At the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the United States Dressage team celebrated its first team medal since 1948 in London. The horses that carried riders to the podium were the most popular horse breeds in dressage—two were Hanoverian and one a Dutch Warmblood.
What is a warmblood?
Collectively called warmbloods, breeds such as Hanoverians, Holsteiners, Westphalians, Oldenburgs, and Dutch warmbloods are the most common upper-level mounts. The term warmblood is used to define horses resulting from the careful breeding of European riding horses.
“The sport was dominated by thoroughbreds decades ago, but as breeding of these warmbloods has gotten better, the chance to breed a horse through artificial insemination (AI) has become more the norm,” said Bethany White, a judge, clinician, and speaker from Pittsford, Vermont. “AI has been possible to breed more athletic horses so the chance at a higher quality breeding is much more accessible. We still see some thoroughbreds, but mainly we see a large array of warmbloods.”
Warmbloods are well-suited for dressage because of their athleticism, high-quality gait, elasticity, and temperament, although there are exceptions. Many of these horses are bred to be "uphill," and their conformation naturally allows for collection, a quality evaluated on the judge's scorecard.
“It takes years of developing muscle, stamina, suppleness, and strength,” White said. “An upper-level horse must also be willing and able to handle mental fatigue as well as physical fatigue. Finding a horse that can mentally handle the job can be much more difficult than simply finding a nice-moving horse.”
Breed options in dressage
Increasingly, White has seen Spanish-bred horses such as the Lusitano and Andalusian becoming more common in Dressage competition. The Spanish horses have been used for generations in bullfighting, which also requires extreme athleticism.
“I’ve witnessed this firsthand in Spain, and although I do not agree with the treatment of the bull, it was fascinating to watch these horses,” she said. “They move similarly to a horse in battle, which is the origin of dressage and being able to maneuver in battle.”
Morgans can also deliver award-winning performances in Grand Prix Dressage rings and lower-level events. The breed lacks some of the movement of warmbloods, but they are athletic and willing horses who have an uphill conformation.
“They can easily put their weight back on their haunches and lift their backs, making them ideal dressage mounts,” she said. “I think they are not as common since upper levels riders are generally looking for much bigger moving mounts. Morgans are gaining popularity in lower-level events and are also an ideal mount for working equitation, which also features a dressage phase.”
Small and mighty
The most unique breed White has seen excel in a higher-level event is a Welsh pony, a breed she believes is underutilized in the sport. Welsh ponies are known for their athleticism and trainability but stand in the shadow of taller breeds.
“Most pony breeds are never thought of for the upper levels, but look back at “Seldom Seen,” the Connemara X Thoroughbred cross that Lendon Gray won Gold aboard in the Olympics. He was only 14.2!” she said. “Warmblood ponies have gotten more popular, but it seems that riding a large horse is a popular choice and I do think that many people prefer riding a bigger horse.”
Dressage for all horse owners
Ultimately, the principle of Dressage is a willing horse that moves with collection and in harmony with its rider. That makes the discipline accessible to any rider at any level of skill and tack choice.
Western dressage is a popular choice among stock seat riders. The hallmark of western dressage is “lightness and harmony,” and judges are looking for relaxation. The Western Dressage Association of America is a group dedicated to hosting dressage competitions that award great prizes.
Plus, riders who have horses registered with breed organizations like the American Paint Horse Association can submit dressage results from western or United States Dressage Federation-approved competitions to earn points and prizes. The American Quarter Horse Association added Western Dressage Stakes classes to its world championship show in 2020.
“There is no ostracizing of breeds in western dressage,” White said. “It can make horses of other disciplines better by allowing those horses to develop bend and looseness.”
Dressage grew out of calvary training but equestrians who prefer to drive can compete in dressage too. Combined driving is a modified version of the Three-Day Event. Competitors face three phases of competition—a cross country course, a cones course, and a driven dressage test.
Competitors have the option of driving a single horse, a pair, or a four-in-hand team. A wide range of pony and horse breeds are entered into all levels of competition including the internationally renowned FEI World Equestrian Games. The US Equestrian Federation participates in this international multi-discipline Olympic-style competition devoted only to equestrian sports.
Dressage, at its core, is the art of riding in harmony with the horse rather than fighting against it. Collection, quality of movement, and responsiveness to the subtlest clues are the foundation of the discipline.
“Suitability of horse to the rider is a big deal. A lower-level rider can develop feel and awareness on a Quarter Horse, Morgan, Thoroughbred, Appaloosa, or any horse that is suitable to the rider's ability,” White said. “A rider can learn to ride upper-level movements on any horse that has the experience and training. It’s in the competition world in which we see so many warmbloods, because of the search for big moving horses.”
When looking for a dressage horse consider the conformation, the attitude, and the quality of movement. It’s possible to find many horses that are crosses or of unknown heritage doing well in the lower levels. Don’t be pressured into thinking you have to spend a fortune on a horse. Look at the horse’s temperament and movement and consider if this a horse you are comfortable riding and is suited to your goals.