included obedience and maneuverability (or what would become dressage) and the ability to jump obstacles.

By 1912, the equestrian disciplines as we know them (dressage, jumping, and eventing) were included. However, the riders continued to be all male and predominantly military for a few decades. The United States Cavalry at Ft. Riley exchanged ideas and instructors with the schools in Europe and started the trend that brought dressage training not only to the military but to civilians in the United States.

After the US Cavalry was disbanded in 1948, the focus for dressage shifted from military to civilian competition and sport and began to gain momentum. Women as well as men became passionate about dressage and in 1952 the first women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. The growing enthusiasm for the sport, supported by increased access to knowledgeable military and foreign trainers, finally brought together 81 pioneers of dressage in 1973 to found the United States Dressage Federation.

Early Dressage Horses

Heavy horses carried the knights of the middle ages in full armor. As modes of warfare changed, the type of horse changed with it, giving way to the lighter horse used for the cavalry. The hot blooded breeds, such as the Arabian and Thoroughbred, were introduced to add swiftness and greater maneuverability to the cold blooded, heavy horses of the armored knights. The resulting “warmbloods” formed the basis for most of the breeds most commonly successful in dressage today.

Separate studbooks in principalities throughout Europe were maintained by the local lord or prince, with the result that many of these warmblood bloodlines can be traced back through a surprising number of generations. Arabian and Thoroughbred lines have continued to be used to further refine the warmblood that we know today: a leggier, elegant horse, sometimes with extravagant movement. These modern-day warmbloods predominate in international dressage competition.

Dressage Today

Currently, competitive dressage involves nine progressive levels incorporating multiple tests within each level. Special tests are also written for musical freestyle, sport horse breeding and performances incorporating multiple horses and riders. Tests are revised every four years by the United States Dressage Federation, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and the International Equestrian Federation (FEI).

Competition occurs in a regulation size arena with specific apparel and equipment all regulated by USEF. Judges are licensed by the USEF and the FEI and are assisted by scribes who write down the judge’s scores and comments during the test.

Success in dressage is dependent on the rider’s position and ability but because of the goal of the training, many horse breeds can be quite successful.

Watching dressage can be very exciting, especially the musical freestyle rides or tests at the FEI (highest) levels.

USDF-Misty Caffey (c)United States Dressage Federation courtesy of Misty Caffey
 © United States Dressage Federation, courtesy of Misty Caffey


About the USDF

The American Horse Shows Association (AHSA, now the United States Equestrian Federation, USEF) and the United States Equestrian Team (USET, now the USET Foundation) were the two primary organizations involved with dressage in the United States until the 1970s. Although dressage competitions had been in existence in prior decades, dressage enthusiasts were concerned that the AHSA, the governing body for dressage, could not give the discipline of dressage the attention it needed to flourish. There was a need to establish uniform standards for the sport, and to provide education to dressage judges, instructors, and trainers. At that time, dressage survived in local and regional clubs found in pockets of interest across the country; however, there was a lack of nationwide communication, interaction, and cohesiveness amongst these groups. In the 1970’s it became increasingly apparent that the time was ripe to establish a national organization for the sole purpose of furthering dressage in the United States.

Lowell Boomer, founder of the Nebraska Dressage Association, took action, placing an advertisement in The Chronicle of the Horse, asking “all those interested in the advancement of dressage” to come to Lincoln, NE in February of 1973 to start a national federation. An official roster of registrants listed 70 dressage enthusiasts and several VIPS who traveled to Lincoln that February to collaborate in establishing a national dressage organization. Because of his initiative, Lowell Boomer is known as “the father of USDF.”

The first official business meeting of the United States Dressage Federation took place in November of 1973. During that meeting the foundation of USDF was created, including election of the first officials, approval of the organization’s original bylaws and committee structure, and development of the mission statement. Over thirty years later, USDF retains the core elements first established in the founding meeting in 1973: the dedication to education, recognition of achievement, and promotion of dressage.

In 2006, the USDF National Education Center (NEC), located at the Kentucky Horse Park, opened its doors. The USDF NEC continues to support USDF’s mission of education, recognition of achievement, and promotion of dressage by housing the Lendon F. Gray Bookstore, Gypsy Woods Farm Resource Center, and the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame and furthering its working partnerships and presence through its close proximity to USEF, the United States Pony Clubs, and all events hosted at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Additional Information

For additional information contact:

    United States Dressage Federation
    4051 Iron Works Parkway
    Lexington, KY 40511
    (859) 971-2277
    [email protected]