Dressage vs. Show Jumping: What’s More Difficult and What You Need to Know

06/28/2022

Compared to leaping over obstacles on horseback, dressage is often considered the less exciting English discipline. However, the foundation of jumping is excellent flatwork. It might sound counterintuitive, but having ridden both disciplines, I can assure you there is no better place to strengthen your jump rounds than in the dressage arena. 

Which Discipline is More Difficult?

Most riders find it easier to switch from dressage to jumping than the other way around, since beginning dressage is taught in a manner that is more technically intensive, and most find it far more challenging.

Many beginning jump riders are often taught to simply stay out of the horse’s way, to point the horse at the fence and maintain a position. Many lesson barns who put inexperienced riders on school horses use this strategy. This can be somewhat effective short term with a reliable, experienced horse, but it becomes very dangerous as you begin to raise the jumps and the level of difficulty of the striding.

Beginning dressage begins with building seat and core engagement to bring the horse into a frame and onto the bit, eventually resulting in collection down the road. This is far more difficult than pointing a horse over a fence because it requires a more acute understanding of the technical manner in which a rider’s body affects the horse’s position and balance. It is not a matter of being a successful passenger who can merely stay on and direct.

A dressage rider must be an active participant from the beginning, one who helps intricately shape the horse’s movement through the precision and strength of one’s own movements, in a kind of choreographed dance. Right from the start, this requires stronger core muscles and a greater understanding of one’s own position.

Beginning Dressage vs. Beginning Jumping

A beginning rider can direct a horse over a small obstacle relying mostly on the horse’s training and experience, but asking a beginning dressage rider to collect a horse even into a proper basic frame is impossible without a knowledge of effective contact and cohesion between both ends of the dressage horse. Principles of collection are developed from the beginning; therefore, in introductory levels, dressage is often taught in a more difficult manner due to the emphasis on beginning to develop collection.

The Dressage Training Pyramid 

That said, all elements of the dressage training pyramid—rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection—are incredibly important in both disciplines, and good technical jump riders understand this well. To train riding correctly in each discipline, in a manner that is more safe, balanced, and healthy for both horse and rider, good trainers will build a strong foundation on these principles. If you want to know more about competitive progression in dressage tests, we wrote an article explaining the progressive levels from intro to grand prix, in addition to an in-depth series on the scales of training.

Horse and rider in a dressage arena
Photo by Pepi Pitkänen

Where to Start?

For beginning riders, I would recommend starting with dressage lessons to understand fundamentally the movement of the horse and the delicate and precise ways your movement affects your horse’s in the discipline where it is most emphasized and exaggerated. All good riders need to work with their horse, not merely stay out of their way. In either arena, being merely a passive passenger cannot result in legitimate improvement and can be quite dangerous.

How the Dressage Training Pyramid Applies to Jumping

Good jump riders need to be able to use their seat, be comfortable with contact, and ride from leg and seat to hand—all things that enable them to collect the stride and bring it back out again. Rhythm and straightness are incredibly important for understanding one’s striding towards the jump. Collection and impulsion play into control of speed and striding and to the power over the jump. All of these things factor into a jumper’s distances, and therefore the quality of the jump itself. This is what determines whether a distance is long or short and whether or not a rail falls.

What’s More Difficult about Jumping?

Man and horse jumping over poles
Photo by Gene Devine

In jumping, the concept of “just staying on” is often more difficult due to faster speed, the dramatic change in the horse’s movement over a jump, and the excited playful bucks or other “hiccups” that often result from such dynamic movement. As a result, jump riders often utilize and strengthen lower leg muscles more intensely than dressage riders.

Leg Position and Balance

Being able to retain a good lower leg position is critical for safety, and therefore is exceedingly emphasized in lessons. Less so in dressage lessons, as the stirrup is longer to allow for more area to apply aids to shape their movements.

The stirrup does not need to be shortened for balance in half-seat and two-point which jump riders benefit from, since jump riders need to be able to stand in the stirrups in half-seat and two-point. They balance from having their weight in their heels and having a stable lower leg. Longer stirrups can cause the leg to slide back, causing the rider to fall forward and become unbalanced more easily, which is dangerous for jump riders. Since dressage does not require standing in the stirrups and because it necessitates more precise aids from the leg, it is better suited to a longer stirrup. 

The Importance of the Core and Seat

A dressage rider’s balance comes from the core and seat more so than the leg. Though jumping is often taught with less core and seat emphasis, jump riders definitely benefit in performance and safety from a strong seat and core. To neglect these things in jumping results in a significant lack of balance and control, and is often the cause of injuries and fallen rails. Both disciplines involve core work because the core is the center of all balance; however, dressage utilizes it more intensely. All manner of collection requires core engagement. The most intensive core work is in sitting the lengthening and extension of gaits, most notably at the trot.

Which Discipline has the Better Seat?

Dressage riders cannot compensate for a poor seat by standing in half-seat or two-point or posting in upper levels. If I were to pick an area where jump riders are weakest compared to dressage riders, it would be the seat, which is of course solidified by the effective engagement of the core. This is why the sitting trot in equitation classes often weeds out the men from the boys, because it is very easy to see who has the better seat.

How to Master the Sitting Trot as a Jumper

If you are a jumper rider trying to master this, I recommend checking out some dressage videos and even taking a lesson or two. It will really help you understand the extent of power a good seat has in controlling and communicating with your horse, even if it is a bit too deep for a jump lesson. Your Riding Success on Youtube has some great videos on sitting trot.

What’s More Difficult about Dressage?

Dressage is more seat and collection focused, encouraging engagement of the horse’s core and back to carry the rider, driving from back to front, seat to hand. Jumping involves these concepts with different emphasis on collecting, using it to adjust striding. Dressage riders “lean back” more so than jumpers, getting almost behind the movement of the horse at times. This is illustrated most exaggeratedly in extended sitting trots. They also have a more stabilized seat with less focus on balance from having the heel down. Ankles become a sort of shock absorber, similar to how jump riders use their knees while trotting in two-point.

Scoring

Dressage is judged on the rider’s ability to seamlessly influence the horse through her position and aids. Quiet and subtle communication with the horse is the most advantageous to your position and balance, not to mention your score. It will be incredibly difficult to pull scores in dressage with a bad technical position. If you want to know more, read our helpful guide about dressage scoring!

The Importance of Position in Dressage and Jumping

For jumpers who are judged objectively on time, position doesn’t affect scoring the same way, which is why some trainers and riders cut corners on foundational instruction in beginning jumping that competitive dressage riders can rarely ignore. Your position dictates the horse’s balance and ability to jump well, so the better your position, the faster and more precise jump rounds should become anyway.

Conclusion: Unity with the Horse

The beauty of riding is the unity and seamless communication with such a powerful animal. The idea of being “one with your horse” may seem corny, but the sentiment holds practical value. Both disciplines are beautiful, and I thoroughly recommend trying any and all equestrian disciplines you can. The more horses in your life the better!

What discipline do you ride? Have you ever tried switching? What did you think? We’d love to hear in the comments below!

Comments

Incredible points. Jumper people seem to hate me as I love dressage now. At a young age all I wanted was to jump. A wonderful event coach, and a great school, Potomac Horse Center, introduced the fine touch of dressage and dressage saddles (!) to me and the flat work is the greatest teacher of all of course, in my opinion... I am currently taking lessons with a gigantic low level school of jumping enthusiasts ANDa grand prix school with highly trained dressage horses! Wow! Doing it since I was 8, am 65 now, an instructor, and still learning! HA!
Currently taking dresssage lessons. Would love to jump someday but just am not ready. I wanted to have good basic skills first. Also I was fearful of winding up a a jump barn that pushes jumping to the point of being dangerous. Been there, fell of that.
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