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Dressage Tips from the Judge's Box

Dressage judges offer advice on improving your training and first level tests.

By Sharon Biggs

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From the Pages of Horse IllustratedAs you enter at A, the judge’s steely eyes will be firmly fixed upon you and your horse for the next few nerve-wracking minutes. But what’s going through her mind as she watches you? Is she judging the perfect roundness of your circle or straightness of centerline, like an old-fashioned figure skating judge, or is she able to look past the geometry? Two top-level dressage judges share their thoughts on what they expect during Training Level and First Level tests.

Dressage Training Level
The purpose of Training Level is to confirm that the horse’s muscles are loose and supple and that he moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm while accepting the bit. “For me, a good Training Level horse is one that shows a proficiency of the basics,” says Maryal Barnett, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) “C” and United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) “S” dressage judge. “He demonstrates a nice, steady rhythm that you can set a metronome to; he’s relaxed, supple, balanced and is searching for the bit. A horse that moves like this, forms the figures correctly and bends in the corners, will always stand out. Even if he isn’t the greatest mover, it is clear to me that he and his rider understand the basics of dressage.”

To achieve this picture, Lois Yukins, FEI “I” and USEF “S” dressage judge, says that the rider has to have a steady and effective seat, and must also understand how to balance the horse and be adept with the aids. “Dressage isn’t just a matter of the horse being well schooled; different riders on the same horse can have completely different results,” she says. “The balanced rider can help the horse perform to his maximum ability, while the off-balanced rider will hold on to the reins and interfere with the horse’s movement.”

“I feel quite bad when riders fail to put enough importance on seat,” Maryal says. “It doesn’t matter how good the horse is. If the rider can’t sit and give clear aids, the horse isn’t going to have confidence in his rider, and the test is going to reflect that. Because it’s sort of a common thread with all judges, we want to encourage people to improve their seats. Longe lessons are the best way to improve. Or get with an instructor who really encourages a good seat.”

Common Pitfalls at Training Level
Overwhelmed by the Competition. Before you send in your show entry form, ask yourself if your horse can deal with a show atmosphere. Maryal says competitors often don’t prepare their horses to deal with a show situation. “They don’t ready the horses for the excitement and noise—umbrellas being put up, baby carriages going by. And then they aren’t able to ride the test because the horse isn’t giving his full attention to his rider.” To acclimate your horse to the hustle and bustle of competition, locate shows near you (it doesn’t even have to be dressage) and ask if you can take your horse to the event. Be sure to ask what areas are out of bounds and expect to pay a fee.

Forcing the Issue. Accepting the bit is what’s required in the Training Level tests, but riders often think the horse should be fully on the bit and will struggle to pull the nose in, making the neck very short and impairing the reach of the horse’s movement. This is detrimental to more than scores; riding “front to back” can be harmful to the horse’s future training. “The horse will be stymied as he moves up the levels because he won’t have learned to reach through and use his back correctly,” Maryal says. “Neck position is very much relevant to the engagement of the hindquarters.”

Failing to Rise to the Situation. The determination to sit the trot is a common rider shortcoming at Training Level. At Training Level, riders have the option of posting or sitting the trot except where specified. “This is for the sake of the horse,” Lois says. “Horses’ backs and mouths are their most sensitive areas. If someone is sitting badly the horse will defend his back and mouth. So the horse’s back goes down and his neck comes up. Now the rider is worried about the neck, so they start pulling the horse’s head down. If you choose to sit the trot you better be ready, and your horse had better be ready.”

Too Sensitive. Because most Training Level riders are inexperienced, they often get hung up on making a mistake. They go off course and get rattled. “They need to really get over it quickly because the test moves right along,” Lois says. Since each movement is scored individually, going off course or a bad transition should not mean that you quit riding. “A rider should have a thick enough skin to just absorb a mistake and move on,” Lois continues.

The First Level Horse
The First Level builds upon the Training Level requirements, but in addition requires the horse to demonstrate pushing power and a greater degree of balance and throughness. The transitions are more precise and closer together, and include transitions from the working gaits to the lengthening gaits. The horse is asked to increase the bend: The circles are 10 meters at the trot and 15 meters in the canter. “The horse that makes me sit up is the one that shows these basics, can do the lengthenings and is balanced enough to do the transitions in the lengthenings,” Maryal says.

The First Level rider must know how to balance the horse, and the aids must be more independent. “Now the rider has to sit the trot,” Lois adds. “So the seat has to be much better. First Level riders also need to understand how to put their horse on the bit because at this level it is required. So the understanding of throughness becomes even more important.”

Common Pitfalls at First Level
Inability to Downshift. Upward and downward transitions have their own scores in First Level. A common error lies with the downward transition after the canter lengthening. Riders run their horses down the long side and then try in vain to pull the horse back. The downward transition from the canter lengthening is the movement that separates the great from the good. “This movement tests whether the horse is really balanced and truly on the aids,” Maryal says. “The problem is that there is way too much ‘hand riding’ at First Level,” Lois adds. “Riders often think that pulling back on the reins constitutes a half-halt. The more the rider pulls back the more crooked the horse gets and the higher he gets behind.”

Sliding Sideways. The purpose of the leg yield is to help supple the horse’s shoulders and hips and to demonstrate that the horse can move from the inside leg to the outside rein, which will help improve his balance. The horse must travel from letter to letter, be bent away from the direction of travel, cross his legs and move in a forward and sideways movement, rather than in a sidepass.

However, many riders fail to keep the horse parallel enough during a leg yield, Maryal says. “The horse should be parallel to the wall, the shoulders slightly in advance. Many riders don’t ride the horse on the outside rein, while some will have the horse too much on the outside rein, [so the horse ends up] leading with his haunches.” Conflicting rider aids are commonly observed by judges during the leg yield. The rider asks for the leg yield by applying the inside leg, but then blocks the horse’s movement with the outside thigh. “That’s easy to see when you’re sitting at C, but not so easy to see or feel when you’re doing it,” Maryal says. “When a leg yield is done right it’s sort of a throw and catch, in that you ask the horse to move from the inside leg, and then catch him on your outside aids, and then you let him go again. But it’s very subtle.”

Rushing Steps. Lengthenings are the precursors to extensions, but at First Level the judges say they see too many lengthenings that are often changes of speed rather than length of stride. “Whenever I see this happen in the test I say ‘conflicting aids,’ which means the rider has the gas and brakes on at the same time,” Lois says. “When you lengthen a gait, the frame needs to lengthen as well. If a rider is holding on to the horse’s head, the horse will be crooked. And crookedness with energy creates speed because the legs won’t be pushing evenly. If the frame is open and balanced, and the rider adds energy, the horse will have the correct throughness to lengthen.”

Inability to Keep Up. Things move quickly in the First Level tests, and inexperienced riders often find themselves playing catch up. “You have to be able to ride a movement and plan the next at the same time,” Lois says. “Otherwise you will always be behind. Say you’re doing a 10-meter circle at the trot, you’ve got to be preparing for the canter depart that’s coming up.”

Tips for Success at Both Levels
Understand Why Geometry is Important. “I’m not as interested in the geometry as I am in the training, especially at Training Level,” Lois says. “However, if you get a judge who is a stickler, then bad geometry is a way to lose points for sure.” Lois says to find out why you can’t make the pattern. For instance, if you have to steer with your reins to create a circle then something has gone wrong in your training. If you are riding the horse correctly, from inside leg to outside rein, you should be able to hit all the patterns. Always remember that the patterns are fairly simple and should never become a struggle.

A balanced horse creates accuracy because the more balanced the horse is the easier the transitions will be. “There is a certain amount of space for a horse to make a transition. However, for a horse to [score a] 7, 8 or 9, he will have to have more exact transitions and be bent correctly on the circle,” Maryal says. “Accuracy is important because it does reflect on the basics of the horse.”

Pay Attention to the Walk. There are coefficient points related to the walk in many of the Training and First Level tests, which incorporate the medium walk and free walk. The points for the walk are high because the gait is an indicator of how the training is working. If the walk becomes impure in any way, or a little uneven because of crookedness or resistance, this can hurt the submission score as well.

“It’s not just the quality of the walk but the way it’s ridden,” Lois says. “I find that people often don’t allow the horse to oscillate and really move the whole body. Their hands are too still, trying to keep the horse on the bit. In the free walk they don’t allow the horse to stretch as far as he wants to. They spend too much time worrying that the horse will jig.”

Maryal adds that many people don’t realize that the medium walk should have an overstride, as written in the rules. The judge is looking for a purity of the rhythm, that the horse does take an overstride and is still stretching to the bit. “I would suggest that riders practice at home, teaching the horse to march across the pattern in the test, in front of the leg,” Maryal says.

Use the Arena to Your Advantage. “The corners are places where you can prepare the horse for the next movement. Let him know what’s coming up by using half-halts to balance and position him to be ready for the canter depart or the next circle,” Maryal says. Riders often cut the corner off completely or ride into them, pulling the horse’s head to the outside with the reins, which unbalances the horse and makes the following movement or transition nearly impossible. As you approach the corner, make a half-halt to balance the horse, position him to the inside, and then think about riding him through the corner as if he’s a train with cars behind him. Each part of the horse goes through the corner one bit at a time. “But remember not to go too deep into the corner at these lower levels—treat it as a quarter of a 10-meter circle.”

If you are getting consistent comments and low scores for the same things, be honest with yourself and decide if your training is going in the right direction. Don’t move up to the next level until you’re consistently scoring in at least the mid to high 60s.

Further Reading
Dressage Tips at a Glance
Dressage Mysteries Solved
The Dressage Training Scale

Sharon Biggs is a dressage instructor and the author of In One Arena. She is based in Indiana.


This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.

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