The Essence of Dressage


Do you know what the “essence of a movement” is? A judge explains how to put this concept to work in your riding and showing.

Reprinted from the December 2014/January 2015 issue of USDF Connection

By J. Ashton Moore

The dictionary defines essence as the “most important quality (of something).” Essence also has a dressage definition. When I wrote the USDF Glossary of Dressage Judging Terms with Nancy Thacher, I didn’t include this term. It should be in there.

When Elizabeth Searle and I wrote the USDF Dressage Judges’ Handbook and the USDF Dressage Judges’ Checklist, we did include essence, defining the term as “focus, purpose, intent, or most important aspect of the exercise.” (In retrospect, I would change the word “exercise” to “test movement” because “essence” can mean different things depending on whether it is being discussed from the training viewpoint or from the judging viewpoint.)

Both of the above descriptions appear in the teaching materials for the USDF “L” Education Program, regarding the methodology of judging.

For every given test movement, the judge must evaluate what is known as the essence of the movement. Other, non-essence-related aspects of the movement, known as modifiers, can also affect the score. In this article, I will explain the differences between the essence and the modifiers. Understanding how judges evaluate and weigh these elements can help us, as competitors, to put in a better performance—to lose fewer points, to or squeeze out the extra half-point or two.

Movements, Essence, and Modifiers Explained

For starters, we need to be clear about the several possible meanings of the term movement. “Movement” can refer to the quality of the gaits, to a “trick” or exercise (e.g., shoulder-in), or to a test movement (what is included in the box on the dressage test sheet that receives a score).

From the standpoint of the rider/ trainer, we are inclined to think of essence as the most important aspects of the movement:

Why do it? What is its value?

What is its purpose? What is it supposed to demonstrate?

How is it supposed to look? How is it supposed to feel?

As an example, let’s look at the canter pirouette from the rider’s standpoint. The rider has to think about:

• The transition into the pirouette (the first step)

• The turning of the forehand

• The adduction (but not crossing) of the outer legs during the pirouette

• The carriage, balance, and stretch of the horse’s outer side to create and allow inward flexion

• The placement of the center of mass of both horse and rider

• The activity of the steps

• The clear finish of the pirouette, with the horse stepping straight ahead on the correct line of travel.

Now let’s look at the canter pirouette from the standpoint of the judge. The judge has to expand the list of criteria and requirements beyond the rider/trainer version:

• Did it happen? Was it recognizable? (criteria of the movement)

• Did it demonstrate the qualities for which it was invented? (basics)

• Was it done according to the description in the rule book? (criteria)

• Was it done according to the description on the test sheet? (criteria)

• Was it done at the right place?

• Did it have a clear beginning and end?

• What to look at, what to look for

• What about the other elements of the test movement (the canters before and after the pirouette)?

Out of this, the judge has to extract the essence of the test movement— the dressage movement or exercise. In order to come up with an appropriate score, the judge must take into account the requirements, details, or criteria of the entire test movement—the “nonessence” parts—as well as the essence of the dressage movement that is mainly under scrutiny.

Next, the judge has to address the modifiers in the execution:

• Did it begin and end at the right places?

• Was the execution consistent throughout the test movement?

• Were there temporary deviations from the ideal?

• Were the non-essence aspects good enough?

Let’s consider another test movement from the judging standpoint. The rein back includes many elements. As written in the tests, it includes several aspects besides “going backward”:

• It includes the transition from trot to halt

• It includes the stance at the halt (Balanced? Square? Sustained? At the right place? Good carriage?)

• It includes the transition from halt to rein back

• It includes the rein back itself (Willing? Balanced? On the bit? Diagonal pairs? Number of steps? Big-enough steps? Even steps?)

• It includes the transition out of the rein back and into the next gait

• It may include the quality of the gait that precedes and follows the rein back

• It may include the corner(s) before or after the rein back

In general, the essence of the test movement is the dressage movement called rein-back—the stepping backward— along with its desired qualities of promptness, controllability, straightness, basic submission and softness, and correct mechanics (balance, diagonal pairs, and so on). Wow, that’s a long list.

All the other considerations are usually deemed modifiers. This allows us, as judges, to distinguish the most important aspect (essence) of the test movement— the stepping backward—from the less-important things (modifiers) that must nevertheless influence (modify) the final score (transitions, etc.).

The judges have a plethora of information, but how they analyze and categorize that information in order to come up with an appropriate score?

The more knowledgeable and method-oriented the judge, the better. The more cerebral rather than visceral, the better. The more the judge separates essence from modifiers, the better.

Advice for the Competitor

Understanding essence and knowing how judges deal with essence can help us plan better tactics in our test execution, and to give the judges the benefit of the doubt about how they came up with the scores we received.

Start by looking at the boxes on the test sheet. What issues and considerations are included in each test movement/box? Keep in mind that the end of a movement is not the last thing written in the box on the score sheet. The movement continues until the first thing in the next box.

For example, a test might read: “MXK change rein medium trot; K collected trot; A halt; rein back 4 steps; proceed collected trot; F shoulder-in.” But which directions are in which boxes on the test sheet?

If the box reads “A halt; rein back 4 steps; proceed collected trot,” with the following box containing a shoulder-in that begins at F, then only the halt transition, stance in the halt, transition to rein back, rein back, transition to trot, and trot through the corner and to F are considered in the first box. The movement begins at A and ends at F.

If the box reads “K collected trot; A halt; rein back 4 steps; proceed collected trot,” then the transition to the collected trot is also part of this movement and must be considered in the score for the rein back. This movement begins at K and ends at F.

The essence of this test movement is the rein back. The other elements are modifiers. The transition to collected trot, the corner, and the collected trot are not part of this movement. The trot from A to F and the corner are part of this movement. The transition to shoulder-in and the shoulder-in itself are not part of this movement.

In other words, if you ride a great transition to a square halt, stand alertly in good position, execute a lousy rein back, make a splendid transition to trot, and then show a good trot and corner to the next letter (F) that marks the end of the test movement, your score for the movement will be based on the lousy rein back. The good transitions and trot will modify the lousy rein-back score upward, but they won’t completely make up for the poor rein back.

When you read the scores and remarks on a test sheet, try to sort out how the judge came to these conclusions. The scores and comments are not cavalier, casual, ill-intended, or political. The USDF “L” program teaches a system or methodology by which the judge evaluates the essence of the test movement, then applies modifiers to adjust the score.

Continuing with our rein-back example, neither the judge nor the scribe has time to describe every aspect of the test movement, so the comments will usually address the rein back (the essence) and perhaps may also include a remark about the transitions and stance (the modifiers). But be assured that the judge has taken into account all the aspects of the test movement—not just the rein back—in formulating the score. Nevertheless, the basic score is based on the rein back; the rest is modifiers that can “adjust” that score upward or downward. If the judge comments only on the non-essence issues and doesn’t address the essence, that is unfortunate, but it may be an attempt to let you know why your nice rein back didn’t get a better score (too many major negative modifiers), or why your lousy rein back got a higher score than you might have expected.

Because the essence of the movements is what matters most, focus your attention on improving the essence. Don’t look back and pine over past iniquities or flaws, especially if they are part of the previous test movement. Don’t fight about the modifiers. Ultimately, do the math. Don’t get tangled up with what just went wrong, especially if it is part of a different test movement. Attend to the essence of the current test movement.

J. Ashton Moore is a USEF “S” dressage judge, a USEF “R” dressage sporthorse breeding judge, and an FEI 5* vaulting judge. A USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist, he has trained numerous horses to Grand Prix and has coached many students through the FEI levels. He has also bred many successful Dutch Warmblood horses at his facility, Osierlea, in San Juan Bautista, CA.

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