Some riders lose marks completely unnecessarily by inaccurate riding of the arena figures as laid down in the test. There are guidelines in the rule books of the various governing bodies and it surprises me that, when asked, people admit to not having read them.
Before we begin with the various movements and ways of earning (or at least not losing) points, let’s look at some simple tips and wrinkles.
A point of etiquette: You will be given a start time for your test. You cannot be made to begin your test any earlier than the time you were allotted. However, if one or more competitors due to ride before you have withdrawn and—the crucial point here—if you feel you are ready, you may offer to ride ahead of your slot. Don’t feel guilty that by not riding earlier you’ll be holding people up—you won’t.
Occasionally it works the other way and things begin to run behind schedule. An offer to ride earlier than planned will not get you any extra marks, but it will make you very popular with the organisers.
If you miss your allocated time, you will most likely not be allowed to ride, unless you have extreme mitigating circumstances - and it won’t delay the competition.
At an unaffiliated competition the first thing you usually do, when called forward by the ring steward for your test, is to ride up to the judge’s box or car and tell him / her your number, or your and your horse’s names.
For affiliated competition where the judge already has your details, you are not allowed to enter the arena until the signal to start your test and if you do you can have two marks deducted for that infringement.
However, (for both unaff & aff) where a 40m x 20m arena has been set up within a 60m x 20m arena, as is the case with many indoor schools, or the 60m x 20m fills all the available space—then you should be permitted to ride in the entire arena before the signal to start your test.
This can prove extremely useful if you have a spooky horse as you can use the time wisely to make sure he has chance for a good look around.
If the arena is set up as outlined above, you’re usually given the option of entering at A from inside or outside the arena.
This is where knowing your horse’s strengths and weaknesses can come into play. Would he make a better entry by being ridden straight down the centre line from outside, or would be able to get a better start by using the corner (think which rein he would make a better turn on) to set up your approach?
When you hear the signal to start (usually a bell or a car horn), don’t panic if you’re down by the judge! You have 45 seconds from the sounding of the bell to entering the arena at A. If you’re already by A when you hear it, use the time for one more circle, if you think that will help set you up, or change the rein to come in off your better side.
Ok, so the signal to start has sounded and you’re following the first instruction on the test sheet:
A - Enter at working trot
A good tip here is to look up over the judge’s head as this can help immeasurably with your perception of the straightness of your line.
It doesn’t hurt to have the tiniest bit of a smile on your face as this can help to prevent you becoming tense—and remember to breathe!
So, you’ve caught the judge’s attention with your straight entry, now impress him/her with your halt!
X - Halt. Immobility. Salute
You need to be thinking about your halt as soon as you come down the centreline.
If you weave your way down the centreline like a drunken sailor, you’ll probably halt like one, too!Â
Keep your horse straight by riding him down a chute created by your hands and legs. Any transition is only as good as what came before it, so make sure your horse is moving forwards with athletic springy steps. Depending on your horse’s level of training, the aids for the halt may come on three strides before the horse will actually stop or you may need to be half-halting all the way down the centreline.
Sit up (small pelvic tilt keeping the shoulders over the seat bones) and think of pushing your pelvis (and seat bones to the front of the saddle). The attitude of your body tells the horse what you require of him and he should ‘soften’ into the halt by flexing his hocks and taking the weight back into his quarters and then releasing his neck forwards into your passively receiving hands. If you ‘hang on‘ for too long the horse will use his neck to brace and balance himself on his forehand through your support in the hand /reins.
When the horse has come to a complete standstill you give your salute and I’ve seen some weird and wonderful variations on this simple directive. Although it doesn’t actually say in the rules that you should place your reins in your left hand and drop your right, convention has it that you would ‘salute’ in the armed forces with the right hand and this is the practice best followed unless you need to carry a whip in your right hand.
Take your time with the salute. Make sure your horse is standing still before quietly transferring the right rein into the left hand. Then as you drop your right arm, make sure that you just let it hang down vertical from your shoulder, so that your hand falls behind your thigh and drop your chin to your chest keeping your body upright. There is no need to put your arm right out behind you and bend from the waist. The instruction is salute not bow!
As you lift your head make eye contact with the judge, who should acknowledge your salute as a signal to begin your test. Take the reins quietly back into both hands and:
Proceed at working trot
C - Track left
Again, pay attention to straightness - ride your horse through the ‘chute’—and as the directive is to track left at C have him flexed slightly to the left as he will already know that that is your intended direction so that you don’t surprise him at the last moment. I’ve seen horses weaving left and right on the move off trying to second guess which way they are supposed to be going at C.
Make sure as you approach the turn that you don’t allow the horse to swing out to the right. Sit straight and take your inside shoulder back and control the horse with you outside rein. Pulling on the inside rein only serves to unbalance the horse and probably put him too deep at the poll.
The better balanced and schooled your horse is the more marks you should be able to get by showing the judge that you know that the instruction is track left (not ride a half 10m circle left). Conventionally and certainly classically, these simple turns (where you’re asked to ride through a 90 degree turn) are performed by riding a quarter of a circle of approximately 6 metres diameter which equates to three steps of the horse’s inside hind. This would make track left a quarter of a 6m circle followed by a stride or two of straight into another quarter of a 6m circle at the corner. (Incidentally, this riding of a quarter of a 6m volte—three steps of the inside hind applies to all any corner and in all gaits so is definitely something to be working towards.)
However, trying to ride a less balanced horse this deep into a turn will cause problems and a judge would rather see a nicely ridden half 10m circle than a poorly ridden quarter volte.
E - Circle left 20m diameter
After the challenge of the first simple turn comes a lovely easy 20m circle, you might think. In fact a 20m circle is one of the most difficult shapes to ride well. A circle started at A or C must pass over X and this might seem relatively easy, but you have to be careful not to ride into the corner as if ‘going large’.
The circle started at E must touch the track at B. Note ‘touch the track’. One stride as you pass B; there are no straight lines in a circle so don’t ride along the rail. Another very vital point to help you retain marks is that any movement begins as your leg passes the mark not your horse’s head.
You can practice riding 20m circles at home by first breaking it down into two half 20m circles and counting the number of steps of the inside hind it takes to get you ‘out’ around one half and then back ‘in’ on the other. You can take it further—and make it more accurate by breaking the circle down into quarters and seeing how many steps it takes to get around each one. The average number of strides per quarter is 6 or 7 which would mean your horse would take 24 or 28 steps of the inside hind to complete a 20m circle. The number of strides in canter is, you might be surprised to hear, the same. This is for a ‘working’ gait. Collected work will require more steps; extended fewer.
Develop the feel for what the bend on a 20m circle feels like and they become much easier to ride accurately. You learn to create the bend and then just continue to ride it - without making any changes as you go around the circle—and the horse will return to track at the same place that he left it.
E K A - Working trot
A relatively simple instruction you might think. All you have to do is trot from E past K and on to A when the next instruction is given. But look what comes between E and A, a corner! Each and every corner is an opportunity to check for straightness and rebalance the horse—and not just in a dressage test! Also, on top of that—in Germany—all the letters, but especially the K, H, M and F are known as (Halbe) Parade Punkte (half-halt points). So, at those letters you check, straighten and rebalance through the corner.
A - Serpentine 3 loops, each to go to the side of the arena finishing at C on the left rein
Now this is not anywhere near as easy to ride well as it sounds. To start with the shape of a serpentine in the FEI and UK dressage rule books is defined as consisting of: half circles connected by straight lines. When crossing the centreline the horse should be parallel with the short side. Depending on the size of the half circles the straight connection varies in length.
For training purposes it may be of value to ride the serpentine as an egg-timer shape so that you can fit many more into an exercise, but for competition they must be as laid down above.
In the 20m x 40m arena it asks for three loops beginning at A. That means your first half circle starts at A, not once you’ve ridden through the corner, as is so often seen.
But, the biggest error made by the vast majority of riders is that they complete mis-ride the loops.
When looking at dressage geometry, study the diagrams carefully. With the 3-loop serpentine there are some that give the impression that the apex of the first and last loops are opposite the letters 6m out from the corner.
However, if you divide 40 by 3 you get 13.333, which tells you that the diameter of the half circle is 13 1/3 metres. If you look at the diagram above, you can see that it is divided into blocks of 5 square metres. The letters K, H, M and F are placed 6m in from the corner so your half circle needs to go beyond them to be large enough. If you use the letters as the top of your circle the end ones will only be 12m and the middle one 16m hence the oft seen comment of ‘loops of unequal size’€ť!
This exercise, shown right, can help to gauge the correct size of the half circles required. Ride each as a full 13m circle before changing the rein.
Also note that the figure begins at A. Too many people ride into the corner and think of beginning the first half circle at K!
Remember to change flexion as you cross the centreline and if using rising trot change diagonals too.
Well, now yourre coming out of the third loop at C and you have to begin to think about your upcoming canter transition.
Between C & H Working canter left
Don’t forget to ride into the corner and use the opportunity to check your horse’s bend and balance with a half-halt. It’s your choice—knowing your horse—whether you choose to canter going in to the corner—just past C—or wait until coming out before H. To avoid the judge’s comment; ‘jumped into canter’, I find asking for a touch of shoulder fore very useful for seeing if the horse is paying attention to the leg. If he moves his shoulder in, he will be alert to the canter aid that follows. He won’t ‘jump’ from having been ambushed by an unexpected aid.
There is quite a lot that can go wrong with the canter, for example it can be flat or lacking expression. The judge may also use the term that the canter lacks jump which seems a little at odds with the expression used above. The judge may describe the horse as not stepping through or not far enough under or, more commonly, quarters out.
If you gain control of the hind quarters and straighten the horse (by judicious use of a little shoulder fore) and so bring your horse to travelling much straighter, the other negative comments may disappear along with his crookedness.
A - Circle left 20 metres diameter
This is an easy circle as the ‘points’ are much more easily defined than the open circles at B and E. Here you have X as your opposite point to A (or C) so it’s a matter of counting the strides out and back in, just like in the circle shown left.
Beware of the corner letters; the ‘touch’ points on the track are not next to these letters, they are at the halfway point between E (and B) and A.
Riding the 20m circle as a diamond can teach you where the touch points are. Ride to the ‘corners’of the diamond and turn and then gradually remove the corners so the shape turns into the perfect 20m circle.
A F B -Working canter
Between B & M - Half circle left 15m diameter returning to the track between B & F
Other than quarters leading or quarters in comments, you’re likely to see a note about the incorrect size of the loop. For the former comments think shoulder fore and for the latter, see diagram below.
A 15m half circle just touches the quarter line half way between C or A and the rail and then returns to the track on an incline. The closer to M you leave the track and the closer to F that you return the easier the movement is for the horse to perform.
It is the precursor to counter canter and it tells the judge that you can sit in the correct way to keep the horse on the left lead without it volunteering to change legs because he can see the change of rein coming.
It’s worth mentioning that although the shape is called a ‘half circle left 15m’ to ride it accurately you have to ride slightly more than half a circle to make the return to the track a smooth movement.
F - Working trot
Whilst the accuracy of transitions at the designated marker are of vital importance, I think you are better off showing the judge a very clear, smooth transition a little early on a demanding movement like this rather than an ‘accurate’ (in terms of where it happened) one that shows resistance and imbalance.
You can impress the judge with your accuracy at the next marker.
A - Medium walk
Aim to make your transitions seamless. A trot into walk should flow without any little hiccups as the horse brakes and then jerks forward again into walk.
K X M - Change rein at free walk on a long rein
This is one of the Big Money movements that can gain you a hatful of points when you ride it correctly!
The first thing to do is read the instruction. It states ‘free walk on a long rein’. It does not say loose. Many times riders just drop the reins quickly in the hope that the horse will stretch his neck. If the horse does react to this, it is usually by dropping the neck at the base of the withers and falling on his forehand. It doesn’t fool the judge.
Keep the walk active and slowly slip the reins through your fingers. A correctly trained horse will take the bit down gradually with no snatching or jerking. The horse’s mouth stays in contact with the rider’s hand. The judge wants to see the neck telescoping out and down and that the prints of the hind feet are stepping well over those of the front.
The other difficult aspect is the pick up of the reins. You’ll probably be quite surprised if you monitor how you do this yourself. Invariably the first length of rein taken up is a large one as to get the horse back ‘on the bit’ asap. But how many times do you see the horse just hollow his back and shorten his neck?
If you rode the free walk correctly, your horse was never off the bit. To pick him up again, keep the forwardness of the walk and pick up a short length of rein and then shorten again - and once more, if necessary. This way you keep your horse’s neck out in front of you and he lifts and arches instead of jamming it back into his shoulders.
C- Working Trot
So, your horse is back up and into the bridle and as you pass C you ask for trot. Donâ€t forget to ride into the corner and use it to asses your horses responsiveness (half halt) and bend.
E- Circle left 15m
This is a relatively easy circle to ride once you know where the touch points are. And when you know what a 15m circle (or for that matter a 20m or a 10m one) feels like you won’t be tempted to just follow in the tracks left by other horses. Who said they rode it correctly!
K A F - Working Trot
F X H - Change the rein and show some medium trot strides
Don’t get ahead of yourself and start worrying about the upcoming medium trot strides. Use the two corners beforehand to collect (half halt) your horse, and make sure that he is bending off the leg. Get as deep into the second corner as is manageable for your horse as this will really help to set him up for the medium strides.
The two most likely negative comments seen here as usually, no lengtheing shown, or rushing.
Here, you have to know your horse very well. Would he show better lengthening by asking him to extend as soon as he comes out of the corner, or would you do better by waiting a few strides, and use them to prepare him a little more, before asking for medium.
If your horse doesn’t do great medium trot—yet—use the two previous corners to collect the trot (making sure that you don’t lose any activity) to a litle below working and then ask for a little above working as you ross the diagonal. You can’t fool all the judges with this one, but at least they get to see a difference in strides.
Rushing is caused by the horse being asked to speed up instead of lengthen. He will often ‘forge’ (catch a front shoe with a hind one) or break the purity of the trot gait.
The tempo (rhythm) of the trot doesn’t change from collected into working or extension. What changes is the length of the stride. In collection the horse comes into a more rounded, elevated outline and although the steps taken are shorter they do not lose their activity and impulsion. In extension, the whole outline lengthens a little and the horse may lower his neck slightly as he ‘reaches’ out into the bridle.
Just because you see many riders tilting the top of their pelvis backwards as they lean behind the vertical with their shoulders doesn’t mean it it a good example to copy. You must aim to stay on the crest of the wave of energy that you have created for the extension. That means sitting up and keeping a neutral pelvis—effectively keping yourself out of the horse’s way. Until you can sit and ‘go with’ the, sometimes considerable, power created (and unless the instruction is that all trot work must be performed sitting), it can be prudent to change from sitting to rising trot for the medium strides. You must still pay great attention to staying up and forwards with the horse; no slumping!
A training exercise is to pick two points on the long side of your arena (cones can be quite useful) and count how many strides your horse does between these two points in his working trot. (You should count the number of times his inside hind touches down.) Count many times so that it is in your head. Next ask him to collect. He should put several more strides than in his working trot (but do not be too hasty to shorten him too early). Aim to add strides little by little.
The opposite goes for extension; the horse takes fewer strides between the two markers. Again, increase his ability little by little, and remember, the quality of the extension is determined by the quality of the collected work. A horse can’t extend if he can’t collect.
The instruction is show some medium strides, so there is no need to use up the whole of the diagonal. Once the horse is over X, you need to be thinking about having him smoothly back to working trot by H.
H C M B - Working trot
Two corners available here for rebalancing prior to the upcoming two half 10m circles.
B - Half circle right 10m diameter to X
X - Half circle left 10 m diameter to E
Another movement that isn’t as difficult as some people make it look! Practice riding single half 10m circles on to the centre line, then do one by turning early on to the centre line, ride straight for a few strides and turn off the centre line the opposite way to the way you turned on to it. Get the two half circles to the point where there is only one straight stride as you change flexion and bend and you have the movement above!
A - Down centre line
One more half 10m circle to execute (if you can ride three stride corners, do so) to turn down the centre line, but it’s not time to relax yet. You’ve still got to ride a straight line to the halt. The same guidelines apply here as to your entry, look up and out over your horse’s ears and use your peripheral vision to spot the mark between H and M where you will come to the full halt.
G - Halt. Immobility Salute
Same as for the entry at A. Once you’ve retaken the reins after the salute, smile at the judge, pat your horse and leave the arena in free walk on a long rein.
The only difference between a Good Day and a Bad Day is your ATTITUDE!
Dennis S. Brown
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Classical Dressage Notebook