Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Beginner dressage - part 1

Recently I put together some thoughts on riding a dressage test for the first time, aimed at able-bodied beginner riders. In the process, it struck me that there aren't all that many places to find information on this kind of thing online. Most of the articles I found covered things like what to wear, what kind of show to go to, and how to pack your trailer. They were mostly aimed at riders with their own horse, who could practise at home as much as they liked. However, it's getting easier and easier for people to hire a riding school horse for a morning to have a go at their first event. The upsides of this are, obviously, that you don't have to have bought your own horse, but it does curtail your practice time. This means you need to get the best out of every lesson, and you need to know various things that will help you to get any horse to go well - in other words, focussing on what you as the rider can do on any horse, rather than relying on getting to know your own horse well.
So, here we have a guide to beginner dressage for non-horse owners! The aim of this is to introduce ideas which you can start to incorporate into your lessons and that will help you to get higher marks in dressage tests. Part 1, here, aims at explaining some of the basic things you need to know about dressage before you even mount. In Part 2, we'll look at how to achieve the movements required and how to maximise your marks.
First, let's have a look at a sample test. BD tests are subject to copyright but FEI (international) and RDA tests are free to download - so here's an RDA one! They all follow the same format.

As you can see, the movements are listed down the middle (with arena markers to the left hand side), and the number of marks for each movement are also shown. A separate scoresheet is used which has space for the judge's marks and comments.
The first thing to know about is the letters around the outside of the arena. I'm assuming that your first test will be in a 20x40m arena, rather than the 20x60m arena that is used at higher levels. As you can see, there are also 'invisible' (i.e. unmarked) letters along the centre line. You need to know where all of these are because the more you ride to the markers, the higher the score you will receive.
There are a few elements which will feature in every single test, so it's well worth working to get these as good as possible - it will help you every time you compete! Most tests include work in walk, trot and canter, but Intro tests are walk and trot only, and some RDA tests are walk only. In any test, you will have to show your horse moving at all the relevant paces on both reins. (NB - you are 'on the right rein' when your right hand is to the inside of the school, and vice versa.)
In order to 'change the rein' (i.e., change from moving clockwise around the school to anticlockwise, and vice versa), you will have to cut across the school. This is performed from one marker to another, and the more accurately you ride to the markers, the better your score will be. Below you can find some of the ways in which you can change the rein. FXH/HXF is an example of a long diagonal; BK/KB is a short diagonal; AXC/CXA is the centre line; and BXE/EXB is across the width of the school.
Tests include figures such as circles, figures of eight and serpentines. At the lower levels, circles are the most common. Circles can be of any size, but in order to make them appear neat in relation to the markers, they are usually of 20m or 10m diameter to begin with. A 20m circle uses half of the school. It can be performed at either end (at A or C) or across the middle (touching the track at B and E).
10m circles can be performed pretty much anywhere, but most will touch the track at least once. Generally, a 10m circle will touch the centre line (AXC/CXA) at some point.
In each test you will have to ride down the centre line at the beginning and the end. The judge sits at C, so you will ride in from A towards C. If you are lucky, and your test is held at quite a big venue, the initial turn down the centre line will be easy, because you will start outside the arena, and can therefore turn well before the arena so that you come in straight at A. At smaller venues, you're more likely to be riding in the arena before the test actually begins, meaning you'll just have to turn at A as you would normally. In either case, the final ride down the centre line (where the test finishes) will be done from the arena, so it's important to know how to do it well. There'll be more on this in part 2, but suffice to say (for now!) that it's far better to start your turn early and to aim for the centre line by about D than to ride to A, then turn, and be to the FBM side of the school and have to wiggle your way back.
With the caveat that a BD Intro test and some RDA tests will not use canter or, sometimes, trot, these are the paces you will have to demonstrate in your dressage test:
When you first look at these it can be strange to see 'medium' walk, and 'working' canter (although you might already be familiar with working trot). These labels just mean that you don't need to think about collection or extension: just think about walk, trot and canter as you would normally. In higher level tests you are asked to show, for example, medium trot, which is where the horse stretches his legs further in trot but maintains a rhythm, thereby covering more ground. If you watch Olympic dressage, you'll see extended trot all the way down to piaffe (which is pretty much trotting on the spot) - these are extreme examples of extension and collection. They are difficult to perform which is why they aren't asked for in beginner tests, and why we can just relax and focus on getting a good basic pace! The key thing is not to worry about 'medium' and 'working' for now - the judge just needs to see that the horse's legs are moving in the correct sequence, and that the pace is as rhythmic, balanced and forward-going-whilst-being-controlled (!) as possible.
The free walk on a long rein is a different kettle of fish. This is usually an excellent chance to pick up some scores, because it is so highly prized that many tests call for the free walk score to be doubled. If you do a shoddy free walk, this means you might get 4 or 5 out of 10, doubling to 8 or 10. If you do a stunning free walk, you could get 7 or 8, doubling to 14 or 16 - so it's worth paying attention to it! The essence of the free walk is that you should let the reins lengthen and the horse should put his head down to seek the contact. The topline of the horse should be relaxed but he must still step forward really purposefully. More on how to achieve this next time!
This is obviously after the test has finished - you shouldn't quite be relaxed enough to wave during the test! - but it's still a lovely example of a free walk.
You also need to know about the two types of marks you get: firstly, a mark for each movement (these are obvious when you look at a test sheet) and secondly, collectives. Collectives are given at the end (or they should be!) when the judge has seen your entire test. They are a reflection of how well you rode and how good your horse was throughout the test - and, obviously, the latter depends largely on the former, although a good horse will make things much easier! They aren't without controversy, but I'm not going to go into all that here (if you want to know what some of the arguments are, you can find them here). Suffice to say that collectives are important, because if you tie with another competitor they will look to see who has the higher collective score; and that rider will win.
Collectives are listed at the bottom of your test sheet, as they can vary a little. However, they're all pretty much about the same ideas. Most of it is about the horse: rhythm, regularity, consistency of tempo, freedom, submission to the rider's aids and acceptance of the bridle, suppleness, impulsion (oomph!), contact, and so on. They also look at your position and the correctness and effectiveness of your aids: so, for example, if you flap your hands and legs around or give your horse mixed messages you'll lose marks, but if you sit nicely and quietly and work in harmony with the horse you score higher marks. Makes sense, right?

Not ideal!
Anyway, that's a whistlestop tour of the basics of a dressage test. Next time I'll write about how to make it easier to do well. I'm currently at an RDA event in Cheltenham so I'll have to recover from that first!

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