The ABCs of going from A to X, and an introduction to the dressage levels

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Photo by Tara Jalenic entry in the 2016 USDF Arts Contest.

By Jennifer O. Bryant

Dressage is an orderly and systematic progression of gymnastic training. Precision is what it’s all about. That’s why, the world over, all “regulation size” dressage arenas measure 20 meters wide and 60 meters long, and are identically marked with letters of the alphabet positioned as visual references for both riders and judges, to assess down-to-the-meter accuracy of figures, transitions, and movements.

In such a regulated environment, why do the dressage letters appear to have been chosen by a blindfolded toddler grabbing alphabet blocks out of a bag? You enter at A—OK, that one makes sense, to begin at the beginning. X marks the spot at the very center of the arena—also logical. But other than that, the dressage letters are alphabet soup, as you can see on the arena diagram.

THE SANDBOX: Everywhere in the world, this is what the standard dressage arena looks like

The short answer is that no one knows for sure. The origin of the seemingly whimsical choice and positioning of letters remains our sport’s enduring mystery. A couple of unproven theories exist, including this one: Most of the perimeter letters once marked where in the arena each horse in the Imperial German Court was to be positioned, with each letter signifying a courtier’s title (in German, of course).

Regardless, for modern purposes the letters have no rhyme or reason whatsoever, and so there’s no alternative but to memorize them. Most dressage riders rely on various mnemonic devices to learn the letters. Here are a few of my favorites.

For remembering the major dressage letters (those at the endpoints, corners, and midpoints of the arena) beginning at A and continuing counterclockwise (aka on the left rein) around the arena to F, B, M, C, H, E, and K: A Fat Black Mare Can Hardly Ever Kick.

Or, if you prefer to memorize the letters traveling on the right rein (clockwise) from A: All King Edward’s Horses Can Make Big Fences.

The “in-between” perimeter letters make up the abbreviation RSVP, as in a party invitation.

Aside from X, the “imaginary” letters on the center line (D, L, I, and G) can be the most difficult to memorize. Beginning with the letter nearest C, they spell GILD. Some people use the mnemonic device I Love Good Dogs, but be careful if you rely on this one because the letters in that phrase aren’t in arena-position order. Thankfully, most dressage arena letter markers display the corresponding center-line letters in smaller type beneath the primary letters.

The Levels

Now that we’ve gotten that alphabet free-for-all out of the way, back to that orderly progression known as dressage.

“Level” is the common currency of dressage. Meet a fellow enthusiast and the question is bound to come up: “What level do you ride?” Or, in discussing dressage horses: “What level is he trained to/competing at?”

“Level” refers to the classifications used in dressage competition, with each level becoming progressively more difficult as horse and rider advance in their training. In competition, a level generally comprises a collection of “tests” (predetermined patterns of figures, movements, and transitions). Each level builds on the requirements of the previous level(s) and introduces new challenges.

Even if a dressage rider has no interest in competing, she will almost always refer to herself and her horse by the “level” benchmark, to signify what level-specific skills have been mastered or are in progress.

In the US, there are three primary groupings of levels in dressage.

USDF level. The United States Dressage Federation writes the most basic dressage tests, collectively called Introductory Level. “Intro Level” Tests A, B, and C are simple walk-trot or walk-trot-canter tests with a couple of large circles and some transitions between gaits, ideal for  horses and/or riders new to dressage.

National level. Each nation’s dressage governing body creates the tests for its “national level” tests—that is, low- to medium-level tests in competition sanctioned by that organization. In the USA, the United States Equestrian Federation (aka US Equestrian or USEF) governs national-level dressage, and its Dressage Sport Committee writes the tests, for the following levels (key features of the level are mentioned):

Training Level: Walk-trot-canter, 20-meter circles, “stretching circles,” 3-loop serpentine in trot

First Level: Trot and canter lengthenings, 10-meter circles, counter-canter

Second Level: Collected gaits, rein back, simple changes (changes of canter lead through the walk), shoulder-in, travers (haunches-in), half turn on the haunches

Third Level: Extended gaits, single flying changes of lead, half-pass in trot and canter, überstreichen (release of the reins to demonstrate the horse’s ability to carry itself)

Fourth Level: Half-pirouettes in walk, working pirouettes in canter, sequence flying changes of lead in canter (tempi changes).

There are also freestyle tests (patterns set to music of the competitor’s choice) for Training through Fourth Levels. The framework for these freestyle tests, including required elements and judging methodology, is created by the USDF.

International level. Dressage tests at levels more advanced than Fourth are written by the International Equestrian Federation (abbreviated FEI for its formal French name, the Fédération Equestre Internationale). The best-known FEI levels and its featured movements are:

Prix St. Georges: Voltes (8-meter circles), canter half-pass “zigzags,” canter half-pirouettes, four- and three-tempi changes

Intermediate I: Two-tempi changes

Intermediate II: Passage, piaffe, and one-tempi changes (flying changes at every stride)

Grand Prix: Steeper half-pass angles, piaffe “on the spot,” greater numbers of two- and one-tempi changes. Although the levels and tests I’ve mentioned are the most well-known, there are actually quite a few others. Some dressage enthusiasts may not know that US Equestrian creates national-level tests for four-year-old horses and “developing” FEI-level horses, for instance, or that the FEI sanctions a plethora of additional levels. In fact, many FEI tests aren’t for super-advanced horse and riders at all: There are tests for (to use the official parlance) Children, Juniors, Young Riders, Ponies, and Young Horses, not to mention “niche” tests such as those for specific age groups.

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