Nailing It! Riding with Success Through the Levels

ENTER AT A, THE SMART WAY: 2019 Youth Dressage Festival competitor Xavier Cummings on Nachu Peakin sets up a good entry center line by turning in front of (not behind) the “A” letter marker. It doesn’t matter which direction you come from, so go whichever way is easier for your horse. Photo by AKDRAGOOPHOTO.COM

Based on USDF’s On the Levels videos, our new training series debuts. Part 1: Introductory Level.

By Beth Baumert

Reprinted from the November/December 2019 issue of USDF Connection magazine.

The Purpose of Introductory Level

To introduce the rider and/or horse to the sport of dressage. To show understanding of riding the horse forward with a steady tempo into an elastic contact with independent, steady hands and a correct balanced seat. To show proper geometry of figures in the arena with correct bend (corners and circles).

By some measures, the easiest dressage tests are at USDF Introductory Level and the hardest are at FEI Grand Prix—but the easiest tests are the most important because they lay the ground work for all the training to come. Knowing that the foundation laid at Intro Level will be reflected in the future work, no one takes the lower levels lightly, and judges are impressed by a well-executed Introductory Level test.

That said, these tests are inviting and fun to ride. They’re designed to help you develop your horse correctly and as easily as possible. Let’s make your test great! Here’s exactly what to work on.

Know and Understand the Purpose

The purpose of every USDF and US Equestrian level in dressage is printed on the front of the test sheets. Please read and understand the purpose before you show! After all, you would never go into a math test saying, “I need to know math.” Instead, you’d prepare by studying exactly what you need to know—the material in Chapter 12 of your Algebra II book. Be specific about what you want to achieve with your horse, too.

Here are the important points taken from the purpose of USDF Introductory Level (see sidebar below): a steady tempo, elastic contact, steady hands, a balanced seat, correct geometry, and correct bend. You can do that. Let’s look at each point in detail.

Forward in a Steady Tempo

Rhythm, as you may know, refers to the footfall of each gait: the four-beat walk, the two-beat trot, and the three-beat canter with its moment of suspension. Tempo refers to the speed of the rhythm. If it’s too fast, your horse will be inclined to be tense. If it’s too slow, he’ll be disconnected. “Forward” isn’t fast. You want to find the tempo in which your horse is “working,” but with a moment of relaxation within each stride—like pumping iron. This tempo must be steady, not getting slower or faster whenever your horse feels like it or when he loses his balance. You, the rider, are in charge of the tempo. When it’s steady, it’s predictable, and you know how much we all like that!

A Steady, Elastic Contact

For the contact to be steady, your hands need to follow your horse’s mouth. In walk and in canter, the horse uses his head and neck in a forward-downward way in every stride. Your elbows and shoulders need to be supple enough to allow your hands to follow that forward-and-back movement. Practice this for the rest of your life! In trot, the horse’s head and neck are relatively still in relation to the rest of his body.

If you have trouble following your horse’s mouth, put a grab strap on the front of your saddle and hold on. The Finnish Olympian Kyra Kyrklund has students hold the excess of the stirrup leather with the outside hand. Even though these artificial means of steadying your hands prevent you from following in walk and in canter, an unfollowing hand is better than one that is disruptive. Don’t beat yourself up about your unsteady hands; just work on it until you figure it out. (Hint: It depends largely on improving your seat, which we’ll discuss in a minute.)

An elastic contact requires that your horse “draw” on the rein: He must reach and seek the steady contact. But he can’t reach for and accept an unsteady contact, and he won’t want to stretch into an unyielding hand. Be sure that your fists are soft. Instructors can’t always see a tight fist, so the problem often goes undetected. Not only is a soft hand an inviting one, but it also allows you to close your fingers in a half-halt. If your fist is already tight, you’re riding a perpetual “whoa”—so half-halts don’t work.

If the rider has a soft, steady hand, the elastic contact is created when the horse reaches for the bit in response to the seat and leg aids—primarily the leg aid. In other words: Your horse’s reaction to your leg aid should be to reach for the bit. Keep that in mind, and teach him that.

A Correct, Balanced Seat

When you sit in the saddle, the “floor” of your seat is the triangular surface within your two seat bones and your pubic bone. If you can feel those three bones, you’re balanced in the right place. The flexibility of your pelvis allows your balanced seat to follow the horse in the same way that your hands follow his mouth. Work on it in walk, trot, and canter. It takes enormous concentration in the beginning. Lunge lessons help if you have the opportunity.

Figure 2. 20-meter circles. Note the circle points for correctly ridden 20-meter circles beginning at A and at E or B

Bend and Geometry

Correct bend in figures and corners is a big deal.

The judge wants to see whether your horse is able to bend left and right with equal ease and suppleness. At Intro Level, you’ll show this basic skill by riding 20-meter circles and the corners of the arena.

Practice those circles and understand the geometry (see Figure 1 at right) so that you can execute a correctly placed figure of the proper diameter and shape. Some circles are ridden beginning at A or C on the short side of the arena, and others begin at E or B on the long sides. In your arena at home, place cones at the circle points if you need visual aids.

Correct circles and corners require bend. How much? Exactly the same as the arc of the circle or corner.

Bend begins with flexion at the poll. Your horse needs to be able to flex in the direction of travel, either left or right. Then use your inside leg to develop the contact with the outside rein. When your horse has 20-meter bend in his body and you ride him on that 20-meter circle accurately, then every step is the same! Consistency makes your riding look and feel easy. Great riders work tirelessly on 20-meter circles—even with advanced horses—until the connection is perfect and every step is the same. Then they are able to do the same on 15-meter circles. Then 10-meter circles and 8-meter voltes. Then, eventually, pirouettes. It’s all the same principle, and the foundation for these advanced skills happens at Intro Level.

CAREFUL CORNER: A corner is a quarter of a circle, as Youth Dressage Festival competitor Scarlett Farmer demonstrates aboard Fernhill Casper. Photo by AKDRAGOOPHOTO.COM

A corner is simply a quarter of a circle, but of course there’s nothing simple about that. It’s hard to do a quarter of a circle anywhere, let alone in a place where it’s hard for the horse to balance on his own four feet—especially considering horses’ well-known propensity for cutting the corners. So start in walk and try the exercise in the “Perfect Corners” sidebar on page 30 to learn how to ride great corners.

Perfect Corners

Just as there are circle points on a circle, corner points based on a desired corner depth will help you ride corners accurately. Try this exercise:

Place two cones near one corner of your dressage arena, each cone positioned along the rail and six meters from the corner, as shown by the cones numbered 1 and 2 in Figure 2. Use the cones to help you ride the perfect 12-meter corner with 12-meter bend. As you approach the first corner, flex your horse to the inside.

Figure 2. Corner exercise. Cones 1 and 2 are positioned 6 meters from the corner; riding a corner from one to the other will produce a corner arc like that of a 12-meter circle. For a shallower corner with less bend, position cones 7 meters from the corner (cones 3 and 4) for a 14-meter corner arc.

At the walk, use your inside leg to help him take contact with the outside rein.

Halt before the corner at the first cone.

Retain his flexion and shape in 12-meter bend. Point his nose toward the second cone.

Walk through the corner on a bent line that leads to the #2 cone.

The corner is complete when your horse’s hindquarters are on the track—not when his shoulders are on the track.

SHAPING THE HORSE: Your inside and outside aids work together to shape your horse in the desired amount of bend. Photo by BETH BAUMERT

You’ll notice that you need to combine inside bending aids with outside turning aids. The outside turning aids are also the aids that connect and eventually collect your horse. With practice, you’ll discover the combination of aids you need to bend through an accurate circle.

Was the 12-meter corner too difficult? If so, make the corner more shallow. Place cones seven meters from the corner (cones 3 and 4 in the diagram); then ride a 14-meter corner by riding the bent line between those two cones.

In your dressage test, you want the judge to be able to tell whether you are riding part of a 20-meter circle or a corner—even if it’s a 14-meter corner. A proper corner arc is decidedly different from the 20-meter circle line.

More Geometry

Riding accurate figures with bend is incredibly important, not only for your score but for the correct training of your horse. Be committed to your line! Your aids keep your horse on the figure, and being persistent about that line is what puts your horse “on the aids!”

In addition to bent lines, you need to negotiate straight lines in every dressage test.

The center lines in the Intro Level tests are exactly the same center lines as at Grand Prix. There will be two in every test for the rest of your life. Practice them. That’s what we mean by laying a foundation. As you practice entering at A, you’ll realize that your horse finds center lines easier when entering from either the right or the left. When you show, go the easy way. No one cares which direction you come from.

Don’t go around the letter A as you enter. If you’re tracking right, A should be on your left as you enter and directly behind you as you continue down the center line.

If you’re supposed to track right at C after your entry halt and salute, almost all riders swing wide—they “fall” left before turning right. You wouldn’t do that in a car, so don’t do it on your horse. Stay committed to your line!

Encouraging Throughness

The Intro Level tests are intended to be “inviting,” meaning that they encourage the rider to develop the horse correctly and easily. The figures and movements are designed to help you make your horse relaxed, supple, straight, and “through.” They encourage your horse to accept the contact. Here are a few examples of how the design of the tests helps you.

The requirement to “halt through the walk” is one of those places in which the test helps you develop your horse correctly. As you’re trotting down the center line in preparation for the halt at X, you should make one transition to walk and a second transition to halt. This will help you retain your horse’s throughness. If you try to go directly to halt from trot (as one of the riders in the USDF On the Levels videos does), it will increase your chances of encountering a problem (the demonstration rider’s horse stepped out in the halt). Transitions that skip a gait (like trot-halt-trot) require confirmed thoroughness and a small degree of collection that Introductory Level horses normally don’t have. At Intro Level, make your transitions in and out of the halt as smooth, straight, and relaxed as possible by incorporating a few walk steps.

The transitions in and out of canter (in Intro Test C) are performed on a 20-meter circle, which helps you retain your horse’s suppleness. Transitions done on a straight line encourage the horse to stiffen and straighten in a bad way. On a circle, the horse stays straight in a good way; that is, he remains aligned and bent. Bend encourages relaxation, suppleness, and correct use of the back.

Intro Level tests are all ridden in rising trot, which is designed to help your horse develop a swinging back and a relaxed rhythm. If you understand the reason that you’re rising instead of sitting, your chances of getting that happy result increase.

Be academic about your riding and you’ll find that the 2019 USDF Introductory Level tests will help you train your horse easily and correctly. Then you’ll be able to repeat the same positive process at Training Level, which will be the subject of the next installment in this series.

Meet the Expert

Beth Baumert is a USDF-certified instructor through Fourth Level, a USDF L program graduate with distinction, and the author of When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics. She currently serves as president of The Dressage Foundation. For many years she owned and operated Cloverlea Dressage in Columbia, Connecticut, and served as the technical editor of Dressage Today magazine. She divides her time between Connecticut and Florida.

To read the next article in this series click here.


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