Dressage, a history

Dressage originated from the training developed to make military horses more manoeuvrable and obedient in battle and improve their strength, stamina and agility. The Ancient Greeks are credited with introducing dressage as part of their training programme, the first written record being a treatise called 'on the Art of Horsemanship' by an Athenian Cavalry Commander called Xenephon in 360 BC (and still available in print today). During the Middle Ages these skills were less applicable and useful to the armoured knights and heavier horses needed to carry them. This changed during the Renaissance when the need for speed, agility and manoeuvrability in battle returned. Dressage was also popular with royalty and nobility with this period seeing the development of dressage movements that are familiar today.

Introduced at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, only commissioned military officers could compete until a rule change allowed civilian men and women to compete at Helsinki in 1952. One of the first women to compete, and the winner of silver Individual Dressage medals at Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956, was Lis Hartel from Denmark who, after contracting polio, was permanently paralysed below the knees. 

Equestrian, a Paralympic sport

Equestrian was introduced as a Paralympic event at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Paralympics. This competition included all physical impairment groups and visually impaired athletes with men and women competing on equal terms. Prior to that, dressage competitions began in Great Britain during the 1970s. The first international dressage competitions for disabled riders were held at the 1984 Paralympic Games in New York and the first World Championships took place in Sweden in 1987.

As in non-disabled dressage, the horse and rider perform tests in an arena surrounded by letters, which are used as markers for the movements and patterns, with the complexity of the test being based on the athletes’ classification.

Equestrian at the Paralympic Summer Games

  • 1984 New York, USA - 12 events, 6 countries and 15 athletes (9 men and 6 women) participated.
  • 1996 Atlanta, USA - 9 events, 16 countries and 61 athletes participated (15 men and 46 women) participated.
  • 2000 Sydney, Australia - 9 events, 24 countries and 72 athletes participated (18 men and 54 women) participated.
  • 2004 Athens, Greece - 9 events, 20 countries and 69 athletes (22 men and 47 women) participated.
  • 2008 Beijing, China - 11 events, 28 countries and 73 athletes (23 men and 50 women) participated.
  • 2012 London, UK - 11 events, 27 countries and 78 athletes (22 men and 56 women) participated.

British equestrian medal winners

  • 1984 New York, USA
    Jane Stidever - gold in elementary walk/trot C4-5.
  • 1996 Atlanta, USA
    Great Britian - gold in Mixed Team Open.
    Anne Dunham with Doodlebug - bronze in grade II Freestyle.
    Joanna Jackson with Irish Classic - gold in grade IV and gold in grade IV Freestyle.
    Elizabeth Stone with Irish Classic - silver in grade III Individual.
    Patricia Straughan with Not a Penny More - silver in grade IV Individual.
    Diane Tubbs with Music - silver in grade I and bronze in grade I Freestyle.
  • 2000 Sydney, Australia
    Great Britain (Anne Dunham, Kay Gebbie, Nicola Tustain, Lee Pearson) - gold in Mixed Dressage Team Open. 
    Kay Gebbie with Mighty Heights - bronze in grade IV Individual and gold in grade IV Freestyle.
    Lee Pearson with Chipchasemekne - gold in grade I Individual and gold in grade I Freestyle.
    Nicola Tustain with Questionnaire - bronze in grade II Individual and gold in grade II Freestyle.
  • 2004 Athens, Greece
    Great Britain (Anne Dunham, Deborah Criddle, Lee Pearson, Nicola Tustain) - gold in Mixed Dressage Team Open.
    Sophie Christiansen with Hotstuff - bronze in grade I Individual.
    Deborah Criddle with Figaro IX - gold in grade III Individual and gold in grade III Freestyle.
    Lee Pearson with Blue Circle Boy - gold in grade I Individual and gold in grade I Freestyle.
    Nicola Tustain with Prinz Heinrich - bronze in grade II Individual and bronze in grade II Freestyle.
  • 2008 Beijing, China
    Great Britian (Sophie Christiansen, Anne Dunham, Simon Laurens, Lee Pearson) - gold in Mixed Dressage Team Open.
    Ricky Balshaw with Deacons Giorgi - silver in grade Ib Freestyle.
    Felicity Coulthard with Roffelaar - silver in grade II Freestyle.
    Anne Dunham with Teddy - gold in grade Ia Individual and silver in grade Ia Freestyle.
    Sophie Christiansen with Lambrusco III - silver in grade Ia Individual and gold in grade Ia Freestyle.
    Simon Laurens with Ocean Diamond - silver in grade III Freestyle.
    Lee Pearson with Gentlemen - gold in grade Ib Individual and gold in grade Ib Freestyle.
  • 2012 London, Great Britain
    Great Britain (Lee Pearson, Sophie Wells, Deborah Criddle, Sophie Christiansen) - gold in Dressage - Team.
    Natasha Baker with Cabral - gold in grade II Individual and gold in grade II Freestyle.
    Sophie Christiansen with Janeiro 6 - gold in grade Ia Individual and gold in grade Ia Freestyle.
    Deborah Criddle with LJT Akilles - silver in grade III Individual and silver in grade III Freestyle.
    Lee Pearson with Gentlemen - silver in grade Ib Individual and bronze in grade Ib Freestyle.
    Sophie Wells with Pinocchio - silver in grade IV Individual and silver in grade IV Freestyle.

Disclaimer -
Some information from earlier Paralympic Games (i.e. 1960-1988) such as relay and team members are not presented in the IPC source data. Therefore, final results, medal standings and derived statistics may not be complete.
Important note on the definition of participants: Only athletes that appear in the official results books in the section of final results are included in the database and counted towards participant statistics. Data for 2014 and 2016 are accurate. Statistics for previous Games are under review by the IPC.
Important note on competition partners: Competition partners eligible for medals are included in the combined participant statistics until 2014. Statistics for 2016 and beyond consider athletes with an impairment and their competition partners separately. 

How equestrian has evolved 

In 1991, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) appointed IPEC (the International Paralympic Equestrian Committee) to run competitions and develop para equestrian sport worldwide.

In 2006, IPEC joined the 7 other disciplines regulated by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) and para-equestrian dressage was officially recognised as an international equestrian sport.

For Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 the horses were provided by the host nation, since then riders have been able compete with their own horses (which have to be registered with the FEI, be at least 6 years old and a have valid FEI Passport, or, an FEI approved national passport with a valid FEI Recognition Card).

Rules of equestrian dressage

Athletes are classified based on their functional ability when mounted and can use FEI approved compensating aids (assistive devices) such as dressage whips, connecting rein bars and looped reins depending on their classification. ‘Callers’ are allowed to help visually impaired riders navigate around the arena.

Grade Ia riders are usually wheelchair users with impairment of all four limbs. They may be able to walk, but this is usually with an unsteady gait due to difficulties with balance and trunk stability.

Grade Ib riders are similar to Grade Ia in that they are mainly wheelchair users with poor trunk balance and impairment of function in all four limbs, or no trunk balance and good upper limb function or moderate trunk balance with severe impairment of all four limbs.

Grade II riders are often wheelchair users. Riders in this grade can have severe impairment involving the trunk but have good or mild upper limb function, or can have severe arm impairment and slight leg impairment, or can have severe degree of impairment down one side.

Grade III riders are usually able to walk without support but may require a wheelchair for longer distances. Riders can have moderate unilateral impairment, moderate impairment of all four limbs, or severe arm impairment. Blind riders (B1 total loss of eye sight) compete in this category but must wear blacked-out glasses or a blindfold.

Grade IV riders have an impairment in one of two limbs or some visual impairment (partial loss of eye sight) at B2 level.

Horses and riders perform a series of movements (the Test) in an arena of 40m x 20m for grades I to III or 60m x 20m for grade IV.

All athletes complete three tests: a Team Test (three to four riders per team), an Individual Test and a Freestyle Test (athletes choose their own routine and set it to music). The results of the Team and Individual Tests are added together to arrive at the overall Team score, with the best three scores (from a team of four) counting.

The FEI creates the Individual tests, the level of difficulty is relative to the athlete classifications, and provides the scoring outline for Freestyle. These can be downloaded from the FEI website.

A Ground Jury of 5 judges, who must be from different countries, mark each movement with scores out of 10 for technical difficulty and artistic merit against FEI Guidelines and Directives. The scores are combined to calculate the rider's total percentage score.

The FEI Para Equestrian Dressage Rules (a 67 page document) covers everything, from what is expected for each dressage movement, permitted tack and riders clothing, veterinary inspections, horse medication and passports to basic information about what is expected from FEI Para-Equestrian Dressage Judges.

Governing bodies

In Britain para dressage is regulated by the national governing body, British Dressage (BD).

The national rider classification process is managed by the British Equestrian Federation (BEF), details can be found on their website,

Equestrian Team GBR manages the selection process for the World Class Podium Programme. They encourage the horse owners to be involved in the development of their horses and riders and provide benefits to owners whose horse has a World Class rider.

Affiliated to the FEI, The British Equestrian Federation (BEF), established in 1972, is the National Governing Body for horse sports in the UK and manages national para equestrian classification process. Working with British Dressage it also manages the UK Sport lottery funded, Equestrian World Class Programme for Para equestrian dressage as well as non-disabled athletes and horses.

The International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), is the international governing body, one of the first to govern and regulate a sport for both able-bodied and para athletes. The FEI is unique among international sports governing bodies because it also has to consider the welfare of the horse.

Regional clubs

UK wide

The British Paralympic Association has created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area.

Hoof is the British Equestrian Federation’s Olympic and Paralympic legacy programme aimed at increasing participation in equestrian activities by connecting people to local riding centres, schools, clubs and equestrian sporting organisations through their website.

Founded in 1965, the Advisory Council on Riding for the Disabled became the Riding for the Disabled Association in 1969. They offer equestrian activities for all ages and wherever possible, any disability. There are around 500 local groups across the 18 RDA regions, they can be located through the RDA website and are found in urban as well as rural settings.

Wales visit


  • FEI History Hub
  • PARA-EQUESTRIAN Dressage Rules 2018

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Anne Dunham member of the GB Equestrian Team