Nailing It! Riding with Success Through the Levels – Part 6

FOURTH LEVEL BALANCE: Connecticut-based FEI-level dressage trainer Liz Caron is riding Schroeder, a Hanoverian stallion (Sandro Hit x Escudo I) owned by Kathy Hickerson of Majestic Gaits. Liz is showing Schroeder’s Fourth Level frame and balance.

Based on USDF’s On the Levels videos. Part 6: Fourth Level.

Story and Photographs by Beth Baumert

Reprinted from the September/October 2020 issue of USDF Connection magazine.

The Purpose of Fourth Level

To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics and has developed sufficient suppleness, impulsion, and throughness to perform the Fourth Level tests, which have a medium degree of difficulty. The horse remains reliably on the bit, showing a clear uphill balance and lightness as a result of improved engagement and collection. The movements are performed with greater straightness, energy, and cadence than at Third Level.

Fourth Level, the highest of the national dressage levels in the USA, is the training ground for the big time. There are quite a few new movements at Fourth Level, but if your basic work has been good so far, you can bask in your ability to master Fourth Level and then make the leap to the FEI Prix St. Georges a successful one.

Now that you’ve come this far in our series, you can see how the tests help us train our horses. The tests tell us what the horse normally should do and when he should do it. The pyramid of dressage training and the US Equestrian dressage rules supplement these guidelines by telling us why we do what we’re doing and, to an extent, they tell us how.

By the time your horse reaches Fourth Level, he might be at least seven or eight years old, and assuming he did well at the previous levels, he’ll rise to this occasion, too. The Fourth Level tests are of “medium difficulty”: that is, if your horse’s foundation is strong and your foundation is strong, the tests are not too difficult.

As it was at Third Level, the double bridle is optional at Fourth.

How Half-Halts Work

Half-halts balance your horse underneath you by connecting and collecting him. A half-halt has three parts. They are:

  1. Your seat and leg ask your horse’s hind legs to step directly under your center of gravity and reach toward and into the contact (“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 (“Whoa. Don’t flatten, stiffen, or speed up.”) You want his forehand to cover less ground than it is inclined to cover. As a result of this “whoa” aid, you transfer 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.
    Half-halts should make your horse more active, more supple, and better connected—all of which will make him more ridable.

A Look at the Fourth Level Tests

Test 1, movement 1. Pay special attention to the first movement after the entrance in Test 1: a medium trot on the diagonal, with six or seven strides of collected trot over X. It’s a double-coefficient movement, but it’s nothing new, right? After all, you’ve been collecting the trot at the end of the diagonal or the long side for a long time. However, in those situations, you have the rail and the corner to help you. Now you need to be able to shorten the stride purely on your own, without the help of the corner. You need to maintain the activity, the rhythm, and the swing in the back during those collected strides. Your half-halts (see “How Half-Halts Work” on the facing page) are how you’ll get that job done.

The medium-collected-medium trot is the movement that best prepares you and your horse for piaffe—for which you need to do the exact same thing: shorten the stride while maintaining the activity, the rhythm, and the swing in the back. Personally, I wish that the directive ideas for this movement mentioned “swing in the back,” because if we choose to consider this movement as preparation for piaffe (and why not?), swing in the back is a critical quality.

Do this medium-collected-medium trot movement well. The Fourth Level demonstration rider in the USDF On the Levels videos, Ana Gilmour, provides us with a good example. The judge in the video, Natalie Lamping, gave Ana a score of 7.5 for this movement. Ana’s mount, Nicole Wertz’s Ellexus Knight, retained the rhythm, activity, and swing in the back. How did she do that? Review the sidebar on half-halts and transitions from the second article in this series (January/February)—yes, the one about Training Level. This is what we mean by the basics in dressage. The basics never change, no matter how far up the levels you go.

How Transitions Work

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

Half-halts balance your horse. Then, to make a transition, half-halts ask for a change of rhythm or—in the case of the medium trot/collected trot/medium trot movement in Fourth Level Test 1—they ask for a change in the length of stride.

Transition between medium and collected trot and canter on a 20-meter circle

Try this: Practice the transition between medium trot and collected trot on an accurate 20-meter circle. The bend in your horse’s body will help you keep his back swinging during the half-halts that shorten his stride.

To begin the exercise, develop medium trot on the circle. Between the two quarter lines, shorten the stride to collection (see diagram at right). Look for the qualities you want. Are the rhythm and tempo the same? Did the activity stay the same? Does his back still swing? Be sure that your leg and seat are doing more than your hand so that the rhythmic half-halts create collection that is more forward, not less forward. Ride this exercise in both directions.

Next, try the exercise in canter, making the transitions between collected canter and “very collected canter” as is required in movement 23 of Test 1. (See “Very collected canter” below.)

Your transitions will become better with time!

The new movements and requirements in the Fourth Level tests include:

Collected walk. In previous levels, the walk was uncollected, with only a brief “shortening of the stride” before movements such as turns on the haunches. We just talked about shortening the stride within the medium trot in Fourth Level Test 1. To ride collected walk, you need to do the same thing: maintain the activity, the rhythm, and the integrity of the use of the back. When the horse loses the integrity of the use of his back, it causes the rhythm problems that are all too common in the walk. So again, your half-halts need to shorten the stride in a forward way. From the USEF dressage rules: Although “the steps cover less ground, they are higher than at the medium walk because the activity is retained and the joints bend more markedly.”

The collected walk has a double coefficient.

“Very collected canter.” In exactly the same way that you shortened the stride from medium to collected trot and walk, you’ll now do it even more so in canter to create a “very collected canter,” as required in Fourth Level, Test 1 (another double-coefficient movement). Collection is much easier in canter because the nature of the canter stride invites collection more so than the trot and the walk strides. That’s why these dressage tests provide greater preparation for canter pirouettes than for piaffe (which is essentially a trot movement), and that’s why canter pirouettes appear earlier within the FEI tests than does the piaffe.

“VERY COLLECTED CANTER”: This Fourth Level requirement is the necessary prep for canter pirouettes. The slack in Liz’s inside rein proves that Schroeder is in self-carriage.

Walk pirouettes. In the walk pirouette—a more “on the spot” version of the turn on the haunches, which was introduced at Second Level—the horse’s hindquarters can prescribe a one-meter circle. The radius of the pirouette is “equal to the length of the horse, the forehand moving around the haunches” (see the US Equestrian dressage rules for a more thorough description—which can help you!).

The judge evaluates the walk pirouette based on its directive ideas, which are “regularity [of the rhythm]; activity of the hind legs; bend; fluency; size; self-carriage.” Walk pirouettes are double-coefficient movements.

US FEI 5* dressage judge Janet Foy reminds us that “the frame of the collected walk is higher and has more activity” than that of the medium walk. If you have succeeded in achieving a correct collected walk, she says, “The pirouettes won’t be hard.” She also suggests utilizing all of the space between H and M so as to give yourself the maximum chance for preparation.

Multiple flying changes on the diagonal. Fourth Level Test 1 requires three single flying changes of lead on the diagonal (H-X-F), placing the changes near the quarter lines and near X. The directives read: “quality of canter; clear, balanced, fluent, straight flying changes; engagement.”

To the extent that your half-halts can retain the quality of your forward, balanced, and straight canter after the flying changes, these sequence changes will become easier, you will be able to do them whenever you wish, and they will become genuine tempi changes. These are double-coefficient movements.

Working quarter- and half-pirouettes in canter. In Fourth Level Test 2, your horse is required to show working quarter-pirouettes; and in Test 3, working half-pirouettes. Here’s what the rule book has to say about these movements:

The requirements for a working half-pirouette [or quarter-pirouette] are identical to those of a regular half-pirouette, except that the allowable diameter for ‘working’ is increased to approximately three meters. The directives read: “bend and balance of working pirouette; straightness, regularity, engagement, and collection of canter.”

COUNTER-CHANGE OF HAND: Liz rides trot half-pass left, the first half of the counter-change of hand in Fourth Level Test 2
Counter-change of hand as shown in Fourth Level Test 2

To prepare, you’ll need to ride one or two highly collected canter strides before the quarter-turn (90 degrees and two to three pirouette strides) or the half-turn (180 degrees and three to four strides). Both are double-coefficient movements.

Counter-change of hand in trot and canter. Fourth Level Test 2 requires a counter-change of hand (two half-passes with changes of direction) in trot and in canter (see diagram above). (A movement containing more than two half-passes with changes of direction is referred to as a “zigzag.”)

The trot counter-change not only gets a double coefficient; it is also more than one movement. In all counter-changes (and zigzags), it’s important that the horse be balanced and straight for a moment before changing direction. The directives for the trot movement are “alignment, bend, fluency and crossing of legs; engagement and collection.” In canter, the directives are “alignment and bend while moving fluently forward and sideways; engagement and collection.” Note that crossing of legs occurs only in trot half-pass, not in canter half-pass.

Ten-meter half-circles from true lead to counter-canter, followed by a flying change back to the true lead.

Ten-meter half-circle in counter-canter. This movement (see diagram on the previous page) was in the FEI Prix St. Georges test many years ago. Some of the trainers of that day still use this movement because it is a wonderful balancing and straightening tool that requires correct collection. In the On the Levels video, USDF Instructor/Trainer Program senior faculty member Rachel Saavedra reminds us to concentrate on the horse’s straightness to assist in collecting the canter. The directive ideas for this movement are: “shape and size of half-circles; positioning; self-carriage; engagement; clear, balanced, fluent, straight flying change.”

Looking Back at “the Basics”

No matter where your horse is within the levels, the articles in this series have told the whole story—from start-to-finish, Intro-to-Fourth—for your understanding. It needs to be in your mind before you can successfully execute your horse’s plan.

Look, once again, at the purpose of the Introductory Level tests: You must prove that you have “an understanding of riding your horse forward with a steady tempo into an elastic contact with independent, steady hands and a correct balanced seat.” And you must “show proper geometry of figures in the arena with correct bend (corners and circles).” That’s a large order!

Returning to these early requirements is what we in dressage call “going back to basics.” Throughout the levels, these basic qualities should improve instead of weakening. As you move up from Intro to Training Level, your goal is to show that your horse is “supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.” Next, the First Level horse develops thrust or impulsion, all while those previous basics are being confirmed and reconfirmed. Second and Third Levels develop additional straightness, balance, and throughness, and confirm collection.

By the time you get to Fourth Level, the qualities of the pyramid of training and the purposes for which you ride have remained in the back of your mind for years, and your horse is considered to have “good basics.” No matter his age, breed, or temperament, he wears that education, and it is clearly visible to the judge and to onlookers, as well.

Wherever your horse is currently on his dressage journey, check out the path you’ve already travelled as well as the path in front of you. Trust in the process, get help when you need it from someone you trust, and enjoy the journey!

Get On the Levels

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. Comments from respected judges help you understand what the judge is looking for in each movement. Together the videos constitute a comprehensive course in dressage training and showing through the US national levels. Get your copy today!

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.

To read part 5 on Third Level click here.

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