By Linda Landis-Heffernan
Photographs by Christina Dale/Phyxius Photos and Hallie Ahrnsbrak
Before flying to Omaha to preside over the dressage judging at the FEI World Cup Finals, US FEI 5* Dressage Judge Janet Foy made time to present a “2023 New Test Symposium” to an assemblage of over 150 eager attendees. Organized by Hallie Ahrnsbrak of the Tri-County Dressage chapter of the Potomac Valley Dressage Association, the event was held on April 1 in the airy indoor arena of the Chesapeake Dressage Institute (CDI) in Annapolis, Maryland. A different rider demonstrated each of the 2023 USEF tests, Training through Fourth Level, which allowed Janet to teach – and the auditors to observe – riders of different skill-levels, and horses of varying breeds and conformations.
Janet has a very rare combination of abilities. As a judge, she focuses on issues with an eagle eye and scores strictly to standard. As an instructor and trainer, she provides solutions to problems, teaching the art of test riding, and dramatically improving horses and riders using exercises from her extensive toolset. She also entertains! With her trademark sense of humor and apt analogies, she conveys criticism lightly, with a sense of fun.
During the tests, Janet regularly announced the score she would assign to a movement. Afterwards, she would coach the rider through movements that needed the most work. Before beginning the next Level’s demonstrations, Janet sipped coffee and responded to written questions. Many of these were asked by the Learner judges in attendance; they collected Continuing Education credits for their participation.
The atmosphere in CDI’s lovely indoor arena was festive as attendees greeted friends and found their seats. Because a light rain was falling at the start of the symposium, riders warmed up in the arena while Janet spoke about the changes in the 2023 tests. As a member of the 2023 Test Writing Committee, Janet has first-hand knowledge of the whys and wherefores of these revisions.
Janet explained that the USEF updates its tests every four years, based on feedback collected from judges and riders. For 2023, changes were made to the “Purpose of the Level” descriptions; to Training Level Tests 1 and 3; to all First Level tests; to the patterns of Second Level Tests 1 and 2; and to all the patterns of Fourth Level. The patterns of the Third Level tests didn’t change, but the flying lead changes now have a coefficient. Fourth Level tests were extensively revised. The 2023 revisions now provide a stepping-stone to Prix St. George at an appropriate level of difficulty.
Before and during the Training Level rides, Janet offered showing advice:
- As you’re riding around the ring before your test, don’t go talk to the judge; the judge is writing up collective remarks from the previous test.
- Do go to the judge if you go off course; don’t talk to your reader.
- Be sure your halt is established before you salute.
- It’s better to turn early onto the center line and leg yield out then to overshoot it.
- Don’t switch your whip — it’s too distracting, particularly in the middle of a diagonal!
Janet noted that “At Training Level, 20-meter circles are always 24-meter ovals. Judges have to say that over and over, and it takes off .5 for accuracy.” Accuracy, she said, is the last thing that a judge looks at. To arrive at a score, the judge starts with the quality of the gaits (Q), then considers the basics (B) of the training scale to adjust the score up or down. Next is the essence (E) of the movement, and then a modifier (M) for accuracy, i.e., Q (+/-B) (+/-E) (+/-M) = Score.
“Show off on the diagonals,” Janet said. In the free walk, follow the horse’s movement with your arms and body. If the poll is at the level of the withers, that’s low enough.
After the Training-3 demonstration, Janet remarked “A very high-quality horse and a beautiful rider who is very tactful.” She said the rider was smart when she didn’t try to chase her horse back into a canter after he broke, telling the audience that: “The horse show should be helping your training, not hurting it. …When judging, we assess how hard the problem is to fix and take off more points for bad problems. That’s why we want judges to be riders and trainers, so we know what’s important.”
“In First-1, we took out the canter lengthening. In First-2, the turn down the center line and the leg yield are combined. In First Level, we now have trot, halt, trot. We take .5 off if you walk out of the halt,” Janet warned.
For the trot lengthening, “Don’t be in a big hurry. Come through the corner, get into shoulder fore, then start the lengthening. In Grand Prix, the horse should come back in a stride or two, but here we just want to see you come back. You can use the lengthening to improve your gait or impulsion score.”
“In both leg yield and half passes, if you go more sideways and not to the letter, you’ll get a deduction.”
For the canter depart, “Use the corner to help you get the bend. Going into the corner will help you prepare for the transition.” Janet gave the rider of First-1 an exercise to help her horse with the corners. Starting in shoulder-fore at the walk, she asked her to halt as soon as her horse’s nose hit the end rail, and only then to make the turn. “Now trot and do it just like that at the trot. Think smaller trot, halt.” When that went well, Janet said “Now canter.” When the horse trotted through the turn, Janet said, “Mistakes are fine; they are training opportunities! This simple thing at First Level is going to affect your zig zags and flying changes in the upper levels, so you might as well train them now.”
For the rider of First-2, Janet offered an exercise to help her long-backed horse halt squarely on the centerline, then trot off promptly. “Think that you’re driving a stretch limo versus a Porsche,” she said. “Big trot first, now sit, small trot, halt. Ready, GO.” Janet also coached them on the stretch circle: “The inside rein is the bending rein, showing him the way to the ground. Leg-yield a bit, then gradually start to lengthen the outside rein. Get a big trot first. Get him forward and up into the contact. Make it black and white to him – the stretch frame versus the up frame.”
To the rider of First-3, Janet advised “Start coming back by P from the canter lengthening.” She asked “When you have a forward horse, how do you teach him to come back from a canter lengthening?” In answer, she worked with the horse and rider through two exercises:
In canter, lengthen to B, then do a 10-meter circle.
Repeat a few times, then take out the circle.
Pick up the canter;
On the diagonal, make a 10-meter circle at trot;
Then canter and finish the diagonal.
“This is a good way to get them strong,” Janet said, “but you have to remember which diagonal you’re on!”
Janet commented that she loved the horse’s trot lengthenings. “He stayed in nice balance and his legs didn’t go out behind.” “Don’t lengthen the frame in the First Level lengthening,” she advised, “It’s better with the neck up.”
Janet began by stating: “At this level, we expect collection to come and go. You can show at Second if you can do the movements in balance and without a struggle.”
During the Second-1 demonstration, Janet offered high marks and positive comments. “She sat really still at the halt,” she enthused, advising her audience to “Just sit still; don’t move around or adjust your underwear!” “Excellent rein back for a 9. Free walk an 8. In the counter canter, we want a little bend in the direction of the lead – a bit of a haunches out feeling. Her only criticisms: “The canter departs could be rounder, and the medium trot could have more power.”
Janet asked the rider to demonstrate her horse’s exceptional rein back for the audience, commenting “She aids and gives and the neck stays up. If you pull them back, you lose the diagonal pairs.”
Before the Second-2 test, Janet noted that:
- Half circles need to be connected by straight lines.
- In the free walk, don’t let the horse get behind the vertical.
- For the turn on the haunches, walk straight a few steps after you finish the turn, then a bit of a diagonal line to the letter.
- There should be three to five steps of walk in the simple changes.
- The medium trot is the trot that comes most off the ground. It’s the trot from which you should train the passage.
After Second-2, Janet asked the rider to sit improperly in the counter canter, to demonstrate to the audience how this adversely affected the movement. “The haunches have to be on the line of travel,” she cautioned. She remarked that “Second Level is the great black hole of training. If you can’t get a high score of 68-70% in four or five tests, you’re not ready to move up.”
“At Second Level, we now have counter canter. In the old days, counter canter was used to improve the canter. Now we have such good, young, talented horses, that we should play with the flying changes first. Then go back and do counter canter.”
In the turn on the haunches during the Second-3 test, Janet noted that the horse stayed active, but that the shoulders needed to turn more quickly. “The left hind has to come up under your seat and then you turn. I don’t mind if he sticks because sticking is not his problem. He has to learn to bring the left hind under your seat. Make sure the wall, the barrier is up on the outside leg.” After the test, Janet helped the rider improve the movement with an exercise: “Shoulder-in on a circle; collect the walk a bit, and turn. The turning aid is only your weight and the outside rein.”
Concerning the counter canter, Janet observed that “Our brain is never right. If we think we’re going to lose our counter canter, we tend to bend the neck more. What keeps them in the counter canter is the outside rein and the leg behind the girth. Keep the bend and push the ‘caboose’ to the rail; push the haunches out.” Janet had the rider work on this, followed by a suppling exercise at the canter. “He needs to be supple enough to canter while bending the neck and keeping his haunches out.”
Second Level was followed by a lunch break. Attendees queued up for a catered buffet lunch featuring a sumptuous spread of sandwiches, wraps, and salads.
“Janet is straightforward and matter-of-fact. She gets right to the problem.”Rider Ulla Parker, praising Janet Foy’s approach
Janet noted that there were no changes made to the Third Level patterns. “We liked Third Level,” Janet said. “It’s fair to riders and horses.”
She then spoke about using the double bridle versus the snaffle. “The double is supposed to be used by more skilled riders,” she said. Also, “It takes more power from the hind end to support the double bridle.”
During the Third-1 demonstration, Janet cautioned “Don’t square up in the rein back before going forward.” She awarded both flying changes scores of 8, and noted that the extended trot needed more risk. “The extended trot goes most over the ground.” In the medium trot, “Everything we take away in length we gain in height.”
Regarding the half pass: “All of you are in a big hurry to go sideways, and the haunches are usually leading,” Janet chided. “Ride a half halt. Say, ‘No, you can’t go sideways until I put the half pass aid on.’” Janet had the rider get a collected trot with energy, then ride shoulder-in on the center line while keeping the tempo. “Think shoulder-in first, then half halt, then half pass. I have never said ‘Rider spent too much time in preparation’ or ‘Too many half halts!’ The rest of the test I liked a lot. She knows her job; you don’t need to push her sideways.”
During the Third-2 test, Janet commented that she likes renvers as a training exercise rather than as a show movement. “If your horse is lazy, don’t show Third Level-2, since you have two movements in a row that collect them.” She noted that the horse was leaning on the reins a bit and losing impulsion in the renvers. “Renvers is harder; it’s four tracks and shoulder-in is only three.”
Regarding the shoulder-in to renvers transition, Janet said “Here’s the trick: don’t shift your weight. In shoulder-in, your leg is at the girth. For renvers, first move the inside leg back. The outside leg becomes the inside leg and goes ‘tap tap’ to get the bend. We want both hinges [forehand and haunches] equally bent around the inside leg.”
“Same thing at the half pass — we want the ‘caboose’ wrapped around the leg. Put your thigh in the hollow part of the horse. From the front, we want to see the horse’s head and neck hiding the rider’s thigh.”
Janet recommended that the rider train her horse to keep his shoulder up into the outside rein by riding half pass, shoulder-in, half pass. “Do a pirouette canter before the rein release,” she advised. “Release means you push the hands forward towards the horse’s mouth.”
Third-3 – “Judges really like this test,” Janet said. At the halt, “If they step back a whole stride, the score will go down.” In the medium or extended trot, “If the horse canters, the first time it’s a 5, the second time it’s a 4.” Flying changes: “If the legs are together behind in the change, it’s a 5. Why do horses think flying changes are so exciting? They’re so funny!”
For the half pass, “You have to be able to create a 4-track bend; do not try this with a horse below Third Level. By Third Level, the horse should follow your weight. The inside rein should be away from the neck.” Coaching the half pass, Janet instructed the rider to “1) prepare, 2) half halt, 3) ride it, 4) finish it. Get his ribcage off the leg. He has to be a little bit like, ‘Oh, this is hard.’ He takes advantage of you because you’re not controlling where his rib cage is.” She noted that “Dutch Harness Horses often have their necks up and their backs down, and can be difficult to ride. The best way to help these guys get the connection is by lots of bending, working on lateral suppleness.”
Before the first Fourth Level ride, Janet spoke to the numerous revisions made to these tests, which many riders considered as difficult as Prix St. Georges. “The problem was that we had no one in the classes,” she said. “Judges couldn’t move up because there weren’t enough people in the classes to get their required judging experience. So, we took out the shoulder-in on the centerline; it’s now on the rail. The extended walk is now on the diagonal and the extended canter is before the pirouettes.”
As the Fourth-1 demonstration began, Janet said “Think about the halt at X from the collected canter as a snowflake hitting the ground.” Then, “We want to see the same medium trot before and after the collected trot at X.”
“Now we have walk pirouettes,” Janet said. “They are smaller than turns-on-the-haunches and are supposed to be active. Walk pirouettes are related to piaffe. If the horse does good ones, he can probably piaffe.”
“Push alternate legs to get the nose down at the extended walk,” Janet advised. She noted a “super collected canter; it didn’t slow down and the horse lowered her haunches.”
“Start to collect at P [from the extended canter],” she said. “Make sure she’s straight before the flying changes.”
Janet remarked that the mare “does some really nice things. Since she can sit, you have a tool you can use.” Janet offered an exercise to improve transitions within the canter: “Ride collected canter, pirouette canter, medium canter, pirouette canter, then back to collected canter.” Addressing the audience, she said “Judges see the worst transitions eight hours a day. Why are judges so grumpy? It’s your fault! Show the difference by going from medium to pirouette canter.”
Regarding Fourth-2, Janet said:
- We want to see the extended canter go to the quarter line.
- The change after the half pass should still be on the diagonal line. We want to see the horse sit first, then change.
- Divide the tempi changes into half before and half after the centerline.
- Lower the neck in the extended walk. The poll should be level with the withers.
After the Fourth-2 demonstration, Janet commented that this was “a horse that’s in the right balance.” She noted that the left half-passes could be improved. “Get him wrapped around your inside leg. As soon as he goes sideways, then bring the haunches over, then bring the nose over. Don’t worry about impulsion.” After they worked on this, Janet said “Did you see how the front legs came up and were super expressive? The trot became really beautiful!”
“You need to make the trot a little faster in tempo,” she advised. “Change from shoulder in to haunches-in and get him really wrapped around your inside leg.”
The demonstration horse for Fourth-3 was a 21-year-old Friesian. Janet commented that his hind legs could stay more under his body in the half pass. “Take a 3-4 track bend and then go sideways,” she instructed the rider. “You know some movements won’t get more than a 6, so put money in the bank in shoulder-in and half pass.”
Janet also noted that there is “no benefit in making the working pirouettes so small. We are not counting strides in the schooling pirouettes. It’s more a question of control – do I have control of every stride of the canter?” She advised the rider to “do the half pirouette as close to the letter as you can,” because the flying change that follows it “should be on the diagonal line” and you need enough room.
After Janet answered final questions from the audience, she signed copies of the updated edition of her book “Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse” for those lucky attendees who had snagged copies before they sold out. Then, as a finale, organizer Hallie Ahrnsbrak drew tickets and awarded door prizes from the generous sponsors Bit of Luck Equine, Dover Saddlery, Misty Mints, Ride Times, and The Distinguished Rider.
Janet Foy is an FEI 5* Dressage Judge, Young Horse Judge, and a USEF “S” Dressage Judge. She has judged all major shows in the U.S. and Canada, and has traveled around the world to judge important shows, including the Paris World Cup Finals in 2018, the 2019 European Championships in Rotterdam, and the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. Janet is a former member of the ASHSA and USEF Board of Directors and a former Board Member for USDF. She currently serves on the Dressage Sport Committee and the International Disciplines Council, and is a member of the USDF “L” Faculty.