Nailing It! Riding with Success Through the Levels – Part 4

SECOND LEVEL DEVELOPMENT: 2019 US Dressage Finals Second Level Open Freestyle champions Ronin and trainer/rider/co-owner Martin Kuhn in medium trot, a movement that calls for “moderate lengthening of frame and stride with engagement, elasticity, suspension, straightness, and uphill balance” (

Based on USDF’s On the Levels videos. Part 4: Second Level.

By Beth Baumert

Reprinted from the May/June 2020 issue of USDF Connection magazine.

The Purpose of Second Level

To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance, and self-carriage is required than at First Level.

The Second Level dressage tests really are tests! They are all tests, of course, but at Second Level the judge expects to see a clear and specific result of your previous work: that the seeds of collection that you planted at First Level have sprouted a bit to become “baby collection”—meaning that, although collection may come and go at Second Level, it is clearly present.

For the Second Level horse, moving with “an uphill tendency” (see “The Purpose of Second Level” at right) should be a probability, not just a possibility, because his body should be in a shape such that he’s naturally inclined to move “uphill”: When you look at the horse in profile, the energy goes through his topline on an uphill slope with a reaching attitude, instead of horizontal or downhill. The “uphillness” may come and go, but the inclination is there. He’s set up for success.

The Dutch Olympian Tineke Bartels once observed that if she asks a rider for more collection, the work almost always gets worse. The reason, she said, is that riders who are consciously trying to collect their horses tend to try to collect from front to back. If all the prerequisites are in place, she said, “Collection just happens.” So instead of trying to achieve collection, she focuses on whatever prerequisites might be weak.

Tineke’s lesson is a simple one: Look to the basics, and the horse will be “collectible.” Collection will “just happen.”

Examining the Definition of Collection

Why do the hindquarters lower? Because the joints of the hindquarters bend.

Why do the hindquarters engage (carry more weight)? Because your half-halts add weight to a hind leg when it is on the ground.

How does the horse “narrow his base of support”? Your aids ask him to step with his inside hind leg exactly under your weight—under your seat—in shoulder-fore. That inside hind leg is naturally inclined to step outside of the center of gravity, and the outside hind leg is inclined to step out also; but your horse learns to respond to aids that ask his hind legs to narrow their path of travel. Review the information on half-halts (“Clinic,” January/February) and shoulder-fore (“Clinic,” March/April).

As a result of the lowering and engaging of the hindquarters when the horse is stepping directly under his weight, his front end lightens and he is therefore more maneuverable. You don’t ask for those qualities directly; they happen when you enable the hindquarters to carry more weight. Tineke Bartels meant that the increased elevation must be the result of and relative to the lowering of the hindquarters. The shorter, more cadenced, and powerful strides mentioned in the USDF glossary definition are also a result of those same prerequisites. Half-halts, transitions, and shoulder-fore are the keys to finding that balance.

The USDF Glossary Definition of Collection

Collection (balance and lightness of the forehand from increased engagement): The horse shows collection when he lowers and engages his hindquarters, shortening and narrowing his base of support, resulting in lightness and mobility of the forehand. He shows shorter, but powerful, cadenced steps and strides. The increased elevation must be the result of and relative to the lowering of the hindquarters.

What’s “the Right Balance”?

The concept of collection at Second Level is exactly the same as the concept of collection at Grand Prix. The significant difference between the two is a matter of degree.

FIRST-DEGREE COLLECTION: The 2019 US Dressage Finals Training Level Open champion Jameson SW, owned by Kathryn Fleming-Kuhn and ridden by Martin Kuhn, is clearly in a horizontal balance. All four legs are carrying approximately an equal amount of weight.

“First-degree collection” (above) is that of a four- or five-year-old horse that is able to do Training and First Level. In first-degree collection, the horse is in approximately a horizontal balance and, as a result, can perform the movements of those tests easily.

SECOND-DEGREE COLLECTION: The horse now has sufficient balance and strength to show an “uphill” tendency and to execute the movements with ease. Adam Steffens rides Boston Strong, owned by Christina Vinios, at the 2020 Adequan® Global Dressage Festival Gold Coast Opener. Notice how open the frame is in front. Boston Strong is very confirmed in this degree of collection.

“Second-degree collection” (above) is the amount of collection that is introduced at Second Level, which requires “collected trot” and “collected canter.” The horse’s back may not be strong enough for him to carry this frame 100% of the time, but his balance is developed enough that the Second Level movements are easy.

THIRD-DEGREE COLLECTION: The upper-level dressage horse should carry at least 55% of his weight behind. Betsy Juliano’s Salvino, shown at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games with rider Adrienne Lyle, looks light, bouncy, and very maneuverable. Jennifer Bryant photo

The horse in “third-degree collection” (above) carries at least 55% of his weight behind and a maximum of 45% in front. As a result, he carries himself in an uphill frame, and he is highly maneuverable.

What is the correct balance for your horse? At any level, if the movements are easy, then you have the right amount of collection for that level. Don’t be discouraged if you “lose it”; everyone does. Just think about why you lost it. What basic ingredient is your horse missing? That’s what you’ll need to fix.

Developing and Improving Collection

There are certain skills and movements that directly produce and improve collection. Notice that they are all in the Second Level tests!

Half-halts. Because half-halts add weight to whichever hind leg is on the ground, collection is directly improved during that brief moment. The hind legs bend slightly and the quarters lower as a result.

Transitions that skip a gait (trot-halt-trot and walk-canter-walk). In order for these transitions to work gracefully, your half-halts have to actually connect to your horse’s hind legs. The faster gait must be able to collect enough to go the same miles per hour as the slower gait. When they do, then the transition will be like butter. In Second Level, you’ll need to ride trot-halt-trot transitions twice on the center line. Test 1 includes walk-canter, and Tests 2 and 3 require the more difficult canter-walk-canter. These transitions set you up for flying changes.

Lateral movements with bend. At Second Level, these include shoulder-in, travers (haunches-in), and turn on the haunches (the precursor to pirouettes in both walk and canter). These exercises require that the horse bend his joints and thus lower the hindquarters and increase engagement. They also improve the inside-leg-to-outside-rein connection.

Rein back. This movement directly creates engagement by bringing the hind legs under the horse’s center of gravity. Note that that engagement is achieved as well with one step as with four or five. The benefit comes in the subsequent upward transition—if the horse stays engaged instead of leaving his hind legs out behind him.

Voltes. The 10-meter circles required at Second Level ask the horse to shorten his normal stride slightly. And if his body conforms to the circle line, his inside hind leg will bend more and carry a bit more weight. Ten-meter circles are required in all tests, and that 10-meter bend needs to be retained in all the lateral movements. That’s the prerequisite that gives your horse elegant lateral work with cadenced gaits!

A Look at the Second Level Tests

The new movements in these tests include:

THE MOTHER EXERCISE: Shoulder-in is fundamental in dressage because it’s the first movement in a horse’s training that requires actual collection. Megan Fischer-Graham rides Elian, owned by Amanda Stapleton, at the 2020 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference. Jennifer Bryant photo

Shoulder-in. This movement (see photo above) is known as the “mother exercise of dressage” because it is the first time in the training that actual collection is required, and Test 1 is the first time it is required in competition. It’s judged with a coefficient of 2, indicating its importance. The “directive ideas” from which the movement is judged read: “angle (30 degrees and 3 tracks), bend and balance; engagement and quality of trot.” In shoulder-in, your horse’s gaits should improve or at least maintain their quality. If the trot gets short and choppy, it means that the horse has lost the swing in his back. If that happens, straighten, ride a 10-meter circle, and try again. The quality of the gait is your barometer for assessing the quality of the work.

Rein back also gets a coefficient of 2, and the directives for this movement are “immobility; willing steps back with correct rhythm (2-beat) and count (3-4 steps); straightness; clear transitions.”

Transitions between collected and medium gaits. Although these transitions don’t have a double coefficient, they might as well have, because the transitions are judged separately from the gaits themselves. The upward transition should demonstrate only moderate thrust so that the horse can retain his engagement throughout, and so that a smooth downward transition can be ridden in a forward way—by shortening the stride from back to front until the ground coverage is reduced while maintaining the activity for collection. The directives for the medium trot read: “bend and balance in turns; moderate lengthening of frame and stride with engagement, elasticity, suspension, straightness, and uphill balance.” Note the attention that the judges pay to the preparatory corners! The directives for the transitions are “clear, balanced transitions; consistent tempo.”

Ten-meter circles in canter are done from the center line and need to be framed between the two quarter lines.

Walk-canter transitions are executed from a shortened stride of walk—always from a place the judge can see clearly! The directives are “clear, balanced transition; regularity and quality of gaits.” “Clear” means with no shuffly steps in between: from a clear four-beat walk directly to a clear three-beat canter.

Canter-walk-canter transitions (simple changes) include the more difficult downward transition from canter to walk. The serpentine in Test 2 gets three scores: one for the serpentine itself (directives: regularity and quality of gaits; positioning; geometry) and then separate scores for each of the simple changes (directives: clear, balanced, straight transitions; regularity and quality of gaits). Ideally, ride three to five walk steps over each center line in your serpentine, and pay attention to the equality of the bend (20-meter bend) left and right.

Travers (haunches-in) is another double-coefficient movement. Travers is done essentially with the same aids as shoulder-in, so don’t contort yourself. Travers is more difficult for your horse than shoulder-in because you are now asking him to travel in the direction of the bend, as he does in half-pass. He’ll need to figure out the mechanics of the movement; if he hasn’t yet, ride travers in walk sometimes. The directive ideas for travers are “angle (35 degrees and 4 tracks), bend, and balance; engagement and quality of trot.”

Turn on the haunches is another movement in which the horse has to understand the concept of moving toward the direction of the bend. It’s OK if the hindquarters describe a 1-meter circle (smaller than that is a pirouette). Make sure that you can comply with the directives before reducing the size of the circle: “quality of shortened walk strides; tempo and regularity; activity of the hind legs; bend and fluency in turn.”

Important but Not New at Second Level

Although not new to the level, the medium and free walks also are judged with double coefficients because of their extreme importance. The directives read: “regularity and quality of the walks; reach and ground cover of free walk, allowing complete freedom to stretch the neck forward and downward; straightness; clear, balanced transitions.”

Counter-canter also isn’t new but, like the medium and free walks, is judged with a double coefficient. The judges are looking for “regularity, quality, and balance of the canter; straightness.” Ride counter-canter with the same amount of bend as true canter. Overbending, a common mistake, causes loss of every quality being judged. Ride super-straight, as if you were going to do a flying change: Keep your horse’s hind legs on the line of travel, and ride shoulder-fore in the direction of the lead.

Second Level is often referred to as the “black hole” because there’s a lot for both horse and rider to understand and execute. It’s the point in dressage training where some get stuck. As you navigate your way through it, review the three ways to balance your horse: half-halts, transitions, and shoulder-fore. When your horse is basically in balance, he will develop well.

Follow USDF’s On The Levels Series

Available on DVD or as streaming video from the USDF store (, the USDF On the Levels series demonstrates the riding of every current (2019) dressage test from Introductory through Fourth Levels, along with comments from respected judges.

Michael Osinski (FEI 4) is the judge for all the Second Level tests in On the Levels. When you watch the videos, you’ll see that Mike’s comments often address the basics, such as his frequent mentions of alignment. The rider’s alignment is of critical importance—that you sit equally left and right (laterally) and that you are neither in front of nor behind the horse’s motion (longitudinally).

Alignment of the horse is equally critical. If your horse is not aligned and straight, he can’t collect. It’s that simple. Align him so that he doesn’t get in a spinal traffic jam when he tries to collect. Alignment enables throughness. Osinski notes that if there’s tension in the rider’s hand, there will be tension in the horse’s neck (and back), which prevents swing. He speaks of swing in the back, lift and lightness of the shoulders, reach, engagement, and expression. Great stuff!

FEI 4 dressage judge Sarah Geikie’s comments reflect a fun way to describe collection. She encourages “rounder, bouncier” strides.

FEI 4* dressage judge Lois Yukins judges Second Level Test 3 from E in the video, and she mentions responsiveness to the aids, quality of the trot, and use of the corners in setting up the horse for medium trot. She also speaks of riding the inside the hind leg under (what we have called “narrowing” of the hind legs or shoulder-fore), and she encourages riders to use their eyes to ensure proper geometry.

It’s always good for us to be reminded of the difference in viewpoint between the judges at C and at E. It’s sometimes dramatic and can easily account for what appears to be a discrepancy in scores. Differences in scores among judges on a panel don’t mean that the judges disagree. The scores just reflect a bigger, more truthful picture.

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 3 on First Level click here.

To read part 5 on Third Level click here.

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