A couple of years ago I started assembling some thoughts for a blog, but, oops, it became DRESSAGE Unscrambled. Other than The Godfather, Part II, I can’t name very many sequels that measured up to the original.
So, now it’s back to Plan A. I ended D.U. for the same reason that you stop eating potato chips—at the time I was full and, presumably, so were you. But like an old dictator haranguing the crowd, I’ve got my second wind now. You probably join me in observing that many, many riders get in their own way—by over-analysis, by under-analysis, or sometimes because they just ought to be in analysis.
Dressage is full of Truths. You are bombarded by them in books and articles, during lessons and lectures and even over a glass of chardonnay at your dressage club meeting. Unfortunately, those truths are not all equally applicable across the board in all circumstances. Some obfuscate; others downright confuse.
Navigating the whole shell shocking world of dressage is as fraught with pitfalls and booby traps as the task of Buying Your First Horse is to an unwary and unaccompanied novice. I certainly don’t claim to have a monopoly on dressage wisdom, but the same rules that apply to the human condition are equally valid as applied to our sport—exercise some common sense and avoid the mistakes that everyone before you has made.
And, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it all so seriously. It won’t make you ride any better. As before, the tales which follow are not arranged chronologically but in studied disorder. Some are meant to illuminate. Others to distract. Some just can’t stand to hide in the dark any longer. Light and Truth R Us.
And, oh, by the way, feedback is GOOD! I’m afraid that within me there’s an element of Alexander Haig after the Reagan shooting or Riff in Rocky Horror–“I’VE GOT TO KEEP CONTROL!” Consequently, this isn’t an open contribution blog. Tell me what you think. If it fits in, I’ll post it. If not, at least I’ll have learned something. CLICK to comment on anything below.
Sneaking up on your horse (figuratively) and shouting “Boo!” (figuratively) is not generally the best way to prepare for a movement. Often whatever you’re trying to do fails at the outset due to lack of preparation. I can think of many cases where because the aids are “slapped on,” your horse can’t figure out what you’re asking him to do.
As a consequence in training situations we often devise fairly elaborate exercises to “warn” him, both physically and mentally about what we are up to. A horse which has trouble taking the correct lead, for instance, can be placed in shoulder-in or, sacrificing straightness momentarily, in travers to position him correctly and to place your weight and your legs where they need to go for the depart. To make it even more obvious for a confused horse, sometimes you can get the lead by spiraling in to 10 meters from a 20 meters circle and then leg yielding out to the circumference, making the strike off into the outside rein just as you get there.
Please understand, though, that these are training exercises, and ultimately you want a smooth, prompt, straight, and clean depart without the need of much fiddling around beforehand.
What must begin as overt and blatant should always be refined to become practically invisible. This goes back to my vending machine analogy. By proposing tiny intimations of each preparation that are only meaningful to you and your horse, you make sure he is ready for whatever you want. Put those large preparations on the shelf when they are no longer necessary.
A bit of a conundrum
Judging, as you know, is an opinion. Sometimes the way we arrive at that opinion is carefully codified. Sometimes we are granted much more leeway in our evaluations. One such time is in the judging of dressage equitation. Let me take you to the arena.
It’s an intercollegiate show with very small classes, the riders on horses which they have drawn by lot—not their own.
There are four entrants in this division. They are all reasonably competent “First Level 3 type” riders. They all deserve to be somewhere in the 70s.
I decide on an individual test to sort out the final placings, but rather than give them a specific pattern as normally one would, I say to them, “Now you each have 30 to 45 seconds to show me any dressage thing of your choosing that will impress me. Don’t just choose the hardest thing. Be sure it’s something that you think will work.”
Each of the first two choose relatively complicated patterns including leg yielding and canter. Their seats are good; they ride energetically; but the transitions are rough and hollow. The third rider’s pattern is flawless and uniformly accepting. There are some flaws in her position—a tendency to swing her leg back too far and lift her heel up into the horse’s side. The final performance is nearly as good as the third, and the rider’s position is more correct.
How would you score them? This is what I did. In order they were the fourth rider, then the third, and then essentially a tossup between numbers one and two. I explained to them that in principle I was very “pro-energy,” that in my mind the difference between pretty good and really good usually had to do with expression, elasticity, and buoyancy. But the quality which the first two were short on was harmony. This is the part of the relationship that wins the horse’s confidence and lets the horse and rider really perform as a team. I value it enough in this context that its presence helped me choose the winner.
Meet the New Tests
Not unlike the cicadas hatching out, every four years we are treated to a new set of dressage tests to complain about, habituate ourselves to, and then act like they’ve been this way forever. With some cycles there are big changes, but if the older ones were generally satisfactory, the rewrites are small. This year’s versions generally fall into the latter category. Some tests are virtually unchanged. Others are modified in such minor ways that they are likely just to keep the judges’ whistles busy calling people off course.
Let’s start at the beginning. Rest easy—the patterns of the new Introductory tests are identical to the old ones.
The new Training Level tests are equally unchanged in Tests 1 and 2, save for some additional double coefficients, but this will not affect the way you ride them or, for that matter, the way they are judged. You can claim that the writers wanted to call your heightened attention to a few specific movements, but hey, there’s so little going on in these tests, that if you aren’t paying attention to everything, what ARE you doing out there?
Across the board Test 3 is most different and I would argue somewhat easier. Gone are the “loops” that hardly anyone rode correctly anyway, replaced by three loop serpentines width of the arena. If you can ride an accurate 20 m circle and know where to cross the centerline each time, you know how to make a correct serpentine. Be perpendicular as you cross the centerlines and, remember, if your serpentine has flat sides or goes in the corners, the terrorists win! Also in Test 3, no longer must you canter across the diagonal to X. However, there is one tiny hang up. After a 20 m circle at B, the right lead canter comes down the long side (score the canter) to a trot transition at A (another score), and then in the blink of an eye “Before K Medium Walk, K-E Medium Walk” (score the walk including the transition from trot to walk). There’s a lot of opportunity to screw up right there unless you are well prepared as you turn the F-A corner in the canter!
Moving on to First Level, here are some opportunities for the judge’s whistle: The new Test 1 is largely the same as the last edition except the trot lengthenings go from H to P instead of F to S and K to R instead of V to M. Both canter lengthenings start one letter earlier (at the corner marks) instead of at S and R. The rest is identical. Test 2 is not changed at all.
There are bigger changes in First Level test 3. Gone is many riders’ bugaboo – the leg yield from the corner in to the centerline and back out. They have been replaced by a pattern we saw in the 1987 tests (Those of us doing Dinosaur Dressage back then remember!) where you leg yield from the track at V in to the centerline and make a 10 m circle to the outside, continue to the end of the arena and repeat the same pattern on the opposite hand. The canter retains the same three elements in each direction but now instead of “Circle, lengthen, loop,“ the order is “Loop, circle, lengthen.” (Do I hear more tweeting?) This may be a bit easier for horses which in the past got strong in the lengthening and would not re-balance for the counter canter.
Second level: Probably of more interest to judges than riders is at the end of the Medium Trot movements— the transition block now includes the Collected Trot around to where the next movement begins. In the past the transitions were scored alone, and if there was a mistake in the Collected Trot prior to the next instruction, it counted in the Medium Trot block. Somewhat surprisingly, aside from the canter serpentine with the simple changes being moved later to Test 2, Test 1 has no simple changes in it at all! Instead, the pattern reads “Short diagonal in the canter M–E, counter canter to V, trot at V, walk at K, and then left lead canter at A. Much easier!
In Test 2 rather than begin with Medium on the diagonal and then shoulder-in, you track right and go directly to shoulder-in M-B. The 3 loop serpentine with the simple changes is in this test, but not as the first canter movement. It comes directly after a Medium, testing your ability to re-collect enough to make the simple changes viable. Another oddity in this test – a Medium Trot on the final centerline from D to I. As a judge you can see straightness and suspension from that angle, but not much else. Not my favorite innovation in the new tests!
In Test 3 everything stays the same.
Likewise for Third Level test 1 – nothing new. Test 2 is largely unchanged. It still has the shoulder-in to renvers, but they serve as the only lateral work in the trot since the trot half passes have been removed. As in the retired version, there is still canter half pass on the easy line from D to R and D to S.
Test 3 remains as is.
Fourth Level test 1 is much the same as before. You still have the Medium-collect-medium on the diagonal and the half pass to the centerline, 10 m circle, shoulder-in towards G. Then, RING THE BELL, track right instead of left now. That puts the canter depart at C instead of G, but the rest of the test plays out the way it has in the past with half pass to counter canter to flying change at the corner letter, the Very Collected canter on the circle over the centerline, and finishing with the three flying changes at quarterline , centerline and quarterline.
Test 2: as we know and love it. It has one set of three changes every four strides.
And finally the new Test 3 made shorter and a little bit easier…The 4-4-4 Swing is gone, replaced by a simple four step reinback. The extended walk is on the diagonal, no longer on the half 20 m circle. The Working Half Pirouettes remain but are done back to back at the A end of the arena, And there is only one set of tempis – three every three strides. The 4 tempis are back on the shelf until Prix St. George. One other anomaly: the first movement after the entrance is an Extended trot on the diagonal. Near the end of the test you are asked to show a Medium on the long side.
All this happens for real on the first of December. If you are new to the sport, the test changes may seem traumatic, but like breaking in a new pair of boots, pretty soon they’ll feel like home. If you’re one of those individuals whose boots always pinched no matter what, I can only recommend Advil and a glass of sherry before you show.
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