Editor's Note: This article features highlights of Lynn Palm's 5-part series on basic training that ran from February to June 2006 in Dressage Today magazine. To order the back issues, call (301) 977-3900 ext. 0.
If you're like me, you love dressage because it's the basis of good riding for any discipline. I teach many riders who, despite their fears, have dreams of being able to take their horses to a dressage show one day. I'm going to get you started and help you prepare for one of the most basic dressage tests at a show: Training Level, Test 1.
1. Improve Your Position and Balance
A correct position is a huge part of riding well, because once you have control of yourself, you don't interfere with the horse. You also build confidence, because you and the horse have clear and consistent communication.
Your seat is your main source of balance and your most important aid, so learn to use it correctly from the beginning. If the seat is not your source of balance, all kinds of bad things can happen: Your upper body gets stiff, you balance on your hands, you grip with your thighs or knees, or you push down into your stirrups.
Once you're on the horse, sit over his center of gravity, which is just behind the withers (see Finding Your Horse's Center of Gravity). If your back tends to arch or round, use your stomach muscles to straighten and flatten it. Now, get your body in alignment. In a good position, an imaginary line perpendicular to the ground should run through your ear, shoulder, middle of your hip and back of your heel. When your body is aligned correctly and your shoulders are over your hips, you will feel your seat bones.
When sitting correctly, your hips will move forward and backward as they follow the motion of the horse. Think of using your seat in the same way you do when you're on a swing. Your back and seat must be flexible because you want to 1) absorb the movement of the horse and 2) influence him. Learn to balance from your seat and relax your thighs, knees and legs. You want your seat bones to stick to the saddle, and you want to feel how comfortable it is when your hips swing with the horse's motion. What most riders tend to do (incorrectly) is move their shoulders back and forth, so they don't stay over their hips. You need to do just the opposite: Move your hips with the horse's movement, and keep your shoulders still (see Two Exercise to Improve Your Balance).
2. Make Smooth Transitions
To ride a test well, your horse must be responsive to your aids. Because of their quiet, laid-back natures, American Quarter Horses sometimes can be slow to respond, so this is something you need to work on. You want your horse to react to light aids that you give to make smooth transitions from one gait to another. For the horse to respond and go forward with light leg aids, the rider needs to be able to use her seat. The seat is the director. The leg and reins aids are the supporting cast.
When you want to go forward in an upward transition increase the movement of your hips. This means move your hips more powerfully forward with authority and squeeze a little with your leg. Position your legs a few inches behind the girth and below an imaginary line half way down his barrel. That is the area most sensitive to your leg aids.
Your legs stay in contact with the horse's sides to encourage the engagement of the hind legs as he transitions down. Use your seat aid first. Then close your fingers on the reins.
3. Ride Figures to Create Balance
The main objective at this early stage is to control your horse's balance. To do this, you must control his body alignment. You want to align the horse's head, neck, shoulders/front legs, back, barrel and hips/hind legs while riding on both straight and bent lines. When aligned, the horse's hind legs step toward the prints of the front hooves. Your seat and legs control this alignment from the top of the tail to the withers, and the hand aids control the alignment from the withers forward to the poll. More specifically, the right rein controls the right side of the head, neck, right shoulder and front leg; the left rein controls the left side.
The circle exercise teaches proper bending. I'll set up cones to make figures. I put four to eight pairs of cones, about six feet apart, around a circle forming a chute. If you have only four sets, put them at each quarter of the large circle. Then ride the circle exactly between the cones. You can do this at walk, trot and canter.
Here's how to keep the horse aligned and moving on the track: 1) Your inside rein directs or flexes the horse's head inward. The neck is curved (lengthwise), but it stays aligned between the shoulders. 2) The inside leg slightly behind the girth is the bending leg aid. 3) Place your outside rein slightly against his neck so the outside shoulder doesn't move out of alignment and the head doesn't flex too far inward. 4) Place your outside leg slightly farther back than your inside leg. This keeps his hips from swinging out of alignment. If a horse doesn't want to bend around the circle and loses his balance, re-establish his alignment and get him between your aids.
4. Improve Your Accuracy
Before you ride the test, you need to memorize it. You can walk through it on the ground or draw it on paper. During the actual test at the show, you can have someone stand at B or E and call the test to you as you ride each movement. Sometimes this can give the rider confidence. I found that when I started with My Royal Lark last year, I was concentrating so much on what I needed to do for my horse, it was easier for me to have someone read so it wasn't hard to remember what came next. The test is divided into 13 sections, and you receive a score for each. (Download the 2003 Training Level, Test 1 (PDF))
5. Test Your Training
Begin your planning well in advance of show day. First, get a prize list from the show. The prize list tells you what classes the show offers, the costs and what vaccinations and paperwork may be needed. I recommend USEF/USDF-approved shows, although some may like getting their feet wet at a local schooling show. Only enter one or two tests per day. That will be enough for both of you. A stall may be required with your entries. If not, request one. Keeping your horse in a stall, rather than standing him in a trailer or tying him to it, gives him the opportunity to relax, move around and lie down. Sign up for videotaping, if it's available, or ask a friend to do it.
When you arrive at the show grounds, it's your responsibility to get your horse acclimated to the surroundings to give you the best chance of performing as you do at home. I work from the ground first so I can observe my horse and read him much better than I can under saddle. Is he bug-eyed or just alert? Is he concentrating on me? What is his confidence level?
I show my horse everything. If he is excitable, fresh or playful in any way, I'll longe him. I'll spend a lot of time working in-hand at any scary places. Then I'll know the areas where he is confident and where he isn't. I'll go back to those non-confident areas, hang out and let him see the things that frighten him. I work my horse until he's relaxed, and then I get on him. With that system, I have the best chance of gaining his concentration, so he can respond and do his best for me.
A bad case of nerves can be your first defeat. Your horse can sense when you are nervous, and that can lead to riding problems. Having positive feelings makes such a difference in taking the next step in your show career. People defeat themselves with negativity. So, it's really important to be positive.
How long do I need to warm up? Do enough to get your horse supple in his muscles and flexible in his joints. If you are unsure how to plan your warm-up, have somebody videotape your practice warm-up routine at home two or three times.
You want to walk, trot and canter both directions in your warm-up. Work on the components of the test and practice transitions. The idea is to do a little bit of everything but not too much of anything or you'll leave the best of your horse in the warm-up arena. An average warm-up time before a test could be anywhere from 20 minutes for a quiet horse to 45 minutes for a horse that's more high strung.
As your time comes to ride the test, the ring steward tells you to proceed to the dressage arena. You want to have a strategy for this time, as well. It's usually important to pass the judge's box at C. I might walk or trot by it or halt and stand there for a minute if my horse is insecure. But don't make a big deal about it. Do what you need to do with your horse, but have a plan and follow it. When my test is done, I always take care of my horse first and make sure he is cooled down.
Your dressage test tells you what you need to work on and what you did successfully. The numerical score for each movement will be between 0 (movement not performed) and 10 (excellent). A score of 6 is satisfactory and means you are at the correct level. A mark of 7 or better on any component means you're doing it fairly well. A mark of 5 is sufficient--the movement doesn't quite have the quality or correctness you need, so work on this. Any mark below 5 means you have serious work to do before your next test. If you want to ask questions of the judge, get permission from the show management or technical delegate first.