Nailing It! Riding with Success Through the Levels – Part 5

ENGAGING PICTURE: Extended trot by 2019 US Dressage Finals Third Level Adult Amateur reserve champion Serenade MF (Sir Donnerhall x Don Principe), a Hanoverian mare owned and ridden by Alice Tarjan, and bred by Maryanna Haymon (

Based on USDF’s On the Levels videos. Part 5: Third Level.

By Beth Baumert

Reprinted from the July/August 2020 issue of USDF Connection magazine.

The Purpose of Third Level

To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an uphill balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits. Transitions between collected, medium, and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement. The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance, and self-carriage than at Second Level.

If you’re putting your big toe in Third Level waters, it means that you came out the other side of the Second Level “black hole.” Congratulations! That’s a big deal. It means that your basics are solid, but the best advice on that front is not to rest on those laurels. The most successful riders are constantly confirming and reconfirming the basics that make correct collection possible.

The positive qualities that were a “tendency” at Second Level become more confirmed at Third. Your horse’s collection in an uphill frame has become more consistent. It’s no longer OK with the judge if collection comes and goes, as it did at Second Level. As you probably know, however, your daily work with horses at every level through Grand Prix includes a warmup that sets the stage for collection by developing the horse’s connection so that he is “collectible.”

How do you know when your horse is “connected” and therefore “collectible?” During the warmup, you should eventually feel a relaxed, swinging back under your seat, and you can add weight to a hind leg during the sitting moment of the rising trot. That is, you can increase the engagement during that moment, and collection evolves because of that ability.


Engagement: The USDF Glossary Definition

At canter and piaffe, there is additional flexion at the hip joints and also greater flexion at the lumbosacral joint, which contribute to the horse’s ability to lower the haunches.

Increased flexion in joints of the hind legs during the weight-bearing (stance) phase of the stride, lowering the croup relative to the forehand, enabling the back to assist in elevating the forehand, and providing a springboard for upward thrust/impulsion. Engagement is carrying power, rather than pushing power.

Note: Engagement is not flexion of the hocks or “hock action” when the leg is swinging forward (as seen most clearly in gaited horses and Hackneys), nor does it describe the forward reach of the hind leg under the horse’s body.

The word engagement is noted often at Third Level, so it’s important that riders understand this term (see the definition on page 23). To understand engagement further, it’s best to look at the whole story regarding the horse’s hind leg.

THE KEYS TO ENGAGEMENT: To create engagement, you need to understand the action of the horse’s hind legs. In this photo, the inside hind is reaching and will soon be engaged. The outside hind is engaged and soon to be thrusting. Pictured is 2019 US Dressage Finals Third Level Freestyle Open reserve champion Washburn SW (Wolkentanz II x Opus), a Swedish Warmblood gelding bred by StarWest, owned by Debra Klamen, and ridden by Kathryn Fleming-Kuhn. (

The hind leg does three things:

  1. It reaches,
  2. It lands on the ground (engages), and
  3. It thrusts.

Then it reaches again. Keeping this in mind can help you to develop and improve your timing. You can—and should—influence your horse during each of these phases, keeping in mind that each phase is very brief! Here’s how it works:

  1. When the hind leg reaches, you try to influence the direction of that reach. Specifically, you ask the hind leg to step under your horse’s center of gravity in…you guessed it: shoulder-fore.
  2. When the hind foot lands, you can add a bit of weight (with your seat) to that hind leg to increase…you guessed it again! Engagement. Without engagement, an effective half-halt is impossible.
  3. When the hind leg thrusts, you can add to that pushing power and increase the scope to increase ground coverage for those extensions that are required for the first time at Third Level.

So within each stride, there is pushing power during the thrusting moment and carrying power during the engaging moment. Ideally, you have some control over the ratio between the two—and that is what creates the wonderful, comfortable state of balance.

ÜBERSTREICHEN: If the horse maintains his balance, frame, rhythm, and energy when you release the reins for a few strides in the canter, you’ve proved he’s in self-carriage. International competitor Karen Pavicic rides Beaujolais in an Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference.

Do you recall the ideas we’ve discussed in past articles about balance? As a refresher, here are the three things that the hind leg does that relate to the three ways to balance your horse.

  • Half-halts balance your horse longitudinally.
  • Transitions do the same. (To review these concepts, see “Clinic,” January/February.) Both half-halts and transitions focus on the balance between the pushing power (thrust moment) and the carrying power (engaging moment).
  • Shoulder-fore balances your horse laterally. (See “Clinic,” March/April, for review.) The shoulder-fore focuses on the rider’s directional influence during the reach moment.

Together, half-halts, transitions, and shoulder-fore balance your horse; and with greater balance comes improved self-carriage. Proof of self-carriage is required in Third Level Test 2 in the form of Überstreichen. Let’s discuss Überstreichen, as well as the other new movements in Third Level.

Self-Carriage: The USDF Glossary Definition

State in which the horse carries itself in balance without taking support or balancing on the rider’s hand.

A Look at the Third Level Tests

The new movements in these tests include:

Überstreichen. In test 2, you are required to prove your horse’s self-carriage by releasing both reins for four or five strides while crossing the center line in collected canter. Help your horse by preparing with two or three half-halts. Then when you release your reins, he should retain his balance, frame, rhythm, and energy. The directives read: Clear release of reins maintaining self-carriage; engagement and collection; shape, size, and bend of circle. Release the reins toward your horse’s mouth, rather than toward his ears. (The latter motion encourages the shoulders to drop.) This is a double-coefficient movement.

Extension. The extended walk replaces the free walk, meaning that it is ridden with rein contact, and with control of the poll and of the amount of stretching forward and downward. According to the directives, the judge is looking for regularity; suppleness of back; activity; overtrack; freedom of shoulder; stretching to the bit; clear transitions. The extended walk is judged with a double coefficient in all three tests.

The extended trot and canter are, again, about ground cover. Whereas the medium gaits are about lifting off the ground, extension is about going over the ground. That sounds as if it’s all about thrust, but if you lose the engagement—that ability to carry weight on the hind legs—then you can’t stop at the end of your extension. Anyone who has ever tried this knows what that feels like!

In extended gaits, the judge looks for utmost ground cover with lengthening of frame, elasticity, engagement, suspension; straightness and uphill balance. The extended trot and canter are double-coefficient movements in Third Level Test 2.

Try this: Make your extensions of short duration and combine them with exercises that remind your horse of the connection, engagement, and collection. From last month’s installment, you know that small circles and lateral movements (with bend) improve collection.

  • Third Level Test 1 calls for extended canter from H to K. When you’re practicing this movement, extend from H to E, then collect and ride a 10-meter circle. Then extend again from E to K (see Figure 1 at right). Judge all those transitions for yourself. Remember to do this in shoulder-fore so that your horse doesn’t get crooked.
  • Again in test 1, you have to extend the trot M-X-K. In practice, extend only to the quarter line. Leg-yield or half-pass to the next quarter line, and then extend again to K (Figure 2).

Vary these exercises so that they become more challenging, but retain the connection. When you watch top riders, you’ll see that their extensions retain the qualities of collection, and collection retains the qualities of extension.

Half-pass. Test 1 begins with a shoulder-in left, which should improve your trot and set you up for movement 3: V-L, half-circle left 10m; L-H, half-pass left. Ride smart. First, don’t underestimate the difficulty of riding a half-10-meter circle or of riding the half-pass, but please be accurate. If your 10-meter circle is only nine meters, you’ll not only lose points for that (directives: shape and size of half-circle), but you’ll make the half-pass less steep and therefore easier (directives: alignment, bend, fluency, and crossing of legs; engagement and self-carriage). If your 10-meter circle is 11 meters, you’ll lose points because an 11-meter circle is easier and then the half-pass is too steep and therefore more difficult. If nothing else, be accurate. Your half-circles should go to the center line, and the subsequent half-passes should go to the letter. If they do, you’ll get a score that’s based on the actual quality of your half-circle and half-pass.

Half-pass is travers (haunches-in) on a diagonal line. When you were at Second Level, you practiced travers on the long side of the arena. Now, don’t get lost on that diagonal line. Pretend there’s a wall there. Point your horse’s nose, ears, and shoulders toward your destination and ride travers. Don’t make the movement harder than it is.

CANTER HALF-PASS: Half-pass is travers on a diagonal line—but unlike in trot, in canter the horse’s legs do not cross. Alice Tarjan rides her German-bred Oldenburg mare Fairouz (Franziskus x Don Frederico) to the 2019 US Dressage Finals Third Level Adult Amateur championship. (

Third Level Test 2 introduces half-pass in canter. Notice that the directives are different: alignment and bend while moving fluently forward and sideways; engagement and self-carriage. Notice that there is no “crossing of legs,” and they want the movement to be “fluent.” The work should always be fluent, of course, but the judges probably see a lot of horses that look like hobbling crabs in this particular movement. Start the canter half-pass in shoulder-fore and ride travers on the line as you did in trot. Again, don’t make it harder than it is.

Renvers. Renvers (haunches-out) is a wonderful straightening exercise. In test 2, your horse must go from shoulder-in to renvers. If that’s difficult, it probably means that your shoulder-in has a fatal flaw—most likely an overbent neck. The directives for each movement are the same: angle, bend, and balance; engagement and self-carriage. The tricky part is that the shoulder-in is a three-track movement (meaning that the horse’s legs are on three “tracks” or lines of travel), while renvers is now four tracks. When you ride the shoulder-in/renvers transition, get the increased angle required for renvers before you change the bend from inside to outside. For a smooth transition, make it gradual, over several strides. The renvers is a double-coefficient movement.

Single flying change. One of the hallmarks of Third Level is that it’s the first time that flying changes are required. That’s a big deal. Teaching flying changes takes patience and time. It often takes a year to quietly confirm the flying changes, so you’ve probably been working on them. In theory, those changes should be manageable if your previous work on counter-canter and simple changes has been on track. The counter-canter should be straight. Check it: Can you easily ride counter-canter in shoulder-fore with a hint of counterflexion? Is the rhythm of the counter-canter bold but balanced? If so, you’re probably on track.

Check your simple changes, too: Can you half-halt and shorten the canter stride without your horse resisting? Do your half-halts add weight to a hind leg (i.e., are they engaged)? How are your upward transitions from walk to canter? Your flying changes won’t be better than those. In fact, whatever goes wrong with the walk-canter transition will also be wrong with the flying change, so work on those simple transitions. The flying changes in Third Level are double-coefficient movements.

Rein back. It has been said that a square halt is the very best collecting exercise. Think about that in the moments before you ask for rein back. Make squareness a way of life, and it will encourage that straightness you need in the steps back. The directives for halt and rein back read immobility; willing steps back with correct rhythm and count; straightness; clear transitions. The rein back directly creates engagement and collection by positioning the hind legs underneath the horse’s body. The challenge is retaining that engagement in the upward “clear transition” (in test 3, into the trot) following the rein back. The rein back is a double-coefficient movement.

The Collective Marks

The collective marks at the end of the dressage test sheet reflect, in a general way, the qualities that were present in the test. As a rule, the average of these marks will be approximately the same as the average of the scores for the actual movements. However, the collectives will probably influence the score slightly up or down.
It’s important to note that the exact wording of these collective marks evolves through the levels, from Intro through Grand Prix. At Third Level, the collective marks are:

  • Gaits (freedom and regularity). The coefficient for this score is 1. Prior to the 2015 US Equestrian test revisions, the gait score had a coefficient of 2, but it was thought that exceptional movement should be less important than correct riding. The change is generally considered a wise one.
  • Impulsion (desire to move forward; elasticity of the steps; suppleness of the back; engagement of the hindquarters). Impulsion has a coefficient of 2. Note that the qualities related to impulsion are not related to speed. That “desire to move forward” is with elasticity, engagement, and suppleness. It is “carrying oneself forward” rather than flinging oneself forward.
  • Submission (willing cooperation; harmony; attention and confidence; acceptance of the bit and aids; straightness; lightness of forehand and ease of movements). Submission is generally lacking when a horse is being shown at a level that is too difficult for him, or when he is disobedient or fearful. Submission is a reflection of the horse’s trust in the rider as well as of his understanding and willingness. The submission score has a coefficient of 2.
  • Rider’s position and seat (alignment; posture; stability; weight placement; following mechanics of the gaits).
  • Rider’s correct and effective use of the aids (clarity; subtlety; independence; accuracy of test). “Effective use of the aids” means that the horse understands the rider’s aids, and that those aids have the correct influence. Each of the rider scores has a coefficient of 1, giving the collective rider influence a coefficient of 2.

The Double Bridle

In all Third Level tests, the double bridle is optional. Some horses are more comfortable in the double. If that’s the case, there’s not much point in being prudish about it, but be sure you’re not using it to keep him on the bit. Most horses are comfortable in the snaffle. If you use a double bridle, be sure that the bridle and bits fit and that you can use the reins properly so that your horse is comfortable.

A Note About Transitions

The purpose of Third Level, as printed on the test sheets, notes that “transitions between collected, medium, and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement.” Third Level functions as a sort of Introductory Level for the FEI levels, with their movements of high collection, such as piaffe, passage, and pirouettes. At Third Level, you’re laying the foundation for playing with the big boys. That’s why these clear transitions are so important. Your horse should go “like butter” from a clear two-beat trot to a clear four-beat walk and then to a three-beat canter and back to a four-beat walk. It’s proof of throughness, a swinging back, a good connection—everything you need to make Third Level great!

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 4 on Second Level click here.

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