Nailing It! Riding with Success Through the Levels – Part 2

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LONGITUDINAL SUPPLENESS: USDF-certified instructor Annie Morris on her PRE gelding, Icaro, demonstrates one of the goals of Training Level dressage. As seen in profile, Icaro has a rounded topline and is thrusting from behind, reaching for, and accepting contact with the bit. (Beth Baumert photo)

Based on USDF’s On the Levels videos, our new training series debuts. Part 2: Training Level.

By Beth Baumert

Reprinted from the January/February 2020 issue of USDF Connection magazine.

The Purpose of Training Level

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.

Did you “nail” the Introductory Level (“Clinic,” November/December 2019)? If so, you’re ready to move on, but never leave “the purpose of Intro Level” behind. By focusing on the purposes of these tests, you’ll succeed, so let’s stick with that plan. There are aspects of the purpose of Intro that aren’t mentioned in the purpose of Training Level, but those qualities are supposed to be even better as you and your horse develop in Training through Fourth Levels. So start by reviewing those qualities in the purpose of Introductory Level that will forever improve:

  • An elastic contact
  • Independent, steady hands and a correct balanced seat
  • Proper geometry of figures in the arena
  • Correct bend (all movements—from Training Level through Grand Prix—are based on the quality of that bend).

These are aspects of riding that the best riders in the world continue to work on without end. Even if you never compete at Introductory Level, you and your horse necessarily navigate through that skill level and lay a firm foundation of basics that will be reflected in all your future work. Learn to love hammering out details, because you’ll need to keep working on those qualities forever! Then, whether or not you compete, your next step is to make your Training Level riding great. Here’s exactly what to work on.

Know and Understand the Purpose

Even though the purpose of the Training Level tests is relatively short and simple (see sidebar above), it’s packed with meaning. Here are the important takeaways:

Your horse demonstrates correct basics by retaining and improving the qualities required at Introductory Level, as discussed above.

  • Your horse is supple
  • He moves freely forward…
  • …in a clear rhythm…
  • … with a steady tempo…
  • …accepting contact with the bit.
The pyramid of training

These qualities clearly represent the first three steps in the pyramid of training or “training scale,” which is the recipe for training all horses. The first three qualities on the pyramid of training are rhythm, suppleness, and contact.

Let’s look at each specific requirement.

A clear rhythm and a steady tempo. As your horse moves freely forward, he does so in a clear two-beat trot rhythm, a clear three-beat canter rhythm (with a moment of suspension), or a clear four-beat walk rhythm. The tempo is the speed of the rhythm, and the rider is responsible for making the tempo consistent.

The quality of your horse’s gaits is the essence of dressage, and that’s all about rhythm and tempo! Those horses whose gaits improve as they get older thrive in the sport and become even more beautiful.
Sometimes, however, the tempo isn’t steady, the gaits are choppy, and the horse is a “leg mover” instead of being a “back mover.” How does a horse become a graceful back mover, swinging through a lifted back? The pyramid of training—and the purposes of the tests—tell us that developing suppleness will help.

Suppleness. Suppleness requires relaxation, but it is the relaxation of working muscles, not grazing muscles. Energy flows through relaxed muscles to create two kinds of suppleness. Lateral suppleness is bend, and your goal, throughout the training of your horse, is to try to develop equal bend left and right. The bend required at Training Level is 15- and 20-meter bend. From your work at Intro Level, you may recall that bend begins with flexion in the poll, and it develops from the rider’s inside leg, which helps to shape the horse in the desired degree of bend and sends his energy, in motion, to the outside rein.

Longitudinal suppleness (see photo at top) is the development of a round topline as seen in profile, when the horse thrusts from behind, reaches for, and “accepts contact with the bit.” That round, supple topline is the horse’s spine, and when it is laterally and longitudinally supple, the back muscles are loose and swinging. And here’s the important part: The back swings in the rhythm of the gait and in a steady, predictable tempo. That suppleness and the steady, predictable rhythm and tempo are what improve the gaits and make the horse easy to ride.

LATERAL SUPPLENESS: Remember this photo from the last issue? I love this image—again of Annie Morris on Icaro—because it shows how the rider’s aids shape the horse in bend. At Training Level, the horse is required to show 15- and 20-meter bend and should be equally supple on both reins. (Beth Baumert photo)

What about the third step of the pyramid of training, contact? Typically, when the rhythm is clear, the tempo is steady, and the horse is relaxed and supple, the contact is also good.

That Sounds Easy, but…

…Actually, there are countless things that can and do go wrong. Here are the most common issues at Training Level:
When I ask my horse to go more forward, he gets too fast, stiff, and hard in the mouth.


When I ask my horse to go more forward, he is dull and unresponsive to my driving aids.
My horse isn’t consistently round.
My horse gets curled and behind the bit.
My horse won’t bend left (or right).
My horse’s rhythm is choppy and uncomfortable.

Not to oversimplify, but the solutions to these basic issues are all the same: transitions and half-halts. Both transitions and half-halts will balance your horse, and a balanced horse is comfortable in his own skin and comfortable for you to ride.

At Training Level, you ideally would like a balance in which each leg carries an equal amount of weight. When that’s the case, your horse doesn’t need to rely on the bit (your hands) to carry weight. That said, he should be “committed to” and reaching for the bit. He should seek it and use it for direction and for balance in the same way that you might hold onto a hand rail but not lean on it.

Transitions and half-halts send two messages that are somewhat contradictory: Go and Whoa. So you and your horse need to become savvy about what transitions and half-halts mean. To the hindquarters, they say “go toward the bit and step under my seat”—and to the forehand they say, “Wait a second. Don’t go beyond the bit.” You want your horse to go to the bit but not beyond it or above it. You want his center of gravity to be directly under your center of gravity so he can carry you comfortably. That’s harmony.

See “Half-Halts and Transitions: How They Work” on the facing page for more on how to ride these essential elements in dressage.

The Stretch

Stretching is required at Training Level and is scored as a double coefficient (x 2) because of the importance of “reach” in your horse’s training. Stretching on a 20-meter circle is the key to longitudinal suppleness, and it is an exercise that you will use for the rest of your horse’s career. If he learns to lower his neck and reach forward and downward as he seeks the bit, then his back will automatically—because of the way his body is designed—come up. In theory, when you close your legs, your horse should reach forward and downward toward the bit. However, in practice that doesn’t always happen.

STRETCHING IS FUNDAMENTAL: The 20-meter stretching circle is not just a Training Level movement; it’s an exercise that you will use for the rest of your horse’s career, as demonstrated by international competitor Karen Pavicic on the upper-level mount Beaujolais (Jennifer Bryant photo)


Try this:
Begin in any gait. On a large, accurate circle between E and B:

SERPENTINE GEOMETRY: The three-loop serpentine consists of three 20-meter half-circles, with one straight stride as the horse crosses the center line and then a smooth change of bend in the next direction. Ride clear corners before and after the serpentine figure.
  1. Close your legs and soften your hands slightly forward—not enough to throw away the contact, but enough to invite your horse to reach to the bit. Repeat this many times (forever) and your horse will accept your invitation eventually. You can combine this with the transitions you’ve been doing between walk and trot or between trot and canter.
  2. Next, use your inside leg to create contact with the outside rein. If it helps, you can leg-yield out to enlarge one or both sides of the circle. When you feel that your horse is successfully accepting the outside rein, soften it. He should follow that outside rein forward and downward.
    Keep the contact as your horse stretches, because you need to control the amount and direction of the stretch. Stretching is traditionally part of the warm-up, but if your horse can’t do this in the beginning of your ride, try it in the middle and again at the end. It might be easier then, and eventually it may be part of your warm-up. Be sure to retain the accurate bend of your circle. This requirement early in your horse’s career helps you to develop him correctly and as easily as possible.

Fine-Tune Your Geometry

In Training Level Test 3, you’re required to ride a three-loop serpentine between A and C. This is deceptively difficult because there are so many things you need to do to execute this pattern well.

First, know your geometry, and study how three 20-meter circles fit into your 20-by-60-meter arena (see diagram at left). In order to follow the pattern, you need to be able to:

  • Show exactly 20-meter bend both to the left and the right
  • Avoid letting your horse carry you into a corner (which will be his inclination)
  • Smoothly change the bend from left to right and vice versa each time you cross the center line. Half-halt one or two times, beginning on the quarter line, so that your horse is balanced and light enough to change the flexion and bend as you cross the center line. If you still have trouble, half-halt a third time and ride a downward transition to walk or halt. Then pat your horse so he understands that coming back is what you wanted. Next time, see if it is easier.
  • Each time you change direction on the center line, feel that he steps in front of your new inside leg and goes to the new outside rein. This will improve your connection and his ability to respond to those half-halts.
  • Ride a clear corner before and after the three-loop serpentine.

The serpentine is difficult, and riding it correctly requires practice and communication with your horse!

When your horse is comfortably balanced and can walk, trot, and canter demonstrating the qualities required at Training Level, it’s no small feat. You’ll keep working to improve those qualities as you graduate to First Level, where you’ll teach your horse about adding power and impulsion.

Half-Halts and Transitions: How They Work

Half-halts balance your horse underneath you by connecting him and collecting him. The three parts of the half-halt are:

  1. Your seat and leg ask his hind legs to step directly under your center of gravity and thrust toward the bit (“Go”). You want the hindquarters to become more attentive than they usually are inclined to be.
  2. Your hand stops following his motion, closes in a fist, or both to say, “Stay with me. Don’t flatten, stiffen, and go fast.” You want the forehand to be less active than it usually is inclined to be. As a result of this “whoa aid,” the rider transfers a bit of weight to a grounded hind leg.
  3. As the weight is transferred back, you soften your hand and the contact, allowing your horse to carry himself (and you) and to become more supple, both longitudinally and laterally.
    These half-halts should make your horse more active, more supple, and better connected, all of which make him more ridable.

Transitions between the gaits do exactly the same thing as half-halts. Upward transitions train and confirm the horse’s “go” response from the leg and seat. Downward transitions train and confirm the horse’s “whoa” response to the hand.

Your half-halts balance your horse. Then, to make a transition, your half-halts ask for a change of rhythm—between trot and canter, or between trot and walk, or between walk and halt. Throughout the levels, there are many places in the dressage tests in which the transitions are scored separately from the movements. This emphasis on the transitions reflects their importance (very!), because they keep your horse longitudinally (from back to front and from front to back) supple and connected. Good transitions occur when the connection is good—and transitions improve the connection.

Try this:
Practice transitions on an accurate 20-meter circle. Prepare for each transition by riding two half-halts, which will put your horse’s body in a good position to execute the transition. Then ask for the transition with a third half-halt. Begin with simple trot-walk transitions, and do one every time you come to the center line. When they become good, try doing them four times on a circle. That requires a lot of half-halts! Be sure your leg and seat are doing more than your hand so the half-halts create a more forward—rather than less forward—horse. Try the same with trot-canter-trot transitions. Your transitions will become better with time!

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.

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To read the first article in this series click here.

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