How To Be a Good Grand Prix Dressage Spectator

A three-time dressage Olympian and judge tells you what to watch for in a Grand Prix dressage test. From Practical Horseman magazine
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A three-time dressage Olympian and judge tells you what to watch for in a Grand Prix dressage test. From Practical Horseman magazine

Grand Prix Dressage rider in extended trotIt's easy to be entertained by a beautiful passage, one with a hesitation so pronounced that the horse seems to float above the ground?but how interesting do you find the rest of the Grand Prix dressage test? If, like many spectators, you're not actually competing at Grand Prix dressage yourself, you may see the test in terms of a few high points?the passage, the piaffe and the changes of lead every stride?with eight or nine minutes of rather boring maneuvering in between.

And how good is your eye for a quality performance? Do the Grand Prix dressage judges' scores pretty well match your own assessment of each ride, or do you have the frustrating sense that you're on an entirely different wave length? If so, you're not alone. One time when I was judging the Pan American Games selection trials, one horse flew across the diagonal in a brilliant, floating extended trot that drew gasps from the audience?whose members completely overlooked the fact that the horse had never been on the bit in the canter. When the judges' low scores were posted, the crowd booed.

Learning to be a truly expert judge of dressage naturally takes a lot of practice and experience, but picking up enough knowledge of what's happening?or supposed to be happening?in a Grand Prix test to greatly enhance your enjoyment as a spectator is something any horseman can easily do. You just have to know what to look for.

Once you really know what's going on, parts of the test that seemed dull before will absorb your attention?and you'll be able to keep in your head a running scorecard that, with practice, will begin to correspond fairly consistently to the official scores.

Let's start by talking about the overall qualities that should be present throughout. What we're looking for is the horse-and-rider team that executes the movements correctly and combines the harmoniously?a sort of blending of athletic skills with the aesthetics of choreography. This is not necessarily the team that pulls off the most spectacular passage, but the one that manages the roundest frame, the most harmonious horse-rider relationship and does it consistently throughout the test.

When I talk about roundness, I'm thinking about a quality that really starts at the rear of the horse, with active hind legs and well-bent hocks that function under the body instead of trailing out behind. This in turn lowers the croup, which lightens the front end and allows it to rise slightly. In a well-maintained frame, the shoulders stay up and the horse looks as if he's traveling a little uphioll. The roundness continues right through to the front: The neck rises smoothly from the withers?you shouldn't see a dip in front of the shoulders?making the poll the highest point of the horse's body. The poll flexes, putting the front line of the face on the vertical.

A horse in this round frame is said to be on the bit, or "through," meaning that all the energy created by the active hind end in response to the rider's leg is pushing through into the bridle to be controlled by the rider's hand, allowing the horse to function as a unit. One clue that a horse is through is that the intervals between footfalls are uniform, so that his gait has a regular cadence. Another clue is that the action of the hind legs matches the action of the front legs: In the trot, the right rear cannon rises and pushes the hind leg forward to cover the same distance on the ground as the left foreleg does. There are lots of dressage horses with fancy front ends?the front legs wave all over the place?but check the hind legs. If they're just dragging out behind, you're looking at a horse that isn't sufficiently through.

At the lower levels, it's easy to spot absence of harmony: Everyone recognizes a tail that's swishing or a neck that's stiff and lacking roundness as a sign that horse and rider are not communicating happily. At Grand Prix level, though, where the rider is usually accomplished and the horse well trained, conflicts may take a more subtle form. The horse does what he's asked, but the unstinting response that produces a generous test just isn't there?the test has a mechanical rather than a fluid quality.

As for consistency, it's present when the round frame, the cadenced gait, the harmonious rapport between horse and rider don't merely flash on and off in occasional moments of brilliance but persist through the whole test. Some horses start out with a lovely, flowing line from poll to tail, but as the going gets rough?say in that tough moment of half-pass across the diagonal when the horse is asked to bend and move sideways at the same time?the frame starts to flatten out. Another facets of consistency is rhythm, which should stay the same even as the horse goes from one movement to the next. The trot at the half-pass for example, should have the same beat as the trot traveling straight ahead; the canter rhythm shouldn't alter in the pirouettes. Even in transitions between extensions and collections, what should change is the length of stride and the speed with which the feet move through the air; the intervals between footfalls should remain the same.

One way to enhance your enjoyment of any test ride is to watch the warm-up that precedes it. The rider will clue you in to the parts of the test he expects to have the most trouble with by giving them an extra share of attention in the warm-up ring. He may not actually practice the movements, but he'll surely emphasize their components. My 1988 Olympic partner Orpheus, for example, was a sensitive long-backed type that needed lots of reminders to stay straight and pushed up into the bridle. In our warm-ups, we did circles with emphasis on even stride and frequent transitions from medium to collected canter, which gave me the opportunity to push him up from behind.

From Practical Horseman magazine.