Dressage Perspectives Featured Riders

I was told once that the horse world polarises people; that I would see the best and the worst of humanity within it. That has been so true. On the whole I have seen far more good than bad. I have been lucky and, where necessary, I have been ruthlessly selective. My advice to people entering the industry – find the good people, walk away from the wrong ones quickly and keep putting the horses first.

The creation of Dressage Perspectives arose from a conversation with a group of friends. One of the issues we discussed was the trend towards celebrity riders and the need for riders to represent themselves, or be represented professionally, in a more aggressive way than ever before. To consumers of publicity it is easy to imagine that it just happens, as a natural consequence of having talent or being in some way interesting. Of course this is not so. How does an article usually end up on the pages of a magazine, digital or otherwise? For that you must explore the synergy between Public Relations and Journalism. The mechanics of that process might shock some people; for me it just invokes a wary cynicism. Too much hinges on what riders win, which studs they ride for and the market value of the bloodstock that carries them to victory. The commercial wheels of the industry have to turn, I guess, but there is far more to the horse world than that. There are so many really wonderful people out there. My mission is to discover the inspiring teachers, the small-scale horse breeders so passionate about what they do that they operate for decades at break-even point, and the riders who, win or lose, plainly adore their horses. Those are the kind of people I want to write about.

There are those who would have us believe that media will only appeal if it is seamlessly slick and relentlessly aspirational, that the attention span of our audience is currently around a nanosecond, and that all we merit is the victory of style over substance. I disagree and this is why. Equestrians might enjoy escapism as much as anyone but the reality we inhabit is bounded by mud, love, discomfort and joy. Our best friends tread on our feet and sneeze all over our clean clothes. We struggle to forge careers that make no sense to our friends, families and bank managers. We have to be tenacious if we are in it for the long haul. Our stock can rise and drop with the state of an animal’s health. Oblivion is always beckoning. There are those around us who only love a rising star, those who want your style to cover for their lack of substance. Those people will be gone quicker than a rat up a drain if your luck turns for the worse. Knowing this, it is vital to identify and cherish the people who will still be around, those sponsors who will stick with you through a dry spell, owners who will say no to those who covet your rides, pupils who are there for what you know and not who you know. One of the more valid measures of success in our careers is the relationships we build and sustain.

A lady I know once said to me ‘it is all about bred by, ridden by, trained by and owned by’. Initially I shrugged off her cynical take on an industry I thought I knew better than she did. But, in a way, I must admit she was bang on the money, she identified exactly where the money is to be found. She was very wide of the mark when it comes to finding happiness, friendship, decency and humour though. I suppose that in life you find what you go looking for. I have found kindred spirits, equine and human, in the most wonderful and unlikely places. For me this world (not just the horse world) is all about the connections we make with other creatures. The connections between teachers, pupils, friends, mentors, grooms, owners, sponsors and above all that between the horse and its rider; these are the fabric of our world. It is those strands of connection I want to explore.

This Featured Riders series is an opportunity for me to talk to those riders who I think deserve to be talked about for all the right reasons. So far this year I have had the absolute pleasure to meet with Rowan Crosby and Alison Kenward, both of whom are true horsewomen with fascinating stories to tell. I am currently trying to do those stories justice as I write about them. We never know who will turn out to have a positive influence in our lives, however great or small. The more we connect with others and find common ground, the better our own lives and our horses’ lives will be. Sharing our stories and finding inspiration in one another is something I really believe is important. I hope that this new dimension to Dressage Perspectives is something that proves insightful and enriching!

The first of our Featured Riders is Rowan Crosby, a young International Para Dressage rider. Rowan is a young woman of outstanding qualities, both as a rider and as a person. Talking to Rowan also gave me a wonderful insight into the camaraderie and humour of the Para Dressage circuit! Then, earlier this week, I spent a very happy afternoon chatting to Oxfordshire based dressage rider and coach Alison Kenward. It is so great to connect with fascinating people and find out what motivates them, how they deal with the ups and downs of life, of competition and training horses. Talking is something I find all too easy, editing the articles down to a suitable size is another matter altogether. Watch this space!

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Essential Guide to the Piaffe – Part One

Introduction to the Piaffe

I would like to see more children learning to ride the Piaffe and more beginner riders sat on schooled horses to see how the movement feels. I would like to see more horses taught to do this, so that they in turn can help teach even more riders to teach even more horses and ponies. Spending many of my formative years in places where this actually happens has shown me just how possible it is.

High School dressage is embedded in the equestrian cultures of certain nations around the world. Though the work that is happening in the riding clubs and riding schools of those nations is not always up to test riding standard, it is a healthy thing that it is happening at all. It busts the myth that advanced dressage movements are only for some kind of equine and human elite. I couldn’t count the times I saw the faces of children light up with grins as kindly school horses moved into a gentle bouncy Piaffe when the instructor asked them to. There is no question of “will you ever be good enough to do this difficult thing?” because by the age of ten or eleven they are happily asking the horses to Piaffe without the teacher along side. I believe the mind-set this creates is a very good thing.

I believe in simplification and I don’t really like insider jargon or the mystique that this level of dressage can get wrapped up in. Whenever I encounter a rider talking about their PiPa Tour, it often makes me think of General Patton, who wrote this:

“It struck me as rather strange that, in the midst of a world at war, some twenty young and middle-aged men in great physical condition…had spent their entire time teaching a group of horses to wiggle their butts and raise their feet in consonance with certain signals from the heels and reins.”

So without a Pi or a Pa in sight here is a guide to the art of teaching your horse to wiggle its butt!

When I wrote about Developing Your Horse’s Trot I mentioned that the Passage and the Extended trot share a certain quality of tempo; that the moment of suspension in both is elongated to more or less the same degree. The Piaffe is very different to the Passage in two important ways. The tempo is quicker, sometimes much quicker, and the ‘base’ of the movement (the proximity of hind hooves to front hooves) is short rather than long.

As beginner riders we learn that there are several categories of trot; collected, working, medium and extended, each with its own clear definition. This is a basic guideline but in practice it is overly simplistic. The trot is easier to develop well if we think of it as a spectrum with Passage at one end and full extension at the other. We begin training in the middle with the ordinary trot and work out from that towards both ends of our trot spectrum. The Piaffe might seem to sit at the extremely collected end of the spectrum, beyond the Passage, and there is some logic in this view. It is the most collected and gathered of all the types of trot and I tend to develop it right alongside all of the other trot variants, but rather than thinking of the Piaffe as part of the trot spectrum I tend to think of it having a spectrum all of its own!

The Piaffe has what I call a training arc. Training it is a long-term process which is embedded into the greater part of the horse’s working life; if you think of beginning at five what will be complete at fifteen then that gives you some idea of what I mean. The Passage is linked together with the Piaffe in the minds of most riders but they are very different to train and the demands they make on the horse’s body are quite distinct; hence the challenges in riding repeatedly from the one to the other. If the Piaffe were no more than a Passage in place then it would be a relatively easy thing to move between them. In transitions between them the horse is going repeatedly from a long body base to a short one and it is changing tempo as it does so. These transitions are magical to ride and I always ensure the aids I acclimatise the horse to for both movements are quite different. This makes the transitions easier for the horse to understand. The Passage is often easier for the horse to understand and in many cases it is fully understood by the horse before the Piaffe is. Resist the temptation to simply pin down the Passage for a few steps and call it a Piaffe. If the distance between the front and hind hooves doesn’t become less and the tempo quicken then what you have is a diminished Passage and not a Piaffe. Remember that even half steps are quick. Just think Passage is slower than most other trots, Piaffe is quicker.

Many of you reading this will be totally familiar with riding the Piaffe and teaching it to your horses, other readers might never have experienced it at all. The riders I most want to connect with are those who have an inner assumption that Piaffe is something they will never be ‘advanced’ enough to enjoy with their horse.

  • To those who ride Piaffe routinely, I want to look at what makes it really good and what the pitfalls are that we can avoid through good training.
  • To those who aspire to learn and teach this movement, I would like to demystify it and explain a few of the approaches you can take.
  • To those who think it is in any way beyond them, or their horse, I want to explain why it is almost certainly not!

The first article in this series is an overview of the movement’s origins, why the Piaffe is good for the horse and the different reasons why we might use it (aside from high level competition training). I will also talk about the training arc of the movement, which might take anywhere up to a decade. From the first gentle half steps to the magnificent Piaffe of the established and mature dressage horse there must be a patient and systematic progression. Piaffe is like all other dressage movements in that teaching it to the horse is only one milestone along the way. Once the horse can perform the movement you must spend many years polishing and perfecting it. What the horse can do at seven, it will do far more beautifully at fourteen! Wherever you are on that training arc it is important to know where you want to end up and so I will describe the ideals and criteria I personally apply to the Piaffe.

 

 Why do we train the Piaffe at all?

There is constant debate about the merits of the various movements and the degree to which they are natural to the horse. You will probably have observed that horses, even or especially foals, will Passage as part of a play or display scenario. It is rare to see an untrained horse Piaffe. I have done, but only on a handful of occasions. A young Irish Sports Horse of mine once settled into a really beautiful, technically correct Piaffe when he was being led from the field and met a tractor on the drive. Critically there was an element of restraint in the situation. He was only held by a head collar and rope, but clearly he perceived that he was not really free to run from the tractor. His precocious Piaffe was very beautiful and later his trained Piaffe was even lovelier. It is very rare to see the Piaffe in a horse that is truly at liberty so perhaps those who say it is not natural have a fair point. Natural or not it is in my opinion beautiful, fun, and, when it is done with care it is healthy and beneficial for the horse. The reason that Piaffe exists is only partly about art and display. It might look like a dance, but it once had a deadly and serious purpose.

Modern dressage owes a huge debt to the cavalry tradition and competitive dressage has its roots firmly in military equitation. Many of the trainers of my trainers were from this tradition. It is one I value highly because it is rooted in practicality. Piaffe is not required for a mass charge of cavalry but it (or something passing for it) is pretty essential to closed combat, hand to hand fighting, and to duelling from horseback. Whilst you would not need a classical Piaffe, you would need a great degree of contained energy and animation expressed more or less in place. Think how difficult it would be to fight an opponent at close range if your horse and theirs kept drifting away from one another. Think how dangerous it would be if your horse became rooted to the spot. Rather like a human boxer or a tennis player, the horse in Piaffe is highly mobile, with options to change direction and jump. Two movements supply this necessary quality of animation in place – Terre a Terre and the Piaffe. Both are still used today as a springboard for high school jumps and leaps. The Piaffe also allows a horse great potential for evasive manoeuvrability and the option to lash out with any limb at any moment. Approaching that horse from the ground would have been a very daunting thing, which would reduce the odds of the rider being dragged to the ground or the horse being hamstrung.

Display riding has derived from Court life and I believe that even that developed to reflect the skills required in combat. It was a highly ritualised expression of combat skill taken to an artistic extreme. The High School jumps were perhaps more of an educational tool for riders who were learning to sit well enough to survive the violent contingency riding of battle. Some of the jumps might have had roots in actual battle airs, opinions differ but I suspect they have probably been refined beyond recognition! The Piaffe then is probably not entirely natural; personally I would say that it is a conditioned response based upon natural behaviours, which have been developed for human purposes. Whether we encounter it in competition arenas or in the riding halls of equestrian academies it is the same beautiful dance that was once something much darker.

 

Why every sound, sane horse should learn to Piaffe!

We no longer have the horror of taking horses to war but I believe that the Piaffe is certainly not redundant as a practical skill. Piaffe is a reasonably difficult gymnastic exercise, but nothing like as challenging for the horse as one or two tempi changes are. To piaffe in a basic and gymnastically constructive way is within the reach of most sound, sane horses and ponies. On the other hand, to piaffe in a way that is close to technical perfection is seriously strenuous and requires the right conformation and a carefully prepared equine physique. Don’t underestimate the complexity of the task but equally don’t buy into the idea that this is impossibly difficult for you and your horse. It takes good basic education for both of you, and it takes time to prepare correctly, but it is not innately difficult at all. The way you sit and communicate with the horse is a defining factor of success. Have a look at Better Dressage- Contact for some insights to how your leg, seat and hands, can influence the horse optimally. Riding the Piaffe well depends very much on good contacts and clear communication.

Alongside the Warm bloods and Iberian horses I have ridden, I have known Clydesdales, Shetland Ponies, Breton Cobs, Thoroughbreds, Egyptian Arabians, and Icelandic Horses who could all piaffe very nicely. The first horse that I succeeded in teaching it to was a full Thoroughbred, the second was an Irish Sports Horse. The school master horse I had learnt to ride the movement on was a 14.2hh Anglo-Arabian, a horse who was beautiful but quite unremarkable by many people’s standards. Of course a gifted horse will always have a more brilliant Piaffe but most horses and ponies will have a Piaffe that is pleasant and gymnastically useful. Only severe conformational contra indications should prevent us trying to teach the movement at all. Some of those, for example, would be severe sickle hocks, very long sloping pasterns or very high hocks. To judge the suitability of this work for your horse, study the mechanics of the movement in detail, consult a really experienced coach, talk it through with your vet and use your common sense. With care for the horse, willingness to adapt the outcome and good sense much is possible.

 

Different contexts for training the Piaffe

If you have a horse that you hope to take to high levels of training and perhaps competition then the Piaffe will ultimately be a natural part of your training plan. But why teach it at all if the horse is not expected to compete at high levels? Well, it can be a remedial tool, it is a great gymnastic aid to health and strength, and most importantly it is fun. I have had some awesome moments in the Piaffe with the kind of horses that other riders would not even bother to take into training. Never under estimate the small joys of dressage.

Piaffe can actually make your horse safer to ride. If your horse perceives that he or she is in danger then you can use the ‘animation almost in place’ of the Piaffe to reassure the horse that flight is possible, without flight actually taking place. Whilst many horses will make something like a Piaffe if agitated, the usefulness of a trained Piaffe when out hacking is considerable. I once had a nightmare ride on my very high-strung PRE horse in flat open countryside with an electric storm closing in on us. We were out alone and he got badly frightened by the situation; I wasn’t exactly in a happy place myself! The last long straight stretch to the farm lay ahead of us and he began plunging up and down. I felt there were two options – I could let the horse bolt home or I could try to manage his nervous energy. I asked him to Passage and, whenever he became too exuberant I asked for Piaffe. I don’t know how many transitions we made along that track but we made it home safe. If I had been on an untrained horse I know I would not have had the option to channel the energy in that way.

The Piaffe can be used as a gymnastic exercise and customised to suit the needs of the individual horse. What governs the degree of difficulty is how much we expect the horse to elevate the fore hand or not. When the horse first learns the movement it is in a very flat balance, or even slightly croup high. This does not bear favourable comparison with the Piaffe of the fully trained horse, but if we did not use this training state it would be very difficult or even impossible to teach the movement to at all. We have the option to ask for the Piaffe with any amount of elevation that is possible and appropriate for that individual horse. This opens up a range of possibilities to use it for gently warming up the body of the horse. Piaffe warms the muscles and helps prepare the surrounding tendon and ligament structures for hard work. I have taught the movement to horses in their old age and worked it, very gently indeed, from the floor to assist in retaining joint mobility. It can be so soft and easy a movement done this way. I call this a ‘fluffy slippers’ Piaffe! As a gymnastic exercise Piaffe is just as useful for the show jumper, the event horse and the hunter as it is for the dressage horse. In fact it is useful for any horse that is expected to use the triangulation of its hind legs joints to provide power or speed.

This is one end of the athletic spectrum; at the other end is the Piaffe of the Grand Prix horse or the High School horse. Incidentally, in warming up the fully trained horse I still make use of the ‘fluffy slippers Piaffe’; it is a good, gentle beginning. We are always free to under ride a movement deliberately if we want. There is often a great deal of value in doing so. I think of this as controlling the power in the way we control the heat under a pan; riding the Piaffe as a simmer rather than a boil can be a gentle part of your daily schooling. Pushing your horse to its athletic limits is something to do sparingly if you want to keep it sound and happy. Within the range of possibilities that the particular horse offers, by virtue of age, fitness and level of training, you are free to vary the body frame and vary the emphasis of the exercise, just as you would any other.

Eventually, after years of training, the Piaffe can develop into a vastly demanding exercise in pelvic tuck and elevation of the forehand. It is ultimately a basis for the Levade. Having had the good fortune of training in an environment with High School horses, I was able to learn about the relationship between the Piaffe and the Levade in some detail. It changed the way I look at the movement forever. If you want your horse to lift its forehand off of the floor, eventually with you on board, and sit in what is effectively a deep squat then you had better make sure your horse is making a very high quality Piaffe. In this I am talking about creating the ideal situation.

 

 What makes a high quality Piaffe?

For me the measure of a good Piaffe is one where a Levade looks possible and feels possible, even if the horse is not trained in that movement and never will be.

 

  • The lifting mechanism of the neck and shoulder muscles raises the forehand of the horse. The neck is high – but it is high because the shoulders lift. Think of the shoulder mass pushing the neck up and the neck pushing the poll and head up. You cannot achieve this by artificially raising the head. If you do, you run the risk of depressing the shoulders and limiting the horse’s ability to execute the movement.
  • As part of the lifting effort it is natural for the poll to be raised and the throat relatively open. The nose is usually in front of the vertical, sometimes considerably so. It is a consequence of how the horse is using its muscle structure. The conformation of the neck has a bearing on this too. The loose-coupled horse will not need to open as much as a horse with a thicker neck.
  • The long back muscle is fully engaged in raising the forehand and will contract powerfully in combination with the neck and shoulders to create the ‘archers bow’ profile. This is where great strength is needed in the back. The back must be healthy and gymnastically well prepared. It is strength of muscle, not amount of muscle that counts. I have ridden this movement on horses that look very lean rather than bulky and the Piaffe has been just as lovely and easy for the horse to carry out. Some horses are wiry and others are powerhouses; it very much depends on breeding. An Anglo Arab will never bulk up like a Lipizzaner or a Holstein!
  • The pelvis of the horse tucks under and brings the hind legs deeply under the body. Among the muscles used to do this is the Psoas; a muscle that is greatly strengthened by working the Piaffe. The pelvic tuck helps the long back muscle to engage even more powerfully.
  • The joints of the hind legs close like a concertina and allow the hindquarters to drop. This is the ‘sitting’ which we hope to achieve in Piaffe. The muscles of the croup and hind legs must be strong to support the balance and organize the (hopefully) regular diagonal motion of the trot in this position.

 

It is the power of the lifting mechanism that is pre-eminent for me; what cannot lift, will not sit. Having the strength in the hindquarters to sit is vital too, but it plays a secondary role to the lifting. Another way of putting it is that the lifting creates the sitting.

The style of Piaffe I prefer is defined by the raising of the forehand therefore I feel strongly that I cannot ride it effectively if the neck is longitudinally broken, the face is behind the vertical or the body frame is too deep. I do see it ridden that way from time to time of course but I can only assume that the riders have goals that are different to mine. I know what I like and what I want from the horse in this movement and that is the lightness that caused me to fall in love with dressage in the first place. For this the horse must lift in front, tuck behind and gather itself under me to the best of its personal ability.  I love the feeling that the horse is a vibrant ball of energy within the trot.

When I wrote about Achieving Lightness last year I described it as a ‘seam of gold’ for which the rider is always searching. I think that riding the horse in lightness is rather like a drug to which we can easily become addicted! One aspect of this that has great relevance for training movements like the Piaffe is not to ride the horse into greater lightness than it is ready to give us. The half steps of the young horse will be in a level balance at best, if not a little high in the croup. If you drive a younger or weaker horse ‘uphill’ with demanding aids you will destroy its love of the movement and ultimately detract from its love of you. Every movement you train which works the muscles that raise the forehand, from direct transitions to canter, through gymnastic jumping and the Spanish Walk will help to make your Piaffe better. Focus on making your horse strong in lifting and in sitting over the years and this will support the developmental arc of the Piaffe.

There are some commonly accepted technical goals for the Piaffe and it would be remiss of me to not outline them here. We hope that the fore hoof lifts to somewhere between the top of the fetlock and the middle of the cannon bone and that the hind hoof lifts to somewhere between the coronet band and mid fetlock. Ultimately, the horse will advance only half a shoe forward at each step, that is a few inches forward only. The very best horses can Piaffe for a number of steps at a time in the pillars and advance by such tiny increments that they never tighten the pillar reins, but are never quite on the spot either. These are all eventual goals, which must be recognised as end results. They are not the starting point by any means. In the next part of this series I will talk in detail about the ‘training arc’ of the Piaffe, from the start of half steps in hand and under saddle to the full classical Piaffe as described above.

Whatever stage of training you and your horses are at it will be valuable to study the series. Getting to know the process in detail will give you a real advantage when the time comes and it is hugely motivating to know that, all things being equal, Piaffe will be part of the future for you as a rider so long as you want it to be. 

 

ProLite Performance Pads

ProLite Performance Pads are awesome! We use them everyday and they offer us solutions to meet both long and short term needs. They are one of the most important investments we have made in our horses comfort; and comfort equals better performance and happier horses.

Temporarily improving saddle fit.

No pad can compensate for a saddle that fits your horse perfectly. I would not advocate the long term use of pads which alter the saddle fit. In the short term though I use the Multi Riser Pad because I can totally customise the effect it has on the saddle balance. This is great with horses that are changing shape rapidly, for horses at the very start of training and those who lost muscle tone due to time off. There are times when it is not practical to have a saddle reflocked, mainly because the situation is very temporary. We have the Multi Riser pad, which has additional ProLite inserts for the front and back, and I am keen to try the Tri Pad, which has a third central pad for even greater adjustability! Of course, without the additional shims, the Multi Riser Pad is useful to pop under a well fitting saddle for even greater weight distribution without impacting the saddle balance at all. If you were to buy only one ProLite pad, I would recommend this because it is multi purpose. Be sure to store the inserts carefully when not in use, or you will end up hunting for them at the bottom of a tack locker when you do need them! Having learnt from my mistake, I now keep mine neatly together in a clear sandwich box!

Optimising every day performance in dressage training and equine rehabilitation.

The main use we make of the ProLite pads is to give extra protection to the horses’ backs in day to day training. For this we use the ProLite GP and Dressage Relief Pads. The specific quality I love about them is the ability to distribute pressure evenly over as wide an area as possible. Several things can contribute to this – a relaxed rider with a good seat, a saddle with broad panels and, for me, the ProLite pad offers a lovely additional safeguard. I do a fair amount of remedial training and equine rehabilitation so providing comfort and protection to the weak or vulnerable back is especially important.

ProLite pads are an ideal product for the young horse, the older horse or any horse with a sensitive back. That said, I use them on the fittest, strongest horses too!

One thing I am a stickler for is that all saddle cloths and pads are pulled up fully into the gullet of the saddle. It is vital that they exert no pressure upon the spine. The ProLite pads are shaped beautifully, even for the high withered horse. They sit up into the gullet, clear of the spine all the way along, and most importantly they stay there whilst you are working. I have never known them to move, even through the most energetic training session, through galloping, jumping and impromptu rodeo riding! The pad is always exactly where you put it at the start.

ProLite pads are very lightweight and that is another feature I love. I always liked gel pads and used those in the past but the weight of them was a disadvantage, as was the difficulty of keeping them from slipping down over the wither. With the ProLite products that is never an issue. I also used to feel that the gel pads somehow reduced the two way communication between my seat and the back of the horse; with ProLite pads I feel the communication is just as clear as if the pad was not there at all. This is so important for the dressage rider who needs to ‘read’ the back of the horse and influence the movement through their seat.

The pads also wash easily and wear extremely well. We launder all of the saddle pads and bandages every two or three times they are used and in the case of the ProLite pads we wash them weekly. In one extraordinary case I found a ProLite pad which had fallen down a gap between two buildings and spent an entire winter there. When it was discovered, soaking wet and disgusting, I decided to try washing it. Not only was the structure of the pad intact, it washed up bright and clean as new. It is back in everyday use and you would never guess what it had been through!

The ProLite Performance website explains that the product offers 3 in 1 protection from impact, pressure points, and movement. Specifically they absorb lateral movement without moving against the skin of the horse. This means that the hair is unruffled and the coat is not rubbed. The importance of this for dressage horses goes without saying. Click through to the ProLite Performance website and have a look at the full range of products for horse and rider!

Successful Test Riding.

The Challenges of Competitive Dressage

I believe that test riding is an art in itself. Good dressage exists quite separately to it and equally good dressage can exist within it; though perhaps, because of it’s origins, slightly against the odds. There is Dressage the sport and dressage the process; the two are indivisible of course because the sport could not exist without the process. The process can, and for millennia did, exist perfectly well without the sport; the sport is a new development and needs to be seen in context. This is not a negative perspective at all; I believe that riders need to know where dressage competition originated in order to understand it’s particular nature. Only when we understand something can we be good at it.

The dressage test is derived from late 19th and early 20th century military equitation. It has mutated and adapted over the decades to a sports format and is under pretty constant review by the FEI. If we choose to engage with dressage as a sport it is worth understanding what a test is designed to do and what it cannot do. A dressage test is exactly what it says on the can. It tests the training of your horse. It was not created to allow you to showcase the training of your horse, in the way a freestyle test or display riding can do. They are not easier than test riding by any means, as those who have done them will know very well; the challenges are simply  different.

The way in which a standard dressage test functions is very like a course of show jumps. The designer is asking you a set of questions.

The biggest mistake I see riders make is to imagine that the question they are being asked is “can you execute this list of movements required for the level.”

The need to be proficient in the movements for the level is a given, but that is far from the heart of the matter.

The real questions are around the horse’s way of going and the order in which the movements are required to happen.

The way in which one test movement flows into the next is where you must focus your analysis. It is analysis which makes for good test riding.

My horse might be able to perform all of the movements for a given level and yet to perform them in a test format might seriously reduce the overall quality of the work. Why would that be? In day to day training we can use one movement to perfectly set a horse up for the next. We might take shoulder in to assist in setting the green horse up for a canter transition or we might wind a travers circle down into a working pirouette. Tests are not set up like that. Often a movement is preceded by the very last thing that you would want to use in order to set that movement up in training; that is the whole point of it being a test. To compete successfully we need to treat the dressage test as though it were a course of jumps and work out exactly what question we are being asked.

How to Break Down Your Dressage Test.

I will always help a pupil prepare for a test with equal seriousness regardless of the level they are riding at. There is no such thing as an easy test, no matter how experienced a rider you are or how basic it’s elements.

From the start of the test to the end ask yourself this “when I ride from movement X to movement Y what is it that could go wrong, why is is difficult to do that?” Because it will be difficult, it is designed to be so. Knowing what could go wrong tells you what you must do, because that is the inverse of what you must not do.

Understand the possible negative outcome, acknowledging it is perfectly healthy and necessary.  If you know that it is realistically within your power to ride the movement really well then work out how you can best ride from movement X to movement Y. It can be useful to talk someone through it, as you might walk a course of jumps with a pupil, explaining your thinking as you go.

We want to end up in a place where we can focus our mind purely on the positive, on the desired outcomes. In order to get to that place however we need to look closely at the potential pitfalls which the test designer has put in place for us. Once we have examined them and we know how to avoid them we can create our positive visualisation. Then, having visualised how, we can ride from movement to movement calmly, happily and in the best possible way.

The Process

My process is something like this. I will use one set of movements from from a mid level test as an example. If the test is asking me to make extended trot over a diagonal and then to turn onto the centre line and make half pass back to the wall there are three main elements to consider.

Let us suppose that the diagonal was set up well and the horse began the extension in good form. It was attentive, engaged and supple throughout. But many a diagonal in extension begins well and ends not quite so well.

  1. I could lose balance (mine and/or the horse’s) towards the end of the diagonal. My horse could be wide behind, disengaged and relatively tense through the back. Therefore if I want to make the best of the overall test performance  I must not ask for greater length of stride than my horse can comfortably handle in good balance. If I err on the side of caution I will keep the horse soft through the back and light in the hand. I might have slightly understated the scope of the extension but the balance will be good and we will flow softly into the corner. Instead of going all out to maximise marks on one movement I have ridden more conservatively in order to maximise marks over several movements. This can prove the superior strategy.
  2. As I ride into the corner I must ensure that I don’t allow the bend to lose its uniformity. Those of you who have read my earlier articles will know that I am a stickler for controlled bending, you might say the straightness within the bending. If the horse breaks at the wither it will fall onto the outside shoulder to some degree. If it does that you will compromise your turn onto the centre line. This goes for every centre line, at every level.
  3. As I ride onto the centre line I have the shoulder mass exactly where I want it and I can focus on placing the shoulders ahead of the quarters. I was taught to begin every half pass with a step or two of shoulder in. Because the turn was well set up and well executed I know that both hind legs are softly engaging, the back is relaxed and the bend is uniform through the body of the horse. No half pass could have a better set up than that.

With every test I look at the link between the first movement and the second, the second and the third, and so on in this way. I recognise the potential pitfalls and I think about how I can strategically avoid them. That is one aspect of the process. The second is to look at the composition of the test in more general terms.

In early levels there is more use of a mirror image format. Something is done on one rein in one gait, then often you return to a lower gait for a while, and then on returning to the higher gait you repeat the earlier movement to the other side. This provides respite for the horse’s cardio system and the transitions allow you to rebalance. In more demanding tests there is less and less respite as you go up the levels. The canter work is often more of a block and it requires a higher level of cardio fitness if the movements nearer the end of the test are going to be executed well. You need to be realistic about the level of fitness your horse has relative to the test and build that up if necessary. Your own fitness needs to be far greater too, if you want to get the very best performance from your horse. In Rider Fitness I wrote about how your performance as a dressage rider can be greatly improved through physical fitness.

The final, and the most important, thing I want to talk about is the horse’s way of going, relative to the test. It is no coincidence that many good riders compete a level or two below the training level of the horse. They have not fallen into the vanity trap of competing outside of their comfort zone in order to say that they are at this level or that. It is far better for your confidence and that of the horse to know you are competing well within your training limits. It is a huge advantage to work with a coach, one who will be kind but honest with you! It also helps to go watch a range of horses at your chosen level; it is wise to pay most attention to elite combinations. See how well the movements are performed but also pay attention to the way of going, the level of fitness and most of all the muscular development of the horse. To succeed at competitive dressage it really is a case of ‘its not what you do, its the way that you do it’.

Pre Competition Checklist

  1. You need to analyse how well you execute the test elements, then how the performance level stands up to your linking those elements together in a test format. Finally work through the test in it’s entirety and see how it feels.
  2. You need to know if your horse is fit enough for the level. The best horses at every level are cardio fit and correctly muscled.
  3. Lastly you should watch a range of combinations at your level and honestly compare video of your horse with what you have seen. If your horse is as relaxed through it’s body, as steady in the contact and as light in the forehand as the better combinations then you will feel confident in the results you are likely to get. Most important of all find a good coach and listen to their advice.

When the way of going is right for the level, when the horse is fit and strong and when you learn to strip down the test, look at it’s components and then put it back together you will be well equipped for success. Most importantly of all you will feel confident and enjoy the experience of competing!

It is you versus the test, not you versus the other competitors!

If you would like to find out more about riding better lateral work have a look at these earlier articles –

Better Dressage – Key Skills for Lateral Work

Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Better Dressage – Exercises for Improving Lateral Work