Everybody’s got their own opinion on what makes a good dressage horse but one thing’s for sure there are some horses that are better suited to it than others but which horses? To some extent, any horse can do dressage and if you’re just starting out or thinking of taking it up it doesn’t matter as much what horse you have but, on the other hand, if you’re a professional dressage rider then chances are there are a handful of breeds that you’d look horse for.
Like I did with the recent article on the best breeds for eventing, I thought it would be a good idea to categories the best dressage breeds into sections, the best dressage horses for beginners, the best for intermediate competitors and those the pros would choose. While the first two categories will, of course, be subjective the three will be based on the rankings of the World Breeding Federation for Sports Horses (WBFSH). The WBFSH publish the official rankings for the top horses and breeds that compete on an international level in show jumping, dressage and eventing.
Best dressage breeds for beginners
If you’re interested in trying dressage or have just started in the discipline then there is a good argument that says it doesn’t matter what breed you’re riding. The reason for this is because at this stage you don’t know if its something you’ll enjoy or want to continue with so buying a ’specialist’ dressage horse at this stage isn’t going to be a good idea. If you already have your own horse then there’s no reason at all why you can’t start competing together.
If, however, you don’t already have your own horse and are looking for a horse you can use for dressage then the breeds below may be a good, if somewhat non-traditional, choice.
Height: Some horses will reach 17hh (68 inches) but most horses will stand between 14.2hh (57 inches) and 16hh (64 inches).
Color: Spotted with mottled skin around the eyes and mouth and striped hooves.
Character: Appaloosas are very friendly horses and are highly intelligent.
Country of Origin: USA
When you think about dressage horses the chances are an Appaloosa won’t be your first choice but you’d be surprised at just how well they’ll do. Originally bred by the Nez Percé Indians along the northern area of the ‘Wild West’ they were prized for their versatility and the ease with which they could be trained.
The Appaloosa may be famous for its spotted coat but they’re much more than just that. Officially recognized as a breed since 1938, they also continue to succeed in pretty much every discipline they undertake.
- Nez Percé legend tells of three stallions, known as the Ghost Wind Stallions, who came out of the ocean to create the breed.
- You might think that spots are spots but no two Appaloosas share the same coat pattern, much like our fingerprints.
Height: The average is 14.3hh (57 inches) but Arabians can reach 16hh (64 inches).
Color: Any solid color although brown, bay, chestnut, black and grey are the most common.
Character: Arabians are kind horses that love to be around people.
Country of Origin: Arabian peninsula
The Arabian is, along with the Thoroughbred, probably one of the most famous breeds in the world and while a lot of people think that it’s too highly strung for dressage but this isn’t necessarily the case. Yes, some horses may be that way inclined but they are, without doubt, incredibly intelligent horses who, with the right training, can do pretty much anything and dressage is by no means an exception.
Nobody knows for sure where the Arabian originates from but it is known that horses matching their description have been depicted on rock paintings dating back over 3500 years.
- One of the myths surrounding the Arabian’s origin is that the prophet Mohammad created the breed from five horses who chose to return to his side despite desperately needing to drink.
- Unlike all other breeds that have eighteen sets of ribs Arabians only have seventeen.
Height: Typically from 14.2hh (57 inches) and 17hh (68 inches), but the average is 15.3hh (61 inches).
Color: Black, occasionally with a small white star.
Character: Friesians are full of character and are sometimes described as mischievous. They’re also affectionate horses and love being around people.
Country of Origin: The Netherlands
The Friesian is one of the oldest domesticated breeds in Europe and was even the horse of choice of William the Conqueror and while it was originally used as a Medieval charger, today it’s much more of a graceful horse. This is one of the reasons why its such a popular choice for dressage novices, this combined with its elegant high-knee action and enigmatic way of moving.
While the Friesian has left its draft horse roots behind it still retains the characteristic feathers (The long hair that grows, more commonly on heavy horses, on a horse’s legs.) of many heavier breeds. It also has a long flowing mane and tail that are never cut and can often reach the floor.
- While most Friesians are used for riding or driving there are still a few, around 5-7%, that are still used for agricultural work.
- The Friesian’s elegance and timeless beauty has made it a popular choice in the movies and can be seen in blockbusters such as 300, Sense and Sensibility and The Mask of Zorro.
Best dressage breeds for intermediate competitors
As you progress you may find that you want a more ‘traditional’ horse, one with a proven track record within the dressage arena which is where the breeds below come in. With the exception of the Irish Draught, they’ve all appeared in the WBFSH rankings, the Lusitano was ranked 7th in 2019 while the Selle Français was ranked 22nd.
Height: While some horses exceed 16hh (64 inches) most stand between 15.1hh (60 inches) and 15.3hh (61 inches).
Color: Grey and bay are the most common although any solid color, including dun, is allowed.
Character: Lusitano’s are calm horses that are also extremely agile. They have intelligent natures but aren’t headstrong.
Country of Origin: Portugal
If you’re looking for an elegant horse that has a flowing movement and excels in all forms of classical riding, not just dressage, then you can’t go far wrong with the Lusitano. Like it’s close cousin, the Andalusian, they have been the mount of choice for many monarchs for centuries.
All Iberian horses were referred to as Andalusians until 1966 when Portugal set up its own studbook. Today though there’s enough difference between the Lusitano and the Andalusian for them to be regarded as two separate breeds.
- The Portuguese royal family have their own strain of Lusitano’s called the Alter Real. These horses are also used at the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art.
- You may be surprised to know that, although they’re no longer allowed, the Lusitano was once used in the breeding of the Colorado Ranger.
Height: Anything between 15.2hh (61 inches) and 17hh (68 inches).
Color: Chestnut is the most common color but any solid color is permissible.
Character: Selle Français’ are friendly horses that love to learn.
Country of Origin: France
Selle Français, or Cheval de Selle Français to give it its proper name, translates to mean French Saddle Horse so its no wonder they make such good dressage horses. Having been influenced, in the early days, by a lot of trotting breeds the Selle Français has an elegant way of moving which looks beautiful in the dressage ring.
The Selle Français is said to be a classic example of a sport horse; it is strong, athletic, intelligent, has good conformation and is always willing to learn.
Selle Français facts
- The Selle Français was developed at the same government run stud at Saint Lô as the Anglo-Arabain.
- Until 1958 the Selle Français was regarded as a type rather than as a breed and even today a large number of crosses are allowed to be registered. For example, only around 45% of all horses have a Selle Français sire, the rest are by Thoroughbred, Anglo-Norman or French Trotter horses.
Height: Mares generally stand between 15.2hh (61 inches) and 16.2hh (65 inches) while stallions are taller, standing between 16hh (64 inches) and 17hh (68 inches).
Color: All solid colors are allowed.
Character: The Irish Draught is a good-tempered and courageous horse that is great around children.
Country of Origin: Ireland
The Irish Draught is such an incredibly versatile horse that it just wouldn’t be right to leave it out. While it doesn’t appear in the WBFSH rankings it doesn’t mean that it’s not as suited to life as a dressage horse, on the contrary, they make fantastic dressage horses.
The Irish Draught was originally bred as an agricultural workhorse but even then it was still ridden and the numerous infusions of Thoroughbred have only improved its ride-ability. Today they are still used on some farms but have also had international success in all FEI (Fédération Équestre Internationale or FEI is the world governing body for equestrian sports) disciplines.
Irish Draught facts
- The studbook was established in 1917 but the breed itself can be traced back to the 18th century, although its ancestor, the now extinct Irish Hobby, dates back to the 12th century.
- The Irish Draught is a true all-round horse that is often used for draft work, is driven and also used under saddle.
Best dressage breeds for top-level riders
While the breeds I chose for both beginner and intermediate levels are, to some extent, a matter of personal choice there can be no doubt what they best breeds for top-level dressage riders are. All of the breeds below are positioned within the top 6 of the WBFSH rankings for 2019.
Height: Typically standing around 16hh (64 inches).
Color: Chestnut, grey, bay, black and brown are the most common but tobiano can also be found.
Character: Dutch Warmbloods are famous for their friendly nature. Like most warmbloods, they’re hard-working horses that have plenty of stamina.
Country of Origin: The Netherlands
WBFSH 2019 Ranking: 1st
Based on the Groningen and Gelderland, the Dutch Warmblood is probably the newest European warmblood breed, its studbook isn’t even 65 years old! In the development of the breed, Thoroughbreds were carefully selected for their ability and then crossed with the Groningen and Gelderland. Later on, both German and French warmbloods were introduced which helped to create a horse that is loved, not only for its calm and willing nature but also for its extraordinary performance.
There are three different types of Dutch Warmblood, the Gelders horse which is a general-purpose horse, the tuigpaard which is a harness horse and the riding horse type which is the type that excels across the board in all FEI disciplines.
Dutch Warmblood facts
- Like most European warmblood breeds, Dutch Warmblood stallions have to pass strict tests before being allowed to stand at stud. As well as a ridden test they are also assessed for their confirmation.
- Brego, the horse ridden by Théodred Prince of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a pure-bred Dutch Warmblood known as Uraeus.
Height: Most horses are around 16hh (64 inches) but they can range from 15.2hh (61 inches) to 16.2hh (65 inches).
Color: Any solid color.
Character: Westphalian’s have relaxed natures and are easy to train. They’re great for all levels of rider.
Country of Origin: Germany
WBFSH 2019 Ranking: 3rd
Based on the Hanoverian, the Westphalian, or Westfalen, is one of the most popular breeds in Germany, only being beaten to first place by the Hanoverian. The Westphalian’s studbook was first set up in 1888 but the breed itself can be traced back to 1713 when King Frederick William I established the Prussian Stud Administration which, in turn, set up the State Stud of Warendorf in 1826. The stud, along with others in the region bred horses that were ideal for agricultural work but as horses gave way to tractors they changed into cavalry horses and later riding and sport horses.
Other breeds such as the Oldenburg, Thoroughbred and Anglo-Norman have all influenced the Westphalian at various times.
- Like most of Germany’s horse breeds, the Westphalian is thought to have descended from the wild horses that roamed the area around the Rhine since Roman times.
- Olympic dressage rider, Steffen Peters’ famous horse, Legolas was a Westphalian gelding out of a Fürstin, another Westphalian.
Height: Anything over 16.2hh (65 inches) is allowed.
Color: Occasionally grey but mainly black, brown or bay.
Character: Oldenburgs are very strong horses that have kind and friendly natures.
Country of Origin: Germany
WBFSH 2019 Ranking: 4th
Like so many of the older European warmblood breeds, the Oldenburg was originally bred as a workhorse but as with some many other breeds, the advent of motorized vehicles reduced the need for such horses. As this started to happen Count von Oldenburg, the original creator of the breed, decided to stop using Spanish and Barb horses in the breeding program and instead began to introduce other warmblood breeds such as the Hanoverian, Trakehner and Thoroughbred. This resulted in a much lighter horse that is still immensely popular today.
The Oldenburg is different from a lot of other breeds in that horses are selected for breeding based solely on their quality and nothing else. They’ve never been selectively bred for one particular discipline.
- While the Oldenburg is highly prized as a top-class dressage horse it is still used in International Combined Driving Championships.
- All registered Oldenburgs are marked with the official brand (an O with a crown above it) along with the 12th and 13th numbers of their life number (The number given to a horse that reveals when and where he was born as well as which registry issued his papers.).
Height: Anything between 15.3hh (61 inches) and 17hh (68 inches) is allowed but the average is 16.2hh (65 inches).
Color: Bay is the most common color but any solid color is allowed.
Character: They’re famous for their intelligence and bold natures.
Country of Origin: Denmark
WBFSH 2019 Ranking: 5th
The Danish Warmblood is a relatively new breed that was created with the sole purpose of being a top-quality competition horse. The Danish government played no part in the development of the breed so it was left to individual breeders to import horses for breeding themselves. They used horses from Germany as well as horses of Spanish origin and crossed them with Denmark’s oldest breed, the Frederiksborg.
From the very beginning, strict methods of selection were imposed on all horses which helped them to establish their reputation as a top-quality competition horse very quickly.
Danish Warmblood facts
- The Danish Warmblood itself was only established in the 1960s but its heritage can be traced back to the 14th century Cistercian monks who first bred the Frederiksborg.
- The Danish Warmblood is a versatile horse that has not only excelled in dressage but has also done exceptionally well in eventing and showjumping.
Height: The average height is between 16hh (64 inches) and 16.2hh (65 inches) but they can be up to 17.2hh (69 inches).
Color: Any solid color is allowed but black, brown and bay tend to be the most common.
Character: Being warmbloods they’re hardworking horses that are known for their toughness and kind natures.
Country of Origin: Germany
WBFSH 2019 Ranking: 6th
I know that technically the German Warmblood isn’t a breed in itself but a collective term for a number of warmblood breeds, but it also refers to horses registered with the German Horse Breeding Society (Zuchtverband für Deutsche Pferde) and as such has come 6th in the WBFSH rankings since 2017 so I had to include it.
Many regions in Germany have their own warmblood breed and while each breed is separate they are all referred to as German Warmbloods. The breeds include the Oldenburg, Holsteiner, Westphalian, Trakehner, Hannoverian and Mecklenburg.
German Warmblood facts
- As you might expect most German Warmbloods are duel registered with other breed registries.
- German Warmbloods were originally bred as military horses but were also used for agricultural and transport purposes.
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