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Competitions are held at all levels from amateur to the Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games. Its fundamental purpose is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse's natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a riding horse. At the peak of a dressage horse's gymnastic development, the horse responds smoothly to a skilled rider's minimal aids. The rider is relaxed and appears effort-free while the horse willingly performs the requested movement.
The discipline has a rich history with ancient roots in the writings of Xenophon. Modern dressage has evolved as an important equestrian pursuit since the Renaissance when Federico Grisone's "The Rules of Riding" was published in 1550, the first treatise on equitation in over a thousand years since Xenophon's On Horsemanship. Much about training systems used today reflects practices of classical dressage.
In modern dressage competition, successful training at the various levels is demonstrated through the performance of "tests", prescribed series of movements ridden within a standard arena. Judges evaluate each movement on the basis of an objective standard appropriate to the level of the test and assign each movement a score from zero to ten – zero being "not executed" and 10 being "excellent". A score of 9 is very good and is a high mark, while a competitor achieving all 6s (or 60% overall) should be considering moving on to the next level.
In classical dressage training and performances that involve the "airs above the ground" (described below), the "baroque" breeds of horses are popular and purposely bred for these specialties.
There are two sizes of arenas: small and standard. Each has letters assigned to positions around the arena for dressage tests to specify where movements are to be performed. Cones with letters on them are positioned on the sidelines of the arena for reference as to where a movement is to be performed.
The small arena is 20 by 40 m (66 by 131 ft) and is used for the lower levels of eventing in the dressage phase, as well as for some pure dressage competitions at lower levels. Its letters around the outside edge, starting from the point of entry and moving clockwise, are A-K-E-H-C-M-B-F. Letters also mark locations along the "center line" in the middle of the arena. Moving down the center line from A, they are D-X-G, with X being directly between E and B.
Standard dressage arena, 20 by 60 m [66 by 197 ft]
The standard arena is 20 by 60 m (66 by 197 ft), and is used for tests in both pure dressage and eventing. The standard dressage arena letters are A-K-V-E-S-H-C-M-R-B-P-F. The letters on the long sides of the arena, nearest the corners, are 6 m (20 ft) in from the corners, and are 12 m (39 ft) apart from each other. The letters along the center line are D-L-X-I-G, with X again being halfway down the arena. There is speculation as to why these letters were chosen. Most commonly it is believed because the German cavalry had a 20 × 60-meter area in-between the barracks which had the letters posted above the doors.
As well as the center line, the arena also has two "quarter lines" which lie between the center line and the long side of the arena, however these are infrequently, if ever, used for competition except in a freestyle.
At the start of the test, the horse enters the arena at an opening at A. Ideally this opening is then closed for the duration of the test; however, this is not always logistically possible, particularly at smaller competitions with smaller volunteer bases.
Judges are registered through their national federation depending on the judge's experience and training, with the highest qualified being registered with the FEI for international competition. Judges are strictly regulated to ensure as consistent marking as possible within the limits of subjectivity, and in FEI competitions, it is expected that all judges' final percentage be within five percent of each other.
There is always a judge sitting at C, although for upper-level competition, there can be up to seven judges at different places around the arena — at C, E, B, K, F, M, and H — which allows the horse to be seen in each movement from all angles. This helps prevent certain faults from going unnoticed, which may be difficult for a judge to see from only one area of the arena. For example, the horse's straightness going across the diagonal may be assessed by judges at M and H.
Although the judge's positions are known by their closest letter, only C, B, & E are actually directly behind their respective marker, with the other judges being on the short sides (on a plane with C, and two metres in from the edge of the arena for M & H, and at the A end of the arena and five metres in from the long side of the arena for F & K) rather than on the longside where the letter would seem to indicate.
English Riding Apparel