by Bobbi Carleton
The word dressage comes from the French term meaning “training”. Our main purpose when riding dressage is to educate the horse to become as strong and supple as possible for that horse. It is the athletic development of the horse. So, while not all horses, just like people, are capable of Olympic level dressage, it can benefit ALL horses (and riders!)
Often in conversations regarding dressage, the term “The Pyramid of Training” comes up. At the bottom half of this pyramid are rhythm, suppleness, and contact (or connection). The upper tier includes impulsion, straightness, and ultimately collection.
When training we don’t simply focus on one aspect and then the next. The lower tier of directives are extremely important, and they intermingle. And, even at the lower levels, impulsion is very important, and straightness develops with strength.
Competition dressage is divided into ten levels, from training level up to Grand Prix (the Olympic level test). Up to fourth level are our national tests. The upper level, or FEI (international level) tests are the same throughout the world, so a Grand Prix test performed in the US is the same one shown in Europe.
In the national levels, each level has 3 different tests, which increase in difficulty as they progress. The test sheets have “directives” for each movement. If you look at these you can see what the judge will be looking for in each movement.
Often, when a rider gets back their test, they feel like the comments are negative. Realistically, the judge has very little time in which to formulate the score and the comment for each and every movement. The rider is better served being told what’s missing in order for the score to improve. An example- “Nice circle, 7.0” is of little help.
“Accurate, but trot could be more active and supple, 7.0” let’s you know why the score wasn’t higher. The judge is really just a mirror of your ride. It makes a judge very happy to be able to watch a nice ride and give higher marks. When things are not going as well, it is the judge’s job to score it correctly, but it is not fun when one needs to give low marks! I think most judges are sympathetic to how hard it is to put together a lovely test, and feel for riders when someone is having a difficult day.
Many rides at schooling dressage shows are at the lower levels- Introductory, Training level, and first level. Most riders that I see could improve their tests with simple corrections that anyone can make. First of all, KNOW YOUR TEST! Even if someone is reading for you, try your best to memorize your test. It is very difficult to make smooth transitions or place your circles correctly if you aren’t sure when and where things need to happen! Speaking of those circles, make them ACCURATE!! So many times, circles are flat pancakes or long ovals. They should be ROUND!! The other important factor is to ride with the right amount of energy for your horse. We don’t want to see gaits that are too slow or too quick. We want to see active gaits in a correct and lively tempo. And that tempo is different for each horse.
Dressage, for me, is so engaging and exciting simply because all horses and all riders can continually improve. It’s so exciting when a horse and/or a rider “get” a new concept, or master a new movement. But don’t rest on your laurels too long . . . there is ALWAYS more to learn!