FAQ Riding

What are the levels of dressage? (With Video Examples)

Stephany Fish Dressage Levels

Dressage On the Level

Dressage is a beautiful, timeless equestrian sport that was documented as far back as 350 BC when Xenophon, an Athenian historian and soldier, completed his manual, On Horsemanship.

Dressage began as a way of teaching war horses to become more agile, so they could charge the enemy, then stop, sidestep his sword, pirouette quickly to strike another attacker, and then gallop off again (hopefully still in one piece).

As horses became finer and more well-bred, and they weren’t needed for war, dressage began to emerge in the sporting pursuits of the aristocrats. The movements became more prescriptive, and various levels of proficiency were developed.

Today, dressage is an Olympic sport, seen not only in stand-alone dressage competitions but also as part of the three-phase sport of eventing.

In this article, we’ll talk through the most common North American National levels of dressage:

  • Introductory Level
  • Training Level
  • First Level
  • Second Level
  • Third Level
  • Fourth Level

New to the sport? Check out our 27-Page Horse Rookie’s Guide to Dressage.

FEI Versus National Levels

There are 2 delineations in Dressage level competitions: FEI, or internationally recognized tests, and National, which is determined by each individual country’s equestrian organizations.

For our purposes, we will focus on the North American National levels and how they are defined. The USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) and the USDF (United States Dressage Federation) create and release new tests every four years.

They assess feedback they receive from judges and competitors, alike, and adjust each level’s standards accordingly.

National levels run: Introductory, Training, First, Second, Third, and Fourth levels.

Within each National level, there are three tests. They progress in level of difficulty as the test number increases. Every level raises the performance expectation from the previous level, and tests include more difficult movements that reflect the next natural step in your training.

For example, if you’re performing First Level Test 3, your next step of training at home will be practicing Second Level Test 1 movements.

A typical Dressage arena is 20m x 60m, which translates in feet to 66 ft x 198 ft. Therefore, a 20 m circle is the biggest circle that can be produced in the arena.

A typical Dressage arena is 20m x 60m

Source: Canva

Breaking Down Each Level

Introductory Level

Tests within this level are performed at a walk and trot only, except the third test, which has a tiny bit of canter.

Horse and rider are asked to perform 20-meter circles at the trot, show both a working and free walk and ride their geometric shapes fairly accurately.

Here’s an example of an Introductory test:

Training Level

You’re expected to perform medium walk, working trot, and working canter in both directions, with changes of direction happening through both the walk and the trot.

Halts can be done through the walk, as can the depart from the halt.

Circles are 20 meters, a 3-loop serpentine (to test change of bend through the trot), and a “stretchy” trot circle are extra components within this level.

Horses should look organized and forward, regular and relaxed in their gaits, and not forced into a more advanced head carriage.

Here’s an example of a Training Level test: 

First Level

At First Level, the horse and rider are still working at the medium walk, working trot, and working canter.

You’ll also add lengthening at trot and canter. This is when the horse is asked to extend not only the stride, but the whole body within the contact to achieve a more ground-covering gait.

We also see the introduction of lateral work with the leg yield, and the canter starts to be challenged with the addition of counter canter.

Trot circles are now 10 meters, and canter circles shrink to 15 meters.

In addition to these challenges, we now ask the canter transition to happen through the trot and halts need to be directly in and out of the trot (i.e. no walk steps).

A better level of organization, thrust, and balance is expected of the horse, leading to a more consistent acceptance of the rider’s contact.

Here’s an example of a First Level test: 

New to the sport? Check out our 27-Page Horse Rookie’s Guide to Dressage.

Second Level

According to the USDF, a horse and rider at Second Level should show “that the horse, having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit.” A greater degree of balance, bending, straightness, suppleness, and self-carriage is required than what is exhibited at First Level.

The trot and canter movements are now collected. In fact, there is a LOT of new stuff in this level.

Instead of lengthening, we should see a medium (trot or canter), which extends the legs within the gait and maintains a higher level of collection and organization.

These tests add shoulder-in, haunches-in (Renvers), a 3-loop counter canter, simple changes in the canter (canter-walk-canter), rein back, and walk turn on the haunches.

Given all the new requirements, we often see horses struggling with tension and balance issues because they are being asked to do movements that they have yet to develop the necessary strength for.

Make sure to do your homework before attempting this level. Judges won’t cut you any slack for being new.

Here’s an example of a Second Level test:

Third Level

This level continues to up the ante for collection, not only requiring medium extensions but asking for extended trot and canter. Extended work requires the ability to show not only your big gaits but two different levels of BIG!

We also expect to see the horse have more ability for “sitting,” more power, and yet retain the ability to come back to collected work easily.

For movements, we continue to see shoulder-in, and we now add travers and half-pass.

At the canter, half-pass and the single flying change are the big additions.

The turn on the haunches becomes the walk pirouette, and the walk goes from medium to collected.

Don’t be fooled by “less” new things though – judges expect everything you do to be MORE…more accurate, more powerful, and more elevated. That is the big theme in Third Level.

Here’s an example of a Third Level test: 

Fourth Level

At the final level of our National testing system, we start to see some of the really fun stuff that will become the foundation of upper-level FEI tests.

We still have our collected, medium and extended gaits, but everything starts to happen in rapid-fire succession.

New movements for this level include the working canter pirouette and multiple flying changes, culminating in Fourth Level Test 3. This test includes 3 sets of three tempi’s on the diagonal. (This means changing leads 3 times, every third stride!)

At this level, we also expect the horse to be quite confident in its balance, and all movements should be performed with greater straightness, cadence, and energy than at Third Level.

Remember, Fourth Level is on the verge of playing with the big boys!

New to the sport? Check out our 27-Page Horse Rookie’s Guide to Dressage.

Here’s an example of a Fourth Level test: 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When should you go up a level in dressage?

This depends largely on the rider. Some want to stay at a level until they achieve a “perfect” score, others are content to move on as soon as the horse has “passed.”

You should go up a level only when your horse is ready. He should be strong, fit, and flexible while showing an eagerness to learn and be challenged.

How are your transitions? They should be smooth between all gaits, and you should be able to change directions as swiftly as cutting through butter.

Finally, before showing at the next level, ride it at home and see how you both feel.

Q: Can you skip levels in dressage?

If you’re a backyard rider using the dressage levels more as a barometer than the law, then yes, skip away.

If you’re looking to show and work your way up to Grand Prix, however, every level is a must (though many riders will skip Intro and start competing at the Training level). If you choose not to show at Intro, make sure you can still ride it well at home.

The best part about dressage levels is that they build on one another. If your horse is struggling with Second, you shouldn’t just skip to Third (in fact, you may even benefit from going back to First).

Intro Level Dressage Horse

Source: Canva

Q: What is a Level 3 dressage horse?

A Level 3 dressage horse refers to a horse that has received the appropriate training to successfully compete at the Third Level. This means the horse will have mastered all the basics, establishing an uphill balance along with executing more refined transitions. 

Just because a horse can ride a Level 3 test doesn’t mean the rider is at the same level. It’s important to evaluate both the horse and rider in order to place the team at the correct level.

Q: What is the hardest dressage movement?

The canter pirouette is arguably the most difficult dressage movement. It requires a mastery of collection, balance, and strength to properly execute. The canter pirouette appears at Intermediate 1.

The piaffe, (which means “to prance”) is another difficult movement appearing in higher-level dressage tests.

Q: What is the easiest dressage level?

The easiest level of dressage is the Introductory level, which includes only the walk and trot (no canter) in tests.

Q: What breed of horse is most commonly used for dressage?

The Dutch Warmblood is considered the ultimate equine athlete and regularly excels in the dressage arena. Two of the greatest dressage horses of all time, Totilas and Valegro, were both Dutch Warmbloods. 

Q: How many dressage tests can you do in one day?

If you’re competing at the fourth level or below, your horse can only perform three dressage rides. As you move further up the levels, this limit drops even further, with those competing above the fourth level being limited to two dressage rides per day.

One Step At a Time

That’s it, ladies and gents – the American system of Dressage Tests. I hope that this brings the sport of Dressage into greater clarity. It’s not all 20-meter trot circles 🙂

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:


Secrets to Showing Success

Love it? Share it!

About the author


Stephany Fish Crossman

Stephany Fish Crossman blends years of classical dressage training and a deep knowledge of biomechanics to produce horse and rider partnerships that are confident, competitive, athletic, and happy to do their jobs day-in, day-out. She runs Serendipity Dressage from her home in Brooksville, Florida.