A guide to dressage for the spectator

By Julie Harding on |


The spectator's guide to dressage

It is one of the oldest equestrian sports and undoubtedly one of the most artistic. Dressage requires precision and beauty of movement. The Olympic Games is the peak of the sport, but if you failed to ‘win’ in the London 2012 ballot and couldn’t sit in the stands to see Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro win individual and team gold, don’t despair because there are myriad other competitions that offer a great spectacle and the chance to see the sport’s stars in action.

Dressage competition levels

Look for any CDI fixture (CDI stands for Concours Dressage International) on the British Dressage website and you will be able to find dates for 3* competitions (Keysoe, Somerford, Hartpury, Bury Farm), as well as the prestigious CDI5* at Hickstead in July.

Any CDI of 3* level and above will showcase horses contesting the grand prix test, plus the grand prix freestyle to music, or ‘kür’, which is a favourite with dressage aficionados and newcomers alike. The spectator-pleasing aspect of the kür are the horse’s dance-like routines — riders can make up their own programme to various pieces of music, provided they meet all the technical requirements. However, don’t expect a raft of competitors performing the kür, first hosted at the Goodwood CDI back in 1979. Generally, just the 15 with the top scores from the grand prix test will progress into the final freestyle stage.

Grand prix is the highest level of dressage, which sees horses performing advanced movements including piaffe (trot on the spot), passage (elevated trot) and pirouette (where the horse turns on its haunches), but there are countless other levels, from introductory through to preliminary, novice, elementary, medium, advanced medium, advanced, prix st georges, intermediare I and intermediare II and there are a huge range of fixtures in the affiliated calendar to cater for all levels.

The British dressage calendar

A heads-up for those who are interested in following superstar Charlotte Dujardin and her mentor Carl Hester, who was also on the winning British London Olympic team: look no further than Hartpury. This is their local venue, as well as a magnet for a number of other leading dressage lights who live in Gloucestershire, and you will either see them out on their top rides or coaxing their younger horses through their paces on the way up the dressage ladder.
Hartpury hosts several fixtures during the year, not least the Winter Area Championships, held in April, which fields around 800 horses over five days of competition. Classes here go up to intermediare I.

A September highlight is the four-day Summer National Championships at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire, a competition for both amateur and professional riders. As a spectator here, things are great from the word go — good signposting, easy access from main roads and a permanent infrastructure, which is what you will find nowadays at all the leading shows. At Stoneleigh, for example, there is a good variety of food stands, plus around 80 mainly equestrian trade stands.

October brings the Mount St John Dressage Future Elite Championship for potential Olympic superstars at the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), held at the easily accessible NEC near Birmingham. Here, too, there are trade stands — around 250 of them to be precise — along with myriad food outlets, rider signings and an interactive area for family fun, plus much more.

December brings the atmospheric indoor London International Horse Show at Olympia. This is a CDIW4*, where the ‘W’ means that this is a World Cup dressage qualifier — yes, Olympia isn’t just about show jumping — and for any dressage lover, the combination of British and overseas stars in action, plus festive displays for adults and children alike, not to mention some of the best shopping at any competitive equestrian fixture, and you have a winning formula.

What to wear as a dressage spectator

At most dressage competitions, there doesn’t tend to be a dress code for spectators, but you should plan for smart casual — jeans and a country-style jacket would fit the bill. Comfortable footwear is also a good idea, although most things, from the catering to the action, are all within striking distance, the longest walk often being to and from the car.

What unaffiliated dressage has to offer

If the raft of affiliated competitions do not float your boat — and many, bar the championships, offer free entry to encourage spectators — at the other end of the spectrum there are many unaffiliated dressage competitions throughout the country.

These can vary widely from events hosted in equestrian centres with plenty of infrastructure to those held in an isolated quiet field. For the latter, there can be little signposting so allow plenty of time to locate the venue. Parking will be on grass — so remember your wellies if it’s wet — and forget the infrastructure. The best you might be offered at some is a mobile tack shop and someone selling tea.

Audience numbers are generally low at unaffiliated competitions, with those in attendance tending to be competitors’ family and friends. However these are excellent, friendly venues to attend if you are thinking of taking the step into dressage yourself, or if you are seeking a day out in the fresh air to see horses and riders of varying standards.

The dressage spectator’s dos and don’ts

Whatever level of competition you plump for, you are sure to have a fabulous time, but there are a few ground rules to remember.

1. No clicking or flashing cameras close to competitors performing their tests. Do respect the fact that they need to concentrate

2. Keep as quiet as possible and turn off your mobile phone

3. Be aware when walking around the venue that you are not straying into the path of a horse. Also, while loose horses are fairly rare, they are a hazard to bear in mind

Thinking of giving dressage a shot? Read our top dressage tips for beginners
Browse our full range of riding and country clothing to find stylish outfits and accessories for your next dressage event


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