With show season coming to an end, this is the time of year that a lot of riders are looking for ways to a show the judge a more polished test. When you first start competing at a certain level, it may take a few trips down centerline to get a good feel for the tests, but as the season progresses you start to become more comfortable with the movements. This is a really important time in a horse and riders competition development. Unfortunately, riders often mistake the feeling of being comfortable at a level for being ready to move on. Sometimes, these come stages will happen simultaneously, but more often, as a rider begins feeling confident in those tests, this is the perfect time to start polishing the overall picture you are presenting to the judge.
Have you ever read the little box on your test marked “purpose”? In this box, you will find the basic elements that a judge should be looking for when you ride down centerline. These elements are guidelines and it is important to be well on your way to achieving them when you sign up for a test at that level. Perfection is definitely not required, but signing up for a test that includes movements that you and/or your horse are not confident performing in a competition environment is a quick trip to stress town… and no one likes that place! So this week, we are going to go through each levels purpose with an exercise dedicated to perfecting one of the requirements. Happy riding!
Intro: The purpose of Intro Level tests are: “To provide an opportunity for the horse and/or rider new to dressage to demonstrate elementary skills. The tests have been designed to encourage correct performance and to prepare the horse for the transition to the USEF tests.”
I LOVE the Intro tests! They are such a great option for horses and riders to dip their feet in the competition pool without a bunch of training requirements. If you go watch an Intro level class, you will probably see a very wide variety of rides and thats the whole point! As long as you and your horse are working as a team at the walk and trot with solid steering, you can enter your first Intro test! You will notice that the movements become steadily more difficult in each test (more trot work in Intro Test B and a small canter portion in Intro Test C). This is meant to help you gently climb towards the requirements at Training Level.
When competing at Intro, the judge will want to see that you are using the entire arena (get into those corners!), can execute round circles (remember your inside leg to outside rein!) and that you and your horse transition in and out of different gaits at the same time (allow me to explain)… We have all been in the saddle during a transition that took us by surprise. Either your horse transitioned a lot quicker than you were expecting or you are ten strides further down the long side than you had planned for. These things happen and you should notice that most of the transitions at the Intro Level are performed between to letters. This is to give you the ability to feather the transition and show the judge that you and your horse are working together. The exercise this week will focus on developing a well timed transition between medium walk and working trot. Lets begin!
Ride medium walk on a twenty meter circle. To start, ride the transition to working trot on one half of the circle. It may seem like thats too much space, but remember that we are concentrating on the transitions quality more than the placement. When riding the transition into working trot, there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, make sure that you are ready for the transition yourself. This may sound obvious, but if you ask for a transition to working trot (or any gait or movement for that matter) and expect it to take a while, you are most likely not giving clear aids. Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Hey! I have an entire half of a twenty meter circle to do this transition on.”, but there is a big difference between giving your horse a blank check and giving yourself time to execute the transition. Clear aids are the key here. We are going to ride the transition in three clear steps that in the future can be combined to make quicker more accurate transitions.
As you successfully ride the transitions on your twenty meter circle, you can begin to narrow the goal from one half of the circle, to a quarter of the circle and down to a specific letter. Use your core to keep yourself from being left behind in the transition from medium walk to working trot and keep your back flat and chest open to prevent yourself from tipping forward in the transitions from working trot to medium walk. Having the ability to confidently transition in and out of the walk and trot will help your future transitions in and out the working canter.
Training: The purpose of Training Level tests are: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.”
The “correct basics” stated in the purpose portion of the Training Level tests is referring to what you were working on in your Intro tests: Good use of the arena, round circles and those well balanced transitions. In addition, the judge will be looking for suppleness, forward and rhythm. The last portion of the purpose statement is very important, “accepting contact with the bit”. The reason I find it to be important is that it is often confused with being in a certain frame. A horse does not need to accept contact with the bit in order to be in a frame (I can hear the gasps already!) Its true though! Just because a horse has his/her head down does not mean that he is correctly and happily accepting contact with the bit. On the other hand, a horse that is happy connected to the bit through a riders soft, elastic contact may be a little in front of vertical, but thats ok! A judge wants to see that soft, elastic connection throughout the test more than they are expecting a perfectly round frame. It may sound like there are several separate requirements given in the purpose portion, but they are actually quite dependant on each other. A horse that is moving freely forward into that happy connection to the bit will move with a steady tempo and voila! you’ve got yourself the basis for a successful Training Level test.
In my opinion, the movement that most riders struggle with at Training Level is cantering down the long side. Now my next statement is typically met with a roll of the eyes, but horses usually do not struggle to canter down the long side. The reason that cantering in a straight line feels so different than on a circle is that the circle helps a rider to sit in position that follows the canter. When a rider begins to ride that canter down a straight line, they tend to change their body positioning too much and this changes the feel of the canter, because you are no longer sitting with the canter, you are sitting against it. Concentrating on keeping your seat in a correct position can transform your ability to ride a great canter, both on a circle and down the long side. It is important to understand that a canter never really straightens out like a walk or trot does. Even a Grand Prix horse cantering down centreline for a 10 is still positioned to the lead he is on. This exercise will help you to find the correct positioning and then maintain it wherever you ride the canter.
Begin in working canter on a twenty meter circle at A. On this circle, find your inside seat bone in the saddle. It should be relaxed down towards the ground, slightly to the inside of your horses spine. When a rider is having difficulty feeling their inside seat bone, I often suggest they think about flexing that half of their rear end for a two count and then relaxing it down. It can help you to become aware of where your seat bone is both on your body and in the saddle. Now that you feel your seat bone, ride a few more circles really thinking about maintaining the same connection with your horses back. If you feel a lot of variation in that connection, stay on the circle until you can maintain better consistency. When you feel like you have good control over the positioning of your inside seat bone, ride several strides down the long side, moving your twenty meter circle to the next letter down (V if riding the right lead or P if riding the left lead). Although, you are cantering from a circle to straight and back onto a circle, the positioning of your inside seat bone should remain consistent. If you feel that you need to “re-drop” your inside seat bone as you come back onto the circle, you had allowed it to climb up during the straight strides. A lifted inside seat bone during the canter can allow the canter to stiffen, accelerate, become crooked or even change leads, so lets keep that inside seat bone where it should be! As you move your circle down the long side, letter by letter, work at maintaining the same position in your seat every stride. The more consistency you ride with, the more consistent your canter will become.
First: The purpose of First Level tests are: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.”
Just like what you developed at Intro was the basis for your Training Level work, the requirements at Training Level helped prepare you for the movements at First Level. The purpose description at First Level is very similar to Training Level, with the addition of thrust. The definition of thrust is to push something in a specified direction and when considering thrust in regards to a dressage horse, it is the ability for the hind leg to create and send energy up to the bridle. Think about thrust as adding more air to an under inflated balloon. Thrust fills up your horse, lifting the back and lightening the forehand, which is how I like to describe the word “throughness”. It is an unbroken connection of energy from the hind leg up to the bridle. This is one of the first building blocks of collection and a much needed element of a good lengthening. Speaking of lengthenings, they are one of the required movement in the First Level tests.
As a coach, I often need to explain the fact that a true lengthening is nowhere near Valegro’s extended trot. In the directives of a lengthening, the judges are to look for a “moderate lengthening of frame and stride; regularity and quality of trot; straightness; consistent tempo; willing, clear transitions”. First, lets look at what we do not see in the directives. There is no mention of power, flamboyant action or longer reins, but unfortunately many riders believe that they need to show these things to the judge. Yes, it is true that the lengthening is an introduction to mediums and extensions, but the more correct your lengthenings are, the better your future mediums and extensions will be. Before we begin the exercise, lets go over exactly what the judge wants to see.
This exercise is very simple. Ride transitions in and out of small portions of lengthenings, concentrating on maintaining the elements of a good quality gait. Avoid “starting” the lengthening and then checking back in at the end. Your horse needs you to remain the pilot throughout the movement. If you find your lengthening trot difficult to sit, post it! You are allowed to post or sit your trot work at First Level for a very important reason. This is the first time your horse is expected to lengthen in competition and if the rider is struggling to stay seated in the saddle, you will not be riding at your best, so it is not a fair representation of your lengthening. I have never had a judge say, “I wish you would have sat those lengthenings”, but I have seen many tests where a judge told the rider than posting the lengthening would have allowed more success. You can begin sitting portions of your lengthening as you and your horse become more balanced and supple together. (*Note: Judges like to see consistency in your tests, so at the show, decide whether you are going to post or sit before you begin your test. If you decide to post the lengthening, post the entire diagonal. If you decide to sit the lengthenings, sit the entire test; except the stretchy trot!). It is better to show the judge a constantly lengthened frame and stride across the entire diagonal or long side, rather than overdo it and have it fizzle as the movement progresses. Show the judge how balanced and through your horse is…. and show off your power next season!
Second: The purpose of Second Level tests are: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and 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 straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level.”
At First Level, we talked about how throughness is one of the building blocks towards developing collection. At Second Level, those same elements that helped lift your horses back and lighten the forehand are further developed and as your horse develops better thrust and the ability to carry more weight on the hind leg, they are more capable of traveling “uphill”. As a horse progresses up the levels, more is required at both ends, so as more activity and strength is required in the hind end, more reliability is also required in the bridle. This goes beyond a steady frame. A greater degree of flexion, changes of bend and response to the half-halt is expected at Second Level. This improved response to the half-halt, coupled with better engagement in the hind leg, should create a nice bouncey collected trot and canter. Your horse should feel free to lift and swing within your aids without going beyond them. This is really the essence of collection and self-carriage. The more engaged the hind leg becomes, the more it lifts and lightens the forehand. A properly collected horse should be fun to ride!
In addition to shoulder-in, travers, renvers and medium gaits, the counter canter is also introduced at Second Level. This movement has a habit of creating issues for some horses and riders. Unfortunately, riders tend to be happy with simply surviving the counter canter until they make it back to the true canter, instead of maintaining the quality of the canter throughout the exercise. There are several reasons that it is important to insist on a good quality canter while schooling the counter canter movements.
There are a lot of exercises that are more difficult for the rider than the horse (in most cases) and counter canter is one of them. There are some horses that struggle with counter canter, but most horses that have a good quality collected canter quickly pick up counter canter work. As a rider, it is very important that you maintain the aids, balance and position of the lead that you are riding. This is where some riders hit a mental block. They are riding to a different direction, so they feel (sometimes subconsciously) that they need to do something different as they change directions. I think this is the cause of many counter canter difficulties. The way you ride your canter means everything to your horse, so if you change something up (shift your seat, alter your leg positioning, ask for new flexion…ect.) they will change with you. Sometimes this just means a different quality of canter and other times it can create a loss of gait or switching leads. The most important thing that a rider can do to help maintain a good quality canter during counter canter exercises is to maintain the proper position for the lead that they are on. Canter has no direction, it is ridden by lead, so it doesn’t matter whether you are canter to the left or to the right, it only matters what lead you are on. I like to ask this question to my students who are working on counter canter, “If you were blind folded right now, would you be able to tell which direction you are going or which lead you are on?” If they can feel the lead, we high five and head back to the barn, but if they say which direction they are going, we work more on the elements that are unique to the lead they are riding.
This exercise will be ridden in collected canter around the full arena. Start by riding the right lead canter to the right full arena. Really focus on exactly what you are doing to help this canter be successful. These elements should include keeping your inside seat bone relaxed down into the saddle, maintaining a steady left (outside) rein, keeping your left leg behind the girth and your right leg up next to the girth and keeping a soft flexion in the right jaw. This is one of those times where it is perfectly acceptable to be a little anal. Really feel what you are doing, enough that you are confident that you can maintain these aids anywhere in the arena. When you feel ready, ride a short diagonal and continue full arena in counter canter, being careful not to ride too deep into your short side corners. Forget about the fact that you have changed directions and simply continue riding a good quality right lead canter. Every element of a quality right lead canter is the same, whether you are riding counter canter or true canter. When you are ready to return to the true canter, do so by riding back down a short diagonal. The reason I would do this instead of performing a simple change is that as you begin to ride down the diagonal back onto the true canter, you should not feel the need to change anything. If this exercise was successful on both leads, beginning schooling different figures in both true canter and counter canter, concentrating on maintaining the quality of the lead you are on regardless of direction. The better the quality of your canter, the better your counter canter will become.
Third: The purpose of Third Level tests are: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an uphill balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits. Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement. The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self carriage than at Second Level.”
The step from Second Level to Third Level is a big one. Some consider it to be the most important due to the fact that the movements required at Third Level will be required at every level through Grand Prix. Flying changes, half-pass and extensions are all debuted at Third Level. Along with the new movements, a greater degree of engagement, collection and clarity within transitions is expected. Definition is a big part of a successful Third Level test. The horse should display clear changes of flexion when beginning and ending lateral exercises and the transitions to and from mediums and extensions should be clearly visible.
When I was preparing to compete at Third Level for the first time, Major Jeremy Beale told me to make sure that my tests were “buttoned-up” and when Major Beale tells you to do something, you make sure it gets done! I have always thought about keeping my tests buttoned-up from that point on. It is such great advice! In addition to riding the movements correctly, judges want to see a clean, professionally ridden test, and everyone is capable of doing this. I am in no way saying that there is no room for mistakes, because that is unrealistic. Every horse and rider makes mistakes, but if a mistake happens in the middle of a “buttoned-up” test, you’re going to be alright. In contrast, if a mistake is made amongst other sloppiness, it can appear that you and your horse may not be ready for Third Level yet…. so button it up!
This weeks exercise will focus on riding half-pass in collected canter from the centreline to the long side and a flying change at a specific place on the long side. Start in collected canter on the left lead, turn down the centreline at A and ride half-pass left from D to E. Ride counter canter from E straight ahead with a flying change at H. When riding this exercise, focus on maintaining both the quality of the left lead canter and the positioning of your own body during both the half-pass left and the counter canter. Many riders relax their aids once they reach the rail when riding this exercise. Not only does this open the door for an early flying change, but it creates a situation in which you need to quickly check back in right before the flying change. This is never a good idea. It can surprise your horse, creating unnecessary tension, and can prevent you from having enough time to properly prepare for a good flying change. As you maintain the correct positioning and connection to your horse, you will find that placing the flying change exactly where you want it will become easier. At this point, change the placement of the flying change to S and then back to H again. Avoid trying to prevent a flying change and focus on maintaining the quality of the lead you are on until you give the aids for the flying change. Maintaining clear aids will not only make exercises like this successful, but will better connect you and horse in all of your work. The ability to perform a well executed flying change, when and where you want it, will become more and more necessary as you move up the levels.
Plus, it will give you that buttoned-up look that we should all strive for ;)
Fourth: The purpose of Fourth Level tests are: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and has developed sufficient suppleness, impulsion and throughness to perform the Fourth Level tests which have a medium degree of difficulty. The horse remains reliably on the bit, showing a clear uphill balance and lightness as a result of improved engagement and collection. The movements are performed with greater straightness, energy and cadence than at Third Level.”
Fourth Level is the last step before FEI. Many of the same movements are required at Fourth Level and at Prix st Georges. When you read through the purpose, you will notice that it requires a greater degree of everything required at Third level with the addition of cadence. The FEI defines cadence as “The marked accentuation of the rhythm and emphasised beat that is a result of a steady and suitable tempo harmonising with a springy impulsion.” We’ve all seen one of those big, bouncey trots that are mesmerising to watch. THAT is cadence! Candice is created when a well engaged hind end sends power over the back up to the bridle and is recycled back again. A well cadenced trot should be rhythmical, balanced and energetic. Achieving this takes strength and self-carriage from both horse and rider.
In Fourth Level Test 1, there is a medium trot from HXF with 6-7 steps of collected trot over X. This movement is deceptively difficult to execute properly. The judge is looking for a consistent amount of engagement, elasticity and suspension, along with a well maintained straightness and tempo. What they do want to see change is the amount of ground cover. In the medium trot, there should be clear thrust creating ground cover and length of stride. This same thrust should create activity in the 6-7 steps of collected trot. Ideally, the amount of thrust is consistently maintained across the diagonal, but the way it is used is altered for those 6-7 steps of collection. A judge is looking to see consistency in the balance and rhythm. They do not want to see a “down shift” into collection or a “surge” back into medium. I like to use a dribbling basketball analogy for this movement. If you watch an NBA basketball player work the ball down the court in a relaxed manner, you’ll notice that they keep a great rhythm. Sometimes they are walking with the ball and sometimes they are standing still, but that rhythm doesn’t change. The only thing that does change is the hand that they are dribbling with. When they want to walk the ball down the court, they push it out in front of them, but when they want the ball to stay right beside them, they will bounce it straight down and allow it to bounce back up into the palm of their hand. It is the same amount of push, it just gets shifted from forward to upward or vice versa.
A good dressage rider will do this with their seat. A horse that is well balanced with you is looking to your seat for direction. When you relax your seat and allow the engaged hind end to drive the trot more forward, ground cover is achieved, but when you use your seat and thighs to gather that engagement up underneath of you, the engagement creates activity and cadence in the collected trot. This movements purpose is to show the judge the amount of control and influence you have over the impulsion and energy in your horses hind leg. Show the judge that not only can you create engagement, but you can display its power in various forms. You will be rewarded :) Happy riding!