Behind the Letters and Numbers

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Dressage competition acronyms explained

By Natalie DeFee Mendik

The theories behind the unknown origins of dressage arena letters are familiar to every dressage rider, as is everyone’s personal favorite way to remember them. “A King Eats His Cold Meat Before Friday” is what I learned as a girl, and the mnemonic has stuck with me since.

What’s not an enigma, however, is the “alphabet soup” of abbreviations related to dressage competition. Not sure what everything stands for? You’re not alone! Take a peek with us behind the curtain and it will all make sense.

National-Level Competition

Let’s start with the very basics. In the US, the national governing body of equestrian sport is the United States Equestrian Federation (US Equestrian or USEF). If you compete at USEF-licensed shows, you’re under the umbrella of the USEF. USEF-licensed dressage competitions are recognized by the United States Dressage Federation (USDF), the US national dressage affiliate organization.

USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized dressage competitions are classified into levels (event tiers), from Level 1 through Level 5. (We’re talking about the events themselves here, not the dressage competition levels.) The higher the level, the more requirements are in place, from footing to judges.

Level 1 competitions are low-key, introductory-style affairs (think: one-day show with grass footing permitted). Many dressage competitions are Level 3: held over multiple days at a facility offering stabling, the same quality footing in both warm-up and competition arenas, and at least two USEF “S” judges (more on judges in a minute). The Great American/USDF Regional Championships competitions are Level 4, and the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® are Level 5.

Want to know more about these competition tiers? A chart in the USEF Rule Book outlines the requirements for each levels of competition (start on page 49 of the USEF dressage rules).

While you’re looking at the rule book—and you should, as it’s a trove of information—you’ll see that all the rules in the Dressage Division section are listed as DR plus a number, such as DR 102. DR stands for “dressage rule,” meaning that it’s part of the dressage section. For example, DR 102 describes everything you need to know about the halt (DR 102, The Halt).

Every section of the USEF rule book has a similar abbreviation denoting its division. Most don’t apply to dressage competition, but one important exception is the General Rules (GR), which apply to all USEF-licensed competitions, regardless of discipline or breed.

While you’re looking at the USEF rules, familiarize yourself with three supplemental rules guides. DR 121 Annex A: Bits, Saddlery and Equipment provides additional information about permitted and prohibited items of dressage tack. The Dressage Attire and Equipment booklet contains details about show clothing—especially pertinent this year with all the recent changes to the USEF/USDF dressage attire rules. Finally, USEF’s annual Guidelines & Rules for Drugs and Medications booklet has all the information you need if your horse receives any supplements or medications, whether purchased over-the-counter or prescribed by your veterinarian.

International-Level Competition

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) oversees international-level horse sports in seven disciplines, including dressage and para-equestrian dressage. Horses and riders in classes including Prix St. Georges, Grand Prix, and FEI Young Rider are performing FEI tests, regardless of whether they are at a national-level competition or an FEI-recognized competition.

An FEI-recognized dressage competition is called a CDI, which stands for Concours de Dressage International. Much of the FEI’s terminology is in French, as the organization is headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland (which is also home to the International Olympic Committee, or IOC).

Remember the USEF competition levels? The FEI does something similar with its competitions.

CDIs are rated by “stars” (expressed as asterisks), which denote such criteria as the level of competition, the judges, and the amount of prize money offered. A one-star CDI (CDI1*) offers what’s known as the Small Tour (Prix St. Georges and Intermediate I levels). A CDI2* adds the Medium Tour (Intermediate A and B) and the Big Tour (Intermediate II, Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special, and Grand Prix Freestyle). The highest star rating is the CDI5*, a relatively rare classification that includes such big-time events as certain of the the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival shows in Florida.

CDIAm (Concours de Dressage International Amateur) competition is not for adult amateurs as defined by USEF. Rather, it’s open to any rider, aged 26 and up, who is not on the FEI Dressage World Ranking List at the time of entering the competition.

This brings us to the pinnacle of FEI dressage competitions, which have their own acronyms. CHIO, another category of CDI5*, stands for Concours Hippique International Officiel. A CHIO hosts multiple disciplines at the same event. Arguably the most prestigious and best-known CHIO is CHIO Aachen in Germany, also known as the World Equestrian Festival.

The FEI Dressage Nations Cup, an international series of team competitions designed to foster competitive spirit globally, allows countries to assemble squads of top horse-and-rider combinations to vie for cumulative points at major FEI competitions. In events such as these, you’ll see the CDIO designation, meaning Concours de Dressage International Officiel, which recognizes competitions within the Nations Cup series.

CDI-W (Concours de Dressage International-World) denotes the FEI World Cup Dressage series, in which Grand Prix-level dressage competitors from four FEI-designated geographic leagues aim to qualify to contest the annual FEI World Cup Dressage Final, in which the Grand Prix Freestyle placings decide the winner. The Final location varies; the 2023 event will be held in Omaha, Nebraska.

Not to be confused with the World Cup Final are the FEI Dressage World Championships (CH-M-D), which take place every four years, in rotation opposite the Olympic Games. This year, 2022, is a World Championships year, with the dressage and para-dressage being held in conjunction with the jumping and vaulting World Championships in August in Herning, Denmark.

The World Championships also serve as a qualifier for the Olympic Games. Dressage fans worldwide are already excited about the 2024 Paris Olympics, with the dressage competition to be held in the stunning gardens of Versailles palace outside the city.

If you have followed international dressage competition for a while, you may have noticed the absence of the FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) on calendars. This event has been absorbed into the World Championships (for now, at least), with all the disciplines no longer at the same location on the same dates.

Even More International Designations

There is a slew of other FEI dressage competition divisions, especially for youth and young horses. Most are categorized by age and level.

CDI-U25 is for riders aged 16-25 competing at the equivalent of Intermediate II and Developing Grand Prix.

CDI-Y is for FEI Young Riders, ages 16-21. The Young Rider tests are equivalent in difficulty to Prix St. Georges.

FEI Juniors (ages 14-18) compete in the CDI-J. The Junior tests are equivalent to USEF Third Level.

In North America, the annual championships for dressage Young Riders and Juniors are the FEI North American Youth Championships (NAYC).

There are also FEI dressage divisions for Children (CDI-Ch, for kids 12-14, equivalent to Second Level) and Ponies (CDI-P, for pony riders aged 12-16, equivalent to Second Level).

Then there are the FEI divisions for young dressage horses. A CDIYH (Concours de Dressage International Young Horse) offers international competition for FEI Five-Year-Old, Six-Year-Old, and Seven-Year-Old horses. (US Equestrian offers a national championship in the Four-Year-Old division, for which it writes the test.)

Para-equestrian dressage athletes have their own FEI competitions, known as CPEDI (Concours Para-Equestrian Dressage International).

Officials

Dressage officials have their own sets of abbreviations.

Judges. National-level dressage judges, who are licensed by the USEF, start by earning the “r” (recorded; often called “small ‘r’”) license, which enables them to judge tests through Second Level at USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized dressage competitions.

Next, an “r” judge may earn the “R” (Registered; aka “large ‘R’”) license, which enables them to judge through Fourth Level. The highest USEF dressage judging credential is “S” (Senior), which is licensed to judge through Grand Prix.

Under the USEF judging umbrella, licensed judges may also earn designations in judging freestyle, dressage-seat equitation, young horse, and dressage sport-horse breeding (DSHB) classes.

The prerequisite to entering the USEF program to earn the “r” license is to graduate with distinction from the USDF L Education Program. An L graduate (don’t call them L judges, as they are not licensed judges) may often be found getting experience by judging at unrecognized dressage shows (schooling shows). Although they’re no longer referred to as such, L originally stood for “learner.”

FEI-licensed judges, like FEI competitions, are ranked with stars. FEI 2* judges may judge at specific international competitions. FEI judges may work their way up the ranks to the top level, 5*, which is required of those who officiate at the top senior events, including World Championships and Olympic Games.

Technical delegates and stewards. USEF-licensed dressage technical delegates (TDs) oversee rules and regulations at USEF dressage competitions. At the FEI level, these officials are known as stewards. Like judges, TDs and stewards are also classified by rankings.

Confused Already? Don’t Be!

We asked USEF “S” dressage judge, FEI 3* dressage judge, FEI Young Horse judge, USEF “R” eventing judge, and USDF L program faculty member Debbie Rodriguez, of Williamsburg, Virginia, to share her tips on how to grasp our sport’s “alphabet soup” jargon.

“This article covers all the main acronyms of our sport and is a handy reference,” Rodriguez says. “Additionally, the USDF website is a useful resource, with most information that you need for national dressage competitions. There is even a page specifically for those ‘New to Dressage.’

USEF.org is another site with much information. The most important information on the site is the USEF rule book. It is useful to review the dressage section from time to time, whether you are a competitor or an official. It even has the criteria for all the dressage movements.”

Outside the organizations’ resources, “Show managers and show secretaries are a great wealth of information,” Rodriguez says. “Many entry services and sites have the most common questions answered and easily accessible. If you are thinking about entering a show and have specific questions, reach out to them.

“If you are at a competition and have questions, the technical delegate is a great source of information,” she continues. “They are happy to answer your questions and help keep you in compliance with all the rules. Clothing and tack rules can be confusing. The TD is ready to help you determine if your clothing and equipment is allowed.”

Rodriguez recommends checking out one additional acronym: the USDF GMO (group-member organization, aka USDF-affiliated dressage club). “You should consider joining your local GMO to meet other dressage enthusiasts in your area. GMOs often have educational programs; sometimes they are presented by TDs, judges, or local trainers. Members on the board of your GMO are another great resource.”

If you want to follow top international competition, Rodriguez suggests checking out the FEI rule book as well as the FEI website itself, which “has a great deal of fan information. Fun interviews with riders, trainers, and grooms let you have a look into some of the details of the star horses’ and riders’ lives. There is even FEI TV for watching all the top competitions. Most are available for replay at your convenience.”

“Don’t get too worried about all the acronyms,” Rodriguez reassures. “Dressage sometimes seems to have a language all its own. Before too long, you will be speaking it also.”

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