To the experienced eye, Grand Prix dressage is the culmination of communication between horse and rider, an art form that evolved from the battlefield when that connection meant the difference between life and death.
To the inexperienced, it might not look as exciting as horses racing around over high jumps.
"Here's the issue with dressage: Dressage itself is boring for most people because the essence of the sport is training," says Kenneth Braddick of Dressage News, an online publication. "For somebody who is not into dressage, they sit there and see them doing circles and moving their legs, but they don't understand how beautiful it is."
Viewers will be able to see the highest level of dressage — including freestyle dressage performed to music — at the Kentucky Horse Park starting Tuesday at the Kentucky Cup, which is a test event for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Horses and riders from eight countries — including Olympic and World Games veterans — will compete.
The Kentucky Cup is separate from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, which starts Thursday. It also features dressage.
Dressage movements derive from battle-trained horses, who had to be able to move laterally, change strides and turn quickly on their hindquarters. All horses and riders follow the same pattern around an arena, with moves such as "passage," an extended trot that looks as if the horse is literally pausing before setting each foot down.
Grand Prix dressage is divided into three competitions. The first, called the Grand Prix, is a team competition in which horses and riders perform the same routine, most of it at a trot and canter.
Judges give each piece of the routine a score of 0 to 10. The top 25 scorers move on to the Grand Prix Special, where they perform a different routine.
Then they move on to the Grand Prix Freestyle Competition, which can get a lot more exciting. That's when the riders choreograph their own routine, including certain required moves, set to music of their choice.
"When it's done well, it's so entertaining to see horses actually put their feet down to the beat of the music," Braddick said. "You don't have to know anything about the sport; you just want to enjoy something that is so beautiful and so magical."
Braddick said freestyle dressage — which was introduced in competition in the 1980s and is nearly always performed under lights at night — literally saved the sport. About 40,000 people attended the freestyle dressage competition at the 2006 World Games in Aachen, Germany.
Lloyd Landkamer, the dressage discipline manager for the World Games, said the practice of dressage set to music has been around since the 1500s, but it wasn't brought back to competition until the 1980s, "aiming to bring spectators to what was often seen as a fairly boring event."
The 1996 Atlanta Games were the first Olympics that added freestyle to the format.
The 32 riders at the Kentucky Horse Park this week will include Michelle Gibson, a veteran of the Atlanta Games; Ashley Holzer, the 2009 Canadian Equestrian of the Year; and Oded Shimoni, the first Israeli rider to qualify for the Olympics.