Dressage is my discipline of choice but its still the most difficult for me to explain. I'm asked all the time what it is and I have difficulty explaining it to my friends and family but I'll do my best here.
Dressage has been practiced for over 2000 years. Although clear documentation is not available, there is some evidence that ancient Greeks practiced the discipline mainly as a method of training their war horses. It was important their horses were nimble and responded to the lightest of aids.
Imagine being in war attempting to utilize various implements of death and your transportation is a live animal with a mind of its own! The horses were taught to move laterally with just changes of weight so the soldier could use their hands to fight. The horses were taught to trot in place to keep their muscles warmed up without moving and to change speed and direction with changes in the position of their rider.
Today we compete in dressage by completing what we call "tests" which are specific patterns and movements. Each "level" has a different pattern and set of movements. As you move up the levels, the movements become more difficult and each level progresses from the level before. Precision is very important. For example, in nearly every test a 20 meter circle is required. The circle must be exactly 20 meters, be perfectly round and performed exactly where specified in the ring.
There are various letters around the perimeter of the ring and the test uses those letters to show where to perform the movement. For example, the test might say to start the 20 meter circle at A or to halt at X. The letters on the perimeter of the ring have actual markers but the letters in the center of the ring are just known by the rider and judge to be there.
No one is quite sure what the letters mean or where they originated but they have been used for many years and are continued to be used. There is one theory that in an ancient Germany the walls of one stable courtyard were marked with letters indicating where each courier and horse were to wait for their rider. So K for King and F for Furst (Prince) and so on.
We also use something called the Dressage Pyramid which is progressive as well. Elements at the top of the pyramind cannot be perfected until the ones at the base of the pyramid have been achieved. In addition, the bottom elements of the pyramid are practiced more than the ones at the top and are even top riders and horses will work on the lower ones during each ride. Proper collection cannot happen unless you have first achieved rhythm and relaxation.
You receive a score that is based on the potential of ten points for each movement. For example, one movement is entering at A and then halting at X. You are judged on how straight you come down the centerline and how square and still the halt is (among some other smaller nuances). A perfect score would be a 10. A marginal score would be a 5 and a 0 means you didn't perform the movement at all (say your horse decided that jumping outside the ring would be a better movement!). Each score is added up and the final score is based on what percent you received of the total possible score. For example, if a total 120 points were possible and you got 92 then you score would be a 76% (92 ÷ 120 = 76%).
Many riders only compete in dressage but dressage is also the first phase of eventing. The scoring in eventing dressage is a bit different than the rest of the dressage world as the lower the score the better. They essentially subtract from the perfect score points for each error made.
Eventing itself is very similar to a triathalon. The first phase is dressage. The second cross country which I explain in the post - Rolex Kentucky 3 Day - and the third phase is show jumping. Show jumping are jumps set up in an enclosed ring. The goal is to get around the course without knocking any poles down within a time limit. The same horse and rider complete all three phases and there are vet checks between each phase to ensure the horse is fit enough to continue to the next phase. Lower level eventing is typically completed in a single day but for the larger more advanced events, they are completed over three days.