Looking for a pocket-sized snapshot of the 2018 international dressage season? Look no further. Whether you’re only just discovering the beauty and majesty of this ancient sport (which is based on moves used in mounted hand-to-hand combat, that the soldiers showed off when they returned from battle), or a hardened fan, here’s what you need to know about the big-hitting events of the 2018 dressage season.

Although September might still seem a way off — particularly for the poor Europeans stuck in the clutches of this seemingly interminable winter — for top riders, this year is entirely shaped by the looming FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG), which take place in Tryon, North Carolina, from 11-23 September, with dressage running 12-16 September. It is touted as the fourth largest sporting event in the world by Mark Bellissimo, founder and CEO of Tryon International Equestrian Center, where the colossal eight-discipline event takes place.

The Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida — which lasts 12 weeks and comprises seven CDIs, including a five-star show — is drawing to a close (it began in January and ends on 31 March), but it forms the springboard for many competitors’ seasons; Americans and Europeans alike.

Laura Graves and Verdades. Shannon Brinkman photo.

The chance to compete as many times as your heart desires in a three-month window — and under the friendly Florida winter sun — makes this glitzy circuit a magnet for top names (and top parties). America’s answer to Charlotte Dujardin, Laura Graves, competed six times on the 2018 circuit with her Rio Olympic team bronze medallist Verdades, and won every single test.

This season, Danish Olympian and one of the world’s biggest dressage horse dealers, Andreas Helgstrand, even opened a swanky sales barn just down the road, a place so fancy it puts many a (human) five-star hotel to shame.

Europeans may not have all quite thawed out yet, but the spring dressage season is slowly, finally beginning to unfurl, with a chilly CDI already having taken place in the UK under a dusting of snow (Britain’s Gareth Hughes won both the grand prix and the freestyle with convincing scores on Classic Briolinca, a light-footed 12-year-old mare by Trento B who was long-listed for Rio 2016, but sidelined through injury just before selections).

Cathrine Dufour riding Atterupgaards Cassidy. Thomas Reiner photo.

This week (22-25 March) the first CDI4* show outside the USA in 2018 kicks off, with Dortmund CDI in Germany. It’s one of the last winter indoor shows before spring ushers in the outdoor season in April. Dortmund is Kristina Bröring-Sprehe’s favourite show, and the German rider is entered on her double Olympic partner Desperados FRH. This comeback would be the first show appearance for the De Niro stallion since his last outing at Stuttgart CDI in November of 2016. He’s now 17, but this talented black powerhouse is back to full fitness and looked raring to go in the Sprehe Stud stallion show earlier this month.

The next major milestone on the international calendar is the FEI World Cup Final, this year held in Paris, 10-15 April. Denmark’s Cathrine Dufour made a valiant bid for a wildcard starting spot — and even beat Isabell Werth (on Emilio 107, so admittedly not her top horse, but on any old donkey she’s still damn hard to beat) in the World Cup leg in Gothenburg in February — getting the better of the five-time Olympian in both the grand prix and freestyle classes.

Isabell Werth and Weihegold. Thomas Reiner photo.

This year, the Paris World Cup Final is set to be a head-to-head showdown between last year’s gold and silver medallists from the Omaha final: Isabell on Weihegold and Laura on Verdades. Isabell, extraordinarily, has three horses in the world’s top six (and is also the most decorated Olympic equestrian ever, having won 10 Olympic medals, with six of those being gold).

The world’s number one horse, the Don Schufro daughter Weihegold, has only been beaten once in her last 19 starts — and that was by Verdades. So this should be a great tussle between these two dazzlingly brilliant riders, who meet infrequently as they’re from opposite sides of the globe. Not to mention that Paris is also the wine, cheese and romance capital of the world — in case you needed any further convincing that you should visit…

Meanwhile, looking back over to the other side of the Atlantic, April also heralds the test event in Tryon, at the WEG venue. Many American and Canadian combinations are planning to take the opportunity for a first look at the site and give their horses a taste of Tryon, in the hope of returning in September for an altogether grander prize.

The Nations Cup dressage series — seven team events at high-profile shows — kicks off at Wellington at the end of March, with legs at Compiègne (France), Uggerhalne (Denmark), Rotterdam (Netherlands), Falsterbo (Sweden), Aachen (Germany) and culminating at Hickstead in the UK at the end of July. These contests are the ideal testing ground for fresh, young riders to experience riding as part of a team — which I’m assured feels very different to riding for yourself. And in a WEG year, that experience will be vital for any new combinations with selection aspirations.

As riders the world over start the annual migration to Europe for the summer, in April and May, eyes turn to the two major contests; the five-star shows in Rotterdam (21-24 June) and Aachen (17-22 July). Both these superb, large-scale events will be litmus tests for the big WEG prize that will by then loom large on the horizon.

As the 2018 season hots up and WEG approaches, we’ll give you the lowdown on the hottest new partnerships, the young shooting stars, the big names to watch and the quirky horses who are perhaps not medal contenders but still worth of your attention — and adulation.

Unlike the poor eventers, who are perpetually at the mercy of the weather, the dressage train rolls year-round, so after the excitement of WEG subsides, competitors look to the indoor season, with the year wrapping up just before Christmas with the cosy, sparkly familiarity of Olympia Horse Show. Then it all begins again in 2019!