Based on USDF’s On the Levels videos. Part 3: First Level.
By Beth Baumert
Reprinted from the March/April 2020 issue of USDF Connection magazine.
The Purpose of First Level
To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust (impulsion) to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.
At First Level, you’ll find a few new requirements: smaller circles with more bend, lengthening of stride in trot and canter, leg-yield, and counter-canter. First Level is the point in your horse’s training where judges want to see evidence of impulsion.
Impulsion (defined in dressage as thrust or pushing power) is the fourth element of the pyramid of dressage training (see illustration at right). The movement that proves or disproves the quality of your horse’s impulsion is his ability to lengthen his stride. It is thrust or pushing power that enables the First Level horse to lengthen his stride (and his frame), first on the short diagonal in trot, then down the long side of the arena in canter, and finally on the long diagonal in trot.
(Of course, the often-unstated implication is that you can also shorten the stride at the end of a lengthening. That’s sometimes the more challenging part of the equation!)
Are You Prepared for First Level?
As you strive to meet the requirements of First Level (see “The Purpose of First Level” above), you need to first confirm that your horse “demonstrates correct basics” and has met the requirements of Training Level. Let’s review all the skills and qualities that represent those basics. By now, there are quite a few!
At Introductory Level, you and your horse worked to develop:
- An elastic contact
- Independent, steady hands and a correct balanced seat
- Proper geometry of figures in the arena
- Correct bend.
At Training Level, you became even more sophisticated about those skills. As a result, it was possible for you to excel at Training Level, during which time the following qualities evolved:
- Your horse is now more relaxed and supple.
- He moves freely forward…
- …in a clear rhythm…
- …with a steady tempo…
- …accepting contact with the bit.
In the previous installment of this series (January/February), we also looked at three skills that help you in acquiring and retaining the basics. Half-halts, transitions, and stretching improve longitudinal suppleness as well as your horse’s commitment to “reaching” toward the bit.
If you’re overwhelmed, that’s understandable, and it’s the reason that so many riders cut corners and move on before they’re ready. But here’s the good news: These mental and physical demands never change. The requirements of the lower levels are exactly the same as those of the upper levels. These are the basics that you need to confirm here and now, and they will serve you well forever. As the rider, you need to be aware of these basics all the time—not in a critical way, but in a monitoring and helpful way. You’ll be working diligently to improve the basics for the rest of your dressage career, so learn to love it!
Review those half-halt, transition, and stretching skills, and keep them in mind as we look at the primary challenge of First Level: the development of impulsion.
Your Hips Call the Shots
Before we even start talking about how to ride a lengthening, let’s look at the most common problem with this movement because virtually every horse has it: The strides get faster instead of longer.
Make this clear distinction in your mind: You want longer strides, not faster ones. If you get a faster stride, your horse will “fall” onto the forehand and it will be hard to stop him because he will have disengaged his hindquarters.
What causes the strides to quicken? First, horses are naturally inclined to use their front legs more than their hindquarters. Second, riders tend to increase the tempo of their hip motion when they ask for a lengthening—which asks the horse to go faster instead of to lengthen.
The movements of your seat need to reflect what you want—a big, slow stride. Add scope, not speed, to your hips in the rising or sitting trot. The same is true in canter. Imagine that you’re going to lengthen slowly. It takes longer to make a big step than a small one.
Because your horse will be inclined to speed up rather than to lengthen, try to do the opposite: Slow the tempo of the lengthening; then increase the tempo of the shortened strides at the end of the line. You actually want both tempos to be the same, and that’s probably what you’ll get if you try to influence your horse to do the opposite of his inclination.
It’s very difficult to ride forward in a downward transition to a shorter stride, but that is what you must do. Treat the transition from lengthening back to the working gait it as if it were an upward transition, and bring those hindquarters with you as you shorten the stride. In First Level Test 1, after a canter lengthening on the long side (H-V or M-P) comes a 15-meter circle; use that circle to help you shorten the stride. Push into your steady hand in shoulder-fore (see “Balance with Shoulder-Fore” below), and your horse will learn to come back to you in a fluid way. Whether in trot or canter, you’ll be successful if you start out with a small lengthening and a small shortening. Then, when your horse is ready, graduate to a medium-sized lengthening. You can see where this is going. Soon it will be more than sufficient—maybe even great!
Balance with Shoulder-Fore
Next on your list of required qualities, according to the purpose of First Level, is improved balance.
In the last issue, we talked about half-halts, transitions, and stretching for longitudinal balance. Now it’s time to develop shoulder-fore for lateral (left-to-right and right-to-left) balance.
Shoulder-fore (pictured in the photo on page 22) isn’t exactly an “exercise,” because it is simply riding straight. You should ride in shoulder-fore all the time. If you don’t do so already, it will revolutionize your riding!
Straightness in shoulder-fore will be easiest to achieve if you can ride toward a mirror, but most riders don’t have that luxury. If you’re of that majority, get someone to watch and give you verbal feedback, or have your helper video from directly in front of or behind your horse.
The primary aids for shoulder-fore are inside leg and outside rein. The secondary aids are outside leg and inside rein. Keep your seat and torso square in the center. Here’s what you want to see from directly in front or behind you:
- Very slight flexion of your horse’s poll to the inside (no bend in the neck, and no angle to the body). Remember, shoulder-fore is straight—meaning that your horse’s body remains parallel to the long side of the arena.
- His outside legs should be aligned, with the outside hind directly behind the outside fore.
- His inside hind should step between the tracks of his two front legs—directly under your seat and under his center of gravity.
If you have trouble with shoulder-fore, take heart. Start in walk, and keep trying. Don’t give up, because you’ll need to love doing this for the rest of your dressage career. Even if you haven’t yet achieved perfect alignment in the walk, try riding shoulder-fore in trot; sometimes the momentum makes the positioning easier. When you get it, your horse will actually help you maintain it because he loves to be balanced.
You, the rider, are in charge of your horse’s balance and rhythm. As you challenge him with more difficult exercises, he’ll get crooked, but a horse that can easily return to shoulder-fore is a straight horse with “more consistent contact with the bit”—another part of the purpose of First Level.
Now that your horse can be balanced longitudinally and laterally, here’s an exercise to develop his impulsion.
Utilize the RSVP letters in this exercise. Start in working trot on the long side of the arena.
Ride shoulder-fore on the right rein from R to P. Feel for your horse’s swinging back in the working trot.
- At P, ride a half-20-meter circle, asking him to lengthen his stride by increasing the scope of your hip motion. Keep the tempo the same as it was on the long side. If you don’t increase the length of the stride by much, that’s OK for now. It will improve.
- When you get to V, go straight again in shoulder-fore.
- At S, ride a half-20-meter circle, asking your horse to stretch.
- Repeat. Then change directions and repeat the exercise on the left rein.
- The combination of lengthening, stretching, and shoulder-fore will make your horse more “through” as well as giving you a more consistent contact with the bit—both of which are First Level requirements.
Leg-Yield and Counter-Canter
The First Level tests require leg-yield in trot as well as counter-canter, which is canter on the “wrong” lead. Why? Once again, to develop and demonstrate “improved balance and throughness” as well as a “more consistent contact to the bit.”
Leg-yield teaches your horse to move sideways away from your inside leg into a nice contact with your outside rein. Flex his poll very slightly to the right (no bend!) for leg-yield left, and vice versa. More sideways is not better. The point of the exercise is to develop improved contact, balance, and throughness, all of which happen on a shallow line. Ride from point A to point B as required in the test and you’ll get it right. Use your eyes to maintain your line of travel. The quality of the trot should not diminish. If your horse’s body remains parallel to the long side during the leg-yield, he will demonstrate what dressage judges call the essence of the movement, which is the crossing of his legs. In First Level Test 3, be sure that your leg-yields take you to the center line, or the subsequent 10-meter circles won’t be the right size. That geometry error will compromise two scores, not just one!
Counter-canter, first required in Test 3, is a wonderful straightening exercise. It will improve your horse’s balance and throughness, and the First Level version (see illustration at right) is quite inviting. The judge looks for the quality and regularity of the canter, the shape and size of the loop, the horse’s positioning, and the balance.
Riders often make counter-canter overly difficult by riding it differently from the true-lead canter. You’ll have remarkable success if you’re able to ride left- and right-lead canter exactly the same, regardless of whether you are tracking left or right. It’s common for riders to overbend the horse’s neck in the direction of the leading leg in the counter-canter; this mistake causes crookedness and makes the horse hobble around instead of retaining the quality and regularity of the gait. Another common mistake is to sit on the wrong seat bone and to exaggerate the leg placement. Keep your horse straight in shoulder-fore with only slight flexion toward the leading leg, and ride the canter exactly the same way in both directions.
As you prepare for the counter-canter loop in Test 3, you can make it even more inviting to your horse by making the line very shallow and not going all the way to X. Gradually, when your horse understands, you can make the loop as it is required in the test.
Here’s a self-test you can use to assess your horse’s gymnastic development as you work at First Level: When you add impulsion successfully, his rhythm improves and becomes more cadenced. Keep an eye out for that.
The accomplished First Level horse is poised for success at Second Level because the power—the impulsion—generated gives you something to “collect”—which is the new goal!
Transitions. Now that you’ve graduated to First Level, transitions on the center line go from trot directly to halt, with no walk steps. This crisper transition will help connect your horse from back to front in the downward transition and develop that desirable thrust (impulsion) in the upward transition.
Half-halts. Along with transitions, half-halts are your means of obtaining and retaining your horse’s longitudinal balance. Most riders need a refresher on how to execute those, so review my November/December 2019 “Clinic” article on Training Level. Of course, half-halts and transitions become even more important as you develop your horse through the levels.
Geometry. Every time you allow your horse to determine the line of travel instead of you, he loses his balance. Focus on the desired line of travel. On the center line, look at C and be sure that A is directly behind you. Let your eyes guide you throughout the entire test.
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 part 1 on Introductory Level click here.
To read part 2 on Training Level click here.
To read part 4 on Second Level click here.