When it comes to dressage, there are only a handful of horse breeds that are uniquely suitable for such competitions. It requires the art of balance, obedience and flexibility, all at the same time. That’s the reason that even though there are over hundreds of breeds in the world, only a few excel as horse dressage breeds.
Since riders of all experience levels seek guidance on this topic, I thought it would be better to categorize these breeds into sections like best dressage breeds for beginners, intermediate and expert riders. So, no matter at what stage you see yourself at, this article will surely guide you on which horse breed for dressage best suits you.
Best Dressage Breeds for Beginner Riders
In this section, I’ll go through the characteristics of each horse breed that I think is best suitable for beginner riders.
Appaloosa is an American horse and is recognized by its striped hooves and spotted skin around the eyes and mouth. The leopard complex characteristics are its differential features even in the same species. No two Appaloosas share the same coat pattern. Mostly, the Appaloosas reach a height of 57 to 64 inches but some horses in this breed are also seen reaching 68 inches in height. They are highly intelligent and friendly horses. These horses were originally bred along the Northern area of the Wild West by Nez Perce and were recognised as an official breed in 1938.
If you are an expert dressage rider, then Appaloosas might not be your first option but for a beginner, I’d recommend this breed because of its high versatility and because they can be easily trained. Since Appaloosas are pretty much all-rounders, they continue to succeed in almost every discipline they undertake.
2. Andalusian Horse
This horse breed comes from the Iberian Peninsula and is also called the Pure Spanish Horse. This gorgeous horse has been known as a distinct breed since the 15th century. The world is fond of the beauty of this horse and is the main reason why it is often used in movies to show the superiority of kings.
Andalusians have characteristic long mane and tail and have a compact, yet elegant body shape. This breed has medium-sized heads and necks and is very quick in learning new things. That’s the reason why the Andalusian Horse has been given space under this section.
The rhythm in their walk comes from the muscular back that they inherit. We know that temperament is really important in dressage but no worries as Andalusians do not lag in this field either. Their balance is exceptional, making them one of the best horses for dressage beginners.
The Holsteiner breed originated back in the 13th century in Germany and is thought to be the oldest warmblood breeds. Even though they are not huge in number, they are thought to be a dominant force at top levels of dressage.
These are medium-sized horses that attain an average height of about 64 to 68 inches. Primarily, Holsteiners exhibit grey or bay colour though other colours such as brown and chestnut are also permitted.
Holsteiners are usually well-balanced and have strong nerves while being reliable and bold at the same time. These horses rarely reach the upper ranks in dressage but some high rankers do exist. Because of their exceptional jumping abilities, Holsteiners make excellent dressage mounts.
The Arabian Horse, as the name suggests, originated on the Arabian Peninsula. History reveals that this horse dates back over 3500 years. Due to its high tail carriage and unique head shape, it is one of the most easily recognisable horses on the planet. With an average height of 57 inches, this horse, with the right training can do wonders in dressage.
The Arabian is registered as a purebred horse with colours: chestnut, grey, bay and black. While you may see Arabians having a white coat of hair, they are not white genetically. Today, these horses are one of the most famous ones in the world.
One crazy fact about the Arabian horse is that it only has seventeen ribs while all other horse breeds have a total of eighteen ribs. Due to the lesser weight and great overall appearance, the Arabian proves to be an excellent choice for dressage.
Averaging 61 inches in height, the Friesian horse is full of character, so much so that it is sometimes described as mischievous. This lovely horse is very affectionate with its owner and loves being around people.
Originating from the Netherlands, Friesian horse is one of the oldest domesticated breeds in Europe and today it is a popular choice for dressage riders who are starting their dressage journey. Mainly this horse is a popular choice for novice riders because of its love and affection but other factors are also in-play such as great dressage skills.
Friesian Horse is recognised by its black colour as it is the only colour in which it is registered. Occasionally, chestnut colour is seen as well because there are some breeds that carry the red gene instead of black. This is not the only distinguishing feature of this species as powerful muscles, agility and feathers on lower legs also go in its resume.
Best Dressage Breeds for Intermediate Riders
Now, let’s talk about the best horse breeds for dressage for intermediate riders. The following breeds have a proven track record in dressage contests:
Lusitano first originated in Portugal, hence, it is also known as Portuguese horse. This breed is closely related to the Spanish Andalusian horse. Since both of them developed on the Iberian Peninsula, they are also called Iberian horses.
While Lusitanos exceed 64 inches in height sometimes, most of times they stand between 60 to 61 inches tall. Commonly, they come in grey and bay colour but any solid colour is allowed in their breed registration. You may be surprised to know that Lusitano was once used to breed the Colorado Ranger.
Because this breed is extremely calm, intelligent and very agile in almost every situation, it comes first on my list of best horse dressage breeds for intermediate riders. Plus, Lusitano excels in all forms of riding, especially jumping and dressage so you can’t go much wrong when riding this elegant horse.
7. Irish Draught
This horse is the national horse breed of Ireland and was primarily bred to work on a farm. Today, by crossing this breed with Thoroughbred and other warmbloods, the Irish Draught has evolved into a sports horse that excels in all types of contests like eventing and dressage.
The mares generally attain a height of about 61 to 65 inches while the stallions reach taller, about 64 to 68 inches. Because this breed has a very good temper along with courage and resilience, it wouldn’t be right to leave such an incredibly versatile horse out of the competition.
While it doesn’t appear high in the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses rankings, it doesn’t mean it’s not suitable for the competition as you may be surprised to know that the Irish Draught makes a fantastic dressage horse.
8. Paso Fino
Paso Fino is one of the horses that were imported from Spain to the Caribbean. These horses have a naturally light gait that is laterally ambling yet smooth and four-beat. Although Paso Fino is popular for trail riding, they are well-suited for dressage. In the US, there are two types of Paso Finos: one originated in Puerto Rico whereas the other was developed in Columbia.
This medium-sized horse is light in appearance and averages 62 inches in height, thus Paso Fino is also known as “Light step”. This breed has a challenging temperament as it is fiery and courageous, but at the same time, very friendly with the rider, hence, it comes third on our list of best horse dressage breeds for intermediate riders.
This warmblood horse breed originated in Germany and has won a number of Olympic and other riding competitions. It is one of the oldest and most successful warmbloods of all time. A Thoroughbred blood infusion lightened the Hanoverian. Before that, it was used solely as a carriage horse.
The Hanoverian is renowned for its beauty and grace while good temperament and athleticism also comes in its blood. They are very strong and robust and are trained rather easily. The breed comes in black, grey, chestnut and bay colour and attains a height of about 64 to 66 inches.
Due to its powerful athletic body and strong limbs, the Hanoverian is quite suitable for almost all types of equestrian competitions, especially dressage. It has an elegant gait that distinguishes it from other dressage horses and hence, excels smoothly in this competition.
10. Selle Français
Selle Francais is a pure sports horse breed from France. It is primarily known for its achievements in eventing and dressage competitions. Today, Selle Francais is exported worldwide with studbooks formed in the UK and the US.
It attains a height between 61 and 68 inches while chestnut colour is commonly seen in this horse breed. Since this horse is eager to learn new things, it excels in almost all equestrian competitions including eventing, showjumping and dressage. The name, Selle Francais means French Saddle Horse, no wonder they are such good dressage horses!
This horse breed has a unique and elegant way of moving that helps it win dressage and eventing competitions. It is a classical example of a sport horse; it is intelligent, strong, eager to learn and has good conformation, all at the same time.
Best Dressage Breeds for Expert Riders
Since the following breeds are the topmost ranked in the WBFSH rankings for 2019, I have written about them under this section:
11. Dutch Warmblood
The Dutch Warmblood, as the name suggests, originated in the Netherlands. This warmblood type of horse stands around 64 inches tall and mostly comes in black, brown, chestnut and bay colour, however, tobiano colour is also seen in this horse breed.
This horse has a very friendly nature with plenty of stamina to work all day round. It’s not surprising that the WBFSH ranked this breed 1st in the overall rankings. This horse is probably the latest European warmblood developed when Thoroughbreds were carefully crossed with Gelderland and Groningen. Later on, warmbloods from Germany and France were also introduced which finally resulted in the Dutch Warmblood we see today.
There are three different types of this breed, one of them is the sporty type that excels in all equestrian riding disciplines. The Dutch Warmblood is the 2010 Olympic dressage winner as well as the number 1 ranked jumper by the WBFSH.
This is a free-roaming horse breed of Western America. It descends from the horses brought from Spain to the US. These horses are often referred to as wild horses because they descended from the breeds that once used to be domesticated so it might not be wrong to say that Mustangs are actually ferals.
This horse has various body types. Spanish Mustangs have a well-proportioned body with slightly convex facial profiles. Next comes the Kiger Mustang which is slightly smaller with a deep narrow chest and sloped croups.
When given proper training, Mustangs are excellent in dressage and other equestrian events. A great example is “Cobra” which is the US Equestrian Horse of the Year. That’s the reason why Mustang comes second on my list of best horse dressage breeds for experts.
13. Westphalian Horse
The Westphalian horse is a warmblood bred in Western Germany. Today, the Westphalian comes second to the Hanoverian in being the largest population of any warmblood in Germany.
Most of these horses range in size between 61 and 65 inches while they can be registered in a solid colour, however, colours other than chestnut, black, grey and bay are rare. Because the Westphalians are so easy to train and are suitable for any type of rider, novice or expert, they are highly valuable.
The Westphalian is specially bred for competitive riding like show jumping and dressage. You won’t be surprised to know that this breed was ranked fifth in dressage and sixth in show jumping by the WBFSH in 2010. Other than that, the Westphalian has won many Olympic gold medals in dressage and show jumping as well.
The Oldenburg comes from the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg (today, known as Lower Saxony). Although this breed was used solely for farm and carriage purposes, later on it was crossed with Thoroughbred, Trakehner and Hanoverian and hence, it evolved into a great sports horse breed.
The Association of Breeders of the Oldenburger Horse manages the modern breed and strictly selects the breeding stocks so that each generation is better than the last one. Occasionally, these horses may come in grey, but mostly in the bay, brown or black colour. These strong but kind horses are ranked fourth in the WBFSH rankings.
Oldenburg excels in almost all equestrian riding sports because they are selected for breeding based solely on their qualities and not just for one particular discipline. That’s the reason why this breed is easily trained as well.
15. Danish Warmblood
This beautiful breed of sports horses comes from Denmark by the result of crossing between Danish mares with the elite European bloodlines in the mid 20th century. The horses used to cross with Danish mares were imported from Germany and Spain. In this particular horse breed, the bay is the most common colour, while any solid colour is allowed.
Danish warmbloods have a bold nature and are highly intelligent. They are ranked fifth in the WBFSH rankings and rightfully so. It was solely bred to become a top-quality sports horse. Selections to breed were very strict from the beginning which helped them build a good reputation in the equestrian competitions very quickly.
This warmblood not only stood out in dressage but in show jumping and eventing as well. In 2001, a North American Danish Warmblood Association was formed so that this breed could also be promoted in the US, however, this breed is still uncommon in America.
16. German Warmblood
Well, you can name the origin of this horse breed just by reading the name. Yes, the German Warmblood originated in Germany and this breed is ranked sixth in the WBFSH rankings. It attains an average height of 64 inches. The most common colours seen in this breed are bay, brown and black but any solid colour is allowed for its registration.
The German Warmblood is not actually a breed itself but a collection of warmblood horses originating from Germany. Since the WBFSH has ranked this horse sixth, I had to include it in the best dressage horses for the expert’s section.
There are many types of this breed found in Germany but they are all referred to as German Warmbloods. It includes Hanoverian, Holsteiner, Mecklenburg, Trakehner and Westphalian. Originally, this breed was bred for military purposes but later on, used for transport and agriculture.
How to Choose a Dressage Horse?
Choosing a horse is always the most crucial and difficult part of riding. You can not train a horse that is unsuitable for a particular type of equestrian ridings like dressage or showjumping. So, here are some things to look at while choosing a horse for dressage:
This is, in my opinion, the most important thing when choosing a horse. The willingness to try and keep going is huge. The horse should be able to understand what the rider is asking from it. At first, untrained horses have no idea what to do or what you’re asking from them but if it has a willingness to answer, that breed can surely be trained to excellence.
You see, dressage is a team effort. It doesn’t matter if you are the world’s best horse rider if your companion is not willing to be trained and not willing to understand what you’re asking from it. Conversely, if you have the best horse in the world but don’t know how to train and ride it, that will go in vain too.
Jump and Canter
For dressage, you really want a horse that has a good jump and canter. Young horses, if trained well, can have a really good canter. While jumping, the horse should answer you well and accurately because making a mistake in a contest might put you off big time.
This is correlated with willingness and trainability. The horse might become good in jumps and canter only if it is willing to be trained. Some horses are not so eager to learn. They mostly end up doing farm work or carriage. To win equestrian competitions, you need to choose a good horse that can be trained well and exhibit good jumps and canter.
Lastly, you might want a horse that is not scared and has a good temperament. Horses that are scared might not go very far as having confidence in riding competitions is a must.
To increase the horse’s temperament, you need to gain trust. Give it the signs to advance forward and favour the replies your horse gives in return. It’s like a give and take mutual cooperation. Even if your horse does not perform well in its maiden contest appearance, always have faith in your companion. Who knows one day, it may surprise you!
While you aim for the medal, always be a touch realistic as many positives and negatives happen along the way. The horse can become sick or injuries happen all the time. You just need to enjoy the training and the little things that time offers you with your horse.