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Best Dressage Horse Breeds: From Beginner to Grand Prix

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Starting your dressage journey? Finding the perfect horse can be the key to success; from calming nerves on your first lesson to achieving success at the highest levels of competition, a dedicated and talented equine partner is key. So which breeds are the best dressage horses?

The American Quarter Horse and Friesian are popular options for beginners in dressage. Intermediate riders should consider the Irish Sport Horse or Danish Warmblood. At the advanced level, breeds like the Dutch Warmblood and Hanoverians are known for their exceptional movement and athleticism, making them top choices.

This article will guide you through the best horse breeds for dressage at every level, from beginner to advanced. Are you ready to find your ideal equine partner and start your journey on the right hoof?

Dressage: why it’s a popular equestrian discipline.

Dressage is a form of horse riding that focuses on precise movements and control. It is often described as “horse ballet,” requiring the rider to communicate with the horse using subtle, nuanced cues.

Dressage is popular among equestrian enthusiasts because it requires a high level of skill and partnership between the horse and rider. It is also a spectator-friendly sport, as the intricate movements and training of the horses can be impressive to watch.

Dressage is often performed in an arena, with the horse and rider performing a series of predetermined movements, or “tests,” that are judged by officials. Dressage is one of three disciplines that make up the sport of eventing, along with cross-country and show jumping.

It is also a standalone discipline, with its own competitions ranging from local shows to international events such as the Olympic Games.

Picture of girl with her dressage horse.

Beginner-level Dressage Horse Breeds

Choosing a horse breed that is calm, patient, and willing to learn for beginners in dressage is paramount. Novice riders can benefit from a horse that is forgiving of mistakes and not too highly strung or reactive. Here are a few horse breeds that are suitable for beginners in dressage:

American Quarter Horse

The American Quarter Horse is a breed that originated in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries through the crossbreeding of imported English horses and native American horses.

They are known for their calm dispositions, athleticism, and versatility, which make them suitable for many equestrian disciplines, including dressage. Here are some other characteristics of the American Quarter horse that makes them good beginner horses for dressage.

  • Good work ethic: American Quarter Horses are known for their willingness to work and can be patient and forgive mistakes, which can be helpful for beginner riders.
  • Smooth gaits: American Quarter Horses often have smooth gaits, which can make them more comfortable to ride for beginners.
  • Versatility: American Quarter Horses are known for their versatility and can excel in assorted equestrian disciplines. This can make them a good choice for beginners interested in exploring different disciplines in the future.
  • Strong bond with humans: American Quarter Horses are known for their strong bond with humans and can be affectionate and loyal, making them a good choice for beginner riders looking for a companionable partner.
  • Adaptability: American Quarter Horses are known for their adaptability and can be suitable for riders of all ages and experience levels. This can make them a good choice for beginners who may be unsure of their long-term riding goals.

Friesian

Friesians are known for their distinctive appearance, which includes a long, thick mane and tail, a well-proportioned head with large, expressive eyes, and a strong, muscular body.

They are typically black, although some may have small white markings on their face or legs. Friesians are known for their calm and friendly personalities and are often described as gentle giants.

They are intelligent, easy to train, and have a strong work ethic, which makes them suitable for many equestrian disciplines. Here is some additional facts about the Friesian horse breed:

  • The Friesian is a breed that originated in the Friesland region of the Netherlands, where they were used as farm horses and for transportation.
  • They were also used as war horses in the Middle Ages and played a significant role in developing other horse breeds, such as the Andalusian and the Lipizzaner.
  • In the 20th century, the Friesian began to be used in dressage and other equestrian disciplines.
  • Today, Friesians are known for their graceful movement, gentle personalities, and versatility, which make them suitable for many equestrian disciplines, including dressage.
  • They are also popular as pleasure and show horses due to their striking appearance and presence.

Percheron

The Percheron horse breed originated in the Perche region of France in the Middle Ages, where they were used as draft horses for farming and transportation due to their strength and stamina.

Today, they are known for their strength, calm demeanor, and versatility, which make them suitable for many equestrian disciplines, including dressage. Percherons are also popular as pleasure and show horses due to their striking appearance and presence.

Percherons are known for their large size and strong, muscular build. They are typically black or grey, although some may be chestnut or bay. They have calm and friendly personalities and are often described as gentle giants.

Percherons are smart, easy to train, and have a strong work ethic. They are also known for their good movement and rideability. Here are some reasons Percherons make good horses for beginner riders in dressage:

  1. Size and strength: Percherons are known for their large size and strong, muscular build, making them well-suited for beginner riders who are still developing their balance and control.
  2. Good movement: Percherons are known for their good movement and rideability, which can make them suitable for dressage.
  3. Calm disposition: Percherons are known for their calm and gentle personalities, making them suitable for beginners who may be nervous or anxious when riding.
  4. Strong bond with humans: Percherons are known for their strong bond with humans and can be affectionate and loyal.

Gypsy Vanner

The Gypsy Vanner, also known as the Irish Cob or Tinker, is a breed that originated in the United Kingdom in the 20th century. They were developed by the Romani people, also known as Gypsies, who used them as working horses for farming and transportation.

The breed is known for its strong, muscular build, long mane and tail, and thick feathering on its legs. Gypsy Vanners are typically black and white or brown and white and are known for their long, flowing manes and tails. They are also known for the thick feathering on their legs, which gives them a distinctive appearance.

Gypsy Vanners are known for their calm and gentle personalities and are often described as kind and willing to please. They are intelligent, easy to train, and have a strong work ethic, which makes them suitable for many equestrian disciplines.

They are also known for their good movement and rideability, which can make them suitable for dressage. Here are a few specific reasons why Gypsy Vanners may be good for beginner riders in dressage:

  1. Good movement and rideability: Gypsy Vanners are known for their good movement and rideability, which can make them suitable for dressage.
  2. Gentle personalities: Gypsy Vanners are known for their calm and gentle personalities, making them suitable for beginners who may be nervous or anxious when riding.
  3. Strong work ethic: Gypsy Vanners are intelligent, easy to train, and have a strong work ethic, which can be helpful for beginner riders who are still developing their skills and knowledge.
Picture of an Irish Sport Horse.

Intermediate level

The Irish Sport Horse, Danish Warmblood, Westphalian, and Selle Français breeds are all warmblood breeds that are known for their athleticism, good movement, and rideability, which make them suitable for many equestrian disciplines, including dressage.

These breeds are strong, with muscular builds and good bone structure. They are also known for their intelligent and easygoing temperament and are often described as willing and eager to please.

Here are some key characteristics the horses on my list of best breeds for intermediate riders in dressage tend to have in common:

  1. Good movement and rideability: These breeds are known for their good movement and rideability, which can make them suitable for dressage at the intermediate level.
  2. Athletic ability: These breeds are known for their athleticism and are often described as having powerful, uphill gaits and exceptional movement, which can be helpful for intermediate riders who are working on more advanced dressage movements and techniques.
  3. Versatility: These breeds are known for their versatility and can excel in many equestrian disciplines.
  4. Strong work ethic: These breeds are intelligent, easy to train, and have a strong work ethic, which can be helpful for intermediate riders who are developing their skills and knowledge.
  5. Proven success: These breeds have a long history of success in dressage in their respective countries and internationally, making them a good choice for intermediate riders looking for a breed with a proven track record in the discipline.
  6. Conformation: These breeds are known for their good conformation, which can be important for dressage as it can affect their movement and overall performance. They typically have good toplines, shoulder angles, and correct leg conformation, making them suitable for intermediate dressage competitions.

For intermediate riders, choosing a horse breed with the athleticism and movement required for more advanced dressage work and the temperament and rideability to suit the rider is important. Here are the horse breeds I find that fit best for intermediate riders in dressage:

Irish Sport Horse

The Irish Sport Horse is a breed that originated in Ireland in the 19th century. They were developed by crossing native Irish mares with Thoroughbred and Arabian stallions.

Irish Sport Horses are typically bay, brown, or chestnut in color and are known for their strong, muscular build and good bone structure. They are also known for their intelligent and friendly personalities and are often described as willing and eager to please.

Danish Warmblood

The Danish Warmblood originated in Denmark in the 19th century. They were developed by crossing native Danish mares with Thoroughbred and Arabian stallions and were developed specifically for dressage.

The breed is known for its athleticism, good movement, and rideability, which make them suitable for many equestrian disciplines, including dressage. Danish Warmbloods are typically bay, brown, or black in color and are known for their strong, muscular build and good bone structure.

Selle Français

The Selle Français horse breed is a warmblood breed that originated in France in the 19th century. The Selle Français horse breed is registered with the Stud Book Selle Français (SBS) in France, founded in 1891.

The SBS is responsible for maintaining the breed standard and promoting the breed internationally. Some characteristics of the Selle Français breed include their strong hindquarters, which help them excel in jumping disciplines, and their kind and docile dispositions, which make them popular as children’s and amateur horses.

Selle Français horses have a long history of success in dressage, both in France and internationally. They are often used in various equestrian disciplines, including dressage, show jumping, and eventing. They are also popular as pleasure and show horses due to their striking appearance and presence.

Holsteiner

The Holsteiner horse breed is a warmblood breed that originated in the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany in the 14th century. They were originally used as draft horses for farming and transportation and were known for their strength and stamina.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Holsteiners began to be used in various equestrian disciplines, including dressage. Holsteiners are known for their athleticism, good movement, and rideability, making them suitable for many equestrian disciplines, including dressage.

Picture of an advanced dressage horse.

Advanced level

Advanced dressage horses should have excellent movement, including a powerful and expressive trot and canter and an elastic, balanced walk. They should have good collection and impulsion and easily perform high-level dressage movements, such as piaffe and passage.

In addition to good movement, advanced dressage horses should be easy to ride and responsive to the rider’s aids. They should be willing and eager to work and have a good work ethic.

Physical condition is also important for advanced dressage horses, as they need to be athletic and able to consistently perform at a high level of competition, with good endurance and stamina.

Good conformation is also important for advanced dressage horses, including a balanced, harmonious build and good bone structure. They should have a long, sloping shoulder, a deep chest, and strong hindquarters, which help them excel in dressage.

Finally, advanced dressage horses should have a calm, even temperament and remain focused and composed under pressure. They should be confident and brave and not easily spooked or nervous.

Here are a few of the best horse breeds for advanced dressage competitions:

Dutch Warmblood

The Dutch Warmblood is a breed developed in the Netherlands in the 20th century through the selective breeding of imported Warmblood and Thoroughbred horses. The Royal Warmblood Studbook of the Netherlands (KWPN), was founded in 1971.

The KWPN is responsible for maintaining the breed standard and promoting the breed internationally. Their versatility and success in various equestrian disciplines set Dutch Warmbloods apart from other breeds.

In annual dressage competitions, Dutch Warmbloods consistently rank among the top-performing breeds. They are highly sought after as advanced sport horses due to their versatility, good movement, and rideability.

There have been many famous Dutch Warmblood horses in dressage throughout history, some notable examples of famous Dutch Warmblood horses in dressage include:

  1. Totilas: Totilas was a black Dutch Warmblood stallion. He was the first horse to score above 90 in a dressage competition and set a world record for the highest dressage score in Grand Prix Freestyle Dressage.
  2. Valegro: Valegro was a dark bay Dutch Warmblood gelding born in 2002. He won the Grand Prix Special and Grand Prix Freestyle at the World.

Hanoverian

The Hanoverian is a breed that originated in the Kingdom of Hanover (now part of Germany) in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Hanoverian horse breed is registered with the Hanoverian Verband, responsible for maintaining the breed standard and promoting the breed internationally.

They are typically chestnut, black, or brown in color and are known for their good conformation, including a long, sloping shoulder, a deep chest, and strong hindquarters. They are also known for their kind and docile dispositions and are often described as willing and eager to work.

They have consistently placed well in national and international dressage competitions and are also popular as pleasure and show horses due to their good conformation and kind dispositions.

  1. Satchmo: Satchmo was a bay Hanoverian gelding that was sired by Sao Paulo and carried the bloodline of Sandro; the bay was brought to prominence by legendary trainer Uwe Schulten-Baumer.
  2. Glock’s Toto Jr.: Glock’s Toto Jr. was a bay Oldenburg stallion born in 2008 and competed in show jumping at the highest levels, including the Olympic Games and the World Equestrian Games.
Picture of a Westphalian mare and her foal.
Westphalian mare and her foal.

Westphalian:

Westphalian horses are a breed that originated in the Westphalia region of Germany in the 19th century. The horses are registered with the Westphalian Horse Breeders Association in Germany, founded in 1892.

The association is responsible for maintaining the breed standard and promoting the breed internationally. Westphalian horses have a long history of success in dressage, both in Germany and internationally.

They have consistently placed well in national and international dressage competitions and have been ridden by numerous German teams at the Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games.

Westphalian horses are often used in various equestrian disciplines, including dressage, show jumping, and eventing. They are also popular as pleasure and show horses due to their striking appearance and presence.

Top Westphalian dressage horses:

Rembrandt (1977– 2001) was a dark bay Westphalian gelding that was successful in dressage and is remembered for his exceptional talent and versatility. He won four Olympic gold medals, three gold, and one silver World Equestrian Games medals.

Ahlerich (1971–1992) was a Westphalian gelding for his success in dressage. He won numerous national and international titles, including team gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games and individual gold in 1984.

Oldenburg

The Oldenburg horse breed is a warmblood breed that originated in the Oldenburg region of Germany in the 17th century. They have a long history of success in sport, both in Germany and internationally, consistently placing well in national and international dressage, show jumping, and eventing competitions.

They have also been represented on numerous German teams at the Olympic and World Equestrian Games. In addition to their success in sport, Oldenburg horses are also popular as pleasure and show horses due to their good conformation and kind dispositions. They are highly sought after as advanced sport horses due to their versatility, good movement, and rideability.

Here are some of the most successful Oldenburg horses:

  1. Donnerhall: Donnerhall was a black Oldenburg stallion born in 1971 and competed in dressage at the highest levels, including the Olympic Games and the World Equestrian Games.
  2. Weihegold: Weihegold is a black Oldenburg mare who competed in dressage at the highest levels
  3. Sandro Hit: Sandro Hit was a bay Oldenburg stallion born in 1989 and competed in dressage at the highest levels and became a top dressage sire.

How much does a dressage horse cost?

The cost of a dressage horse can vary greatly depending on several factors, including the horse’s age, breed, training level, show record, and general health and condition. On average, dressage horses can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars.

It’s important to note that the initial purchase price is only one aspect of the overall cost of owning a horse. Other ongoing expenses, such as boarding, feeding, veterinary care, farrier services, and training, can significantly increase over time.

It’s important to carefully consider your budget and financial resources before purchasing and to be prepared for the ongoing costs of horse ownership.

If you’re in the market for a dressage horse, it’s a good idea to work with a reputable breeder or dealer and to carefully evaluate the horse’s suitability for your needs and goals before buying.

It may also be helpful to consult with a professional trainer or instructor who can help you assess the horse’s potential and assist you in making an informed decision.

Here is a table of the traits that are typically desired in dressage horses at each level of competition:

TraitBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced
Calm disposition
Patient and willing to learn
Forgiving of mistakes
Not highly strung or reactive
Athletic
Good movement
Rideable
Exceptional movement and athleticism

Conclusion

This article covered the best horse breeds for dressage at each level of competition, from beginner to Grand Prix. For beginners, breeds such as the American Quarter Horse, Friesian, Percheron, and Gypsy Vanner are suitable for their calm dispositions, athleticism, and versatility.

Intermediate riders may consider breeds like the Irish Sport Horse, Danish Warmblood, Hanoverian, and Selle Français, which have the movement, rideability, and athleticism required for more advanced dressage work.

At the advanced level, breeds like the Dutch Warmblood, Westphalian, Holsteiner, and Oldenburg excel in dressage due to their exceptional movement, rideability, and athleticism.

It’s important to remember that every horse and rider combination is unique, and choosing a breed that suits your individual goals and needs is essential.

While the breeds listed in this article are known for their suitability for dressage, it’s also important to spend time with a prospective horse and assess their suitability for your riding level and goals. If you’re looking for a dressage partner, consider these top-performing breeds as you begin your search.

Here is a YouTube video that discusses the best horse breeds for dressage.