Exploring the Scientific Side of Dressage
The ideal dressage horse has supple and relaxed movements, with a pronounced beat. He’s free from resistance and works under light, even, and elastic contact from the rider, with a level of “thoroughness” with the horse functioning in one piece. His steps give the impression that he springs off the ground, and he has energy that is created and contained, but without resistance.

If you’re a dressage judge, trainer, or rider, this is what you need to look for, at least according to the U.K.’s competitive dressage organization, British Dressage, as described in a recent version of their “Scales of Training.”

But as artistic as this might sound, this definition lacks objectivity, say equine biomechanics experts. Although the art of dressage merits full respect and should be maintained, it’s also important to have scientifically sound measurements to help bring a solid, objective view to what makes good dressage, said Sarah Jane Hobbs, PhD, of the University of Central Lancashire Centre for Applied Sport and Exercise Sciences, in the U.K.

To form scientific explanations for what we see and appreciate in the dressage ring, Hobbs and a team of researchers have been investigating dressage from a biomechanical point of view. That team includes Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, FRCVS, professor and McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University, in East Lansing.

Where Science Meets Art: Finding Objective Performance Measures

The team has already described certain individual dressage movements—such as passage—from a scientific perspective. But now they’re looking at a more global view of the entire dressage test to gain a clear, objective definition of “performance” in elite dressage.

To that end, they’ve just completed an extensive, thorough scientific review of all studies that objectively look at performance measures in dressage athletes—both riders and horses, Hobbs said. Their work is partly funded by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), which is using the findings from able-bodied riders to help develop a classification system for paradressage riders’ disabilities and keep competitions fair by having different categories for different levels of impairment.

Before looking at able-bodied and disabled riders’ biomechanics, however, the scientists are focusing on the biomechanics of the horses themselves. While horse performance depends on the horse-rider partnership, in dressage judges evaluate the movements of the horse (rather than the rider) directly.

“Some measures are already well-known, but the review provides a summary of the extent of horse performance measures that we currently have and could be used as a reference for training and selection purposes,” Hobbs said.

58 Dressage Biomechanics Studies Found

After selective screening, the researchers found 14 reliable English-language publications in which scientists had objectively measured horse performance. Hobbs said these addressed the kinematics and accelerometer readings of various gaits, transitions, strides, and dressage movements, such as piaffe and passage, as well the kinematics of various joints and limb angles and accelerometer measurements of impulsion and movements of the horse’s trunk. They also included studies of horse/rider connection using rein tension meters.

As for studies on rider performance, the scientists found 44 English-language publications that met their criteria. Of note, they detected interesting parallels between rider movements and horse performance, Hobbs said. “Some of the rider skills that have been quantified are interesting and link well with training theories, but perhaps describe skill from a different perspective, which may be helpful to riders, coaches, and/or judges,” she explained.

That different perspective is—specifically—a scientific one, said Hobbs. By describing skills from a biomechanical point of view, rather than a subjective description of what to do with their bodies, riders can improve their technique. For example, instead of “keep your hands steady,” riders could keep their hands at a consistent distance from the bit—in the reported studies that distance changed by only 1.5 centimeter (3/5 inch) during movement, she said.

Art and Beauty: Holding on to the Subjective

While these scientific views of dressage are helpful and useful in both practice and research, they can’t replace the art of the sport itself, Hobbs said. “The skill and experience of human judges is of course extremely important,” she explained. “We do not want to take away from the ‘art’ at all. In fact, as another part of our work for the FEI we have conducted an interview study of riders, judges, classifiers, and coaches to evaluate how well their opinions of performance match with the objective measures we have identified. This manuscript is currently under review, so should be available in the not too distant future.”

Testing Phases Postponed Due to COVID

The biomechanical measurements of performance revealed in this study currently remain somewhat theoretical. To confirm their findings, the research group must test their theories on both able-bodied and impaired riders. That testing phase was planned for summer 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its related lockdown in Europe, the study was postponed. “We hope to begin the work when it is safe to do so,” Hobbs said.

Once validated, their measurements will also help provide evidence-based information to support the existing classification systems used by the International Paralympic Committee, Hobbs said.