The French word “dressage” simply means training, but in English speaking countries “dressage” refers to a specific equestrian discipline that systematically trains the horse. Some people call dressage “ballet for horses,” as upper level dressage horses perform beautiful, difficult movements after many years of rigorous training. Competitive dressage involves performing a test made up of specific movements in an arena. Well-ridden dressage can be forward and free-flowing, but it is also by nature extremely precise. A dressage test calls for each movement to be performed at a specific point in the arena, marked by a letter. To the casual observer, the letters situated around a dressage arena seem arbitrarily chosen. They’re not in alphabetical order, and they don’t follow any recognizable pattern. So where did the letters come from?
First, let’s examine the two different arenas used for competitive dressage. The small arena measures 20 meters by 20 meters and features the letters A,K,E,H,C,M,B,F around the perimeter. The letters D,X, and G are on the center line of the arena, with X in the center. The standard dressage arena is 20 meters by 60 meters and uses the letters A,K,V,E,S,H,C,M,R,B,P,F. Along the center line are the letters D,L,X,I,G with X in the center.
There are several theories floating around as to why these letters were chosen. The most plausible is the theory that the letters represent the first letter of different 19th century German social ranks. You see, back in the 1800′s when armies consisted of cavalry (men on horses) instead of tanks and planes, equestrian training was part of every soldier’s military education. For thousands of years, horses were war machines and their level of training and willingness to obey their rider could mean the difference between life and death for a soldier. The German military organized demonstrations of riders and their horses in arenas roughly the size of our modern standard arena. The demonstrations were attended by various members of the German aristocracy. Letters were posted on the wall so that the person of each rank would know where to stand. The letters are the first letter of each rank. They are as follows:
K – Kaiser/King
F – Furst/Prince
P – Pferdknecht/Ostler
V – Vassal
E – Edeling/Ehrengast/Guest of Honor
B – Bannertrager/Standard Bearer
S – Schzkanzier/Chancellor of Exchequer
R – Ritter/Knight
M – Meier/Steward
H – Hofsmarshall/Lord Chancellor
You’ll notice not every letter is accounted for in the list. The best theory is that as the sport of dressage grew and the tests became more complex, additional letters were chosen to mark the arena completely. And that is the story of the letters!