Monday, 12 December 2016

Aceing beginner dressage

Now you're an expert (or passable) judge, it's time to learn some little tricks to get the best marks in these early level tests. Obviously this is something I'm still mastering but here I will pass on as much as I have learned so far!
This is not me!
First, accuracy. If you're not sure how Valegro-like your horse is (see above), the main thing you can control is how accurately you steer. If I can get this right (most of the time) with one hand then anyone using two hands should find it quite easy! Some top tips:
  • if the turn is 90° (e.g. turning down - AC - or across - EB - the centre line), you need to leave the track a bit early and look at the marker you're heading towards. Your horse will still be moving forwards, so if you wait until you have hit the marker before you turn, you will end up way off the line and it will be very obvious - especially if you're coming down from A to C, where the judge sits! 
  • When you come towards the end of your change of rein, you can afford to ask your horse to move a little closer to the marker than when you left the track. This is because they will be heading towards a wall or boards which will help give them a boundary to stop them from drifting out. At the same time, a neat and relaxed turn is more important than riding right to the edge, especially if doing so confuses your horse and puts him off balance.
  • So, 90° turn: leave the track early, don't even look at the marker you're coming from, just look at the one you're going to. Let your horse know which way you're heading at the end before you get there.
  • Diagonal change of rein - there are two variants of this; the long diagonal and the short diagonal. In the diagram below, FXH is a long diagonal, and KB is a short diagonal. Long diagonals are easier because the turn is shallower, but both can be approached in the same way. 
  • Diagonal turns - think about your turn early, but you don't need to move on the turn until just before the horse's head comes in line with the marker. This takes some practice, since even when you aren't moving on the turn you should still be preparing it by getting the horse to bend more to the inside much earlier on. Basically, by the time that your body is in line with the marker you should be facing the other marker across the school. This is different to the 90° turns where your body is only in line with the marker when the horse is further out from the track.
  • Ride through X (if it's a long diagonal) but for long and short diagonals you should aim for just short of the end letter. For example, if you're riding KXM you should aim for a metre or so away from M, towards B. That way, your horse's head will hit the track at that point, then you will turn onto the track properly, and your body will come neatly in line with M. Again, this takes a bit of practice but it's a neat little trick. It also helps you to ride into the corner once you rejoin the track, because you will be thinking about pushing the horse over with your inside leg.
  • Circles. All basic level tests will involve circles of varying sizes (although mostly 10m and 20m). Sometimes you do half a circle one way then half a circle the other way, to make an S-shape across the school. Whether it's a full circle or just a half, it should be round! This is tough, and actually the smaller circles are easier because they force you and the horse to be more accurate and more balanced. Practice is your friend, as is plotting the points. 
  • A 20m circle takes place at either end of the school or in the middle. At an end (let's say we're starting at A on the left rein), you should come off the track at A on your bend, touch the track again just the other side of F, continue on the same bend to pass through X, touch the track again just before K, then rejoin the track at A. 
  • Plotting your route between those four points helps a bit, but personally the most useful advice I've been given is to spend the whole time looking directly across your circle (so across the diameter). This helps you to stay balanced and to plot something round instead of wiggly or square-ish. 
Those are the basics of steering. Having said that two-handed steering is easier, it's also important to state that reins are only a small part of your steering (or, at least, they should be!). You can also use your legs, seat, weight and shoulders to help steer your horse. If you want to stay on a straight line, all of these things should be balanced and level. If you want the horse to bend, you can use your hips and shoulders to direct the horse. Be aware that how you put your weight on the horse's back will also have a huge effect on where he goes. Putting it crudely, more weight in your left bum cheek (or left stirrup if that feels easier) will make your horse shift to the left [typo - the horse will shift right, away from the weight! And, more specifically, 'bum cheek' should be seat bone]. You can also open out your hips which brings your lower legs into closer contact with the horse, and if you do this with just one leg the horse will move away from that leg (so you could use your inside leg to push the horse into the corners better).
Coming down the centre line in trot, and preparing to turn right - you can see that my right lower leg has just started to touch Oscar's side. He will also pick up on where the stick is, and where my head is looking. Hips and shoulders are keeping him straight for the time being.
Accuracy at markers in terms of transitions is a little harder than steering. You need to be very prepared, and it's only through getting to know your horse that you know how soon you need to prepare him to go up or down a gear. Some horses need very little encouragement to get faster - or slower! - whereas some need a bit more help. It's worth considering that most horses at most competitions will be a little bit sharper than usual, so they may well respond to you more quickly - especially if it's a venue that is unfamiliar to them.
Potentially leading to this...
To get your horse's attention before getting faster (e.g. halt to walk, or walk to canter), you can shorten your reins, lighten your seat (clench your buttocks and you'll get the idea!), bring your lower leg into closer contact with the horse, give a half halt (which is basically all of these things brought together), and speak to them. Generally in BD you're encouraged not to talk to your horse as it isn't allowed in able-bodied competition, but it's fine in RDA so I use it all the time - it helps that Boysie and Rolo will respond to a click of the tongue as well as a nudge with the heels!
Click the tongue, then sit and relax to the movement. See how much my left hip goes up and down.
To slow down, don't just heave on the reins. If you do this, the horse will stick his head in the air in protest, and rightly so - it's not nice for him, and it won't get you good marks in dressage either! Use the half halt again to prepare the horse for something different happening. Get his attention with your hand(s), sit up tall, keep the lower leg back, then open the hips to close the legs around him. Generally we think of 'go' as 'kick' and 'stop' as 'pull the reins', but I get my smoothest 'stop' transitions when I put the legs around the horse and relax the rein.
The free walk is a great way to get points. Like everything else, it takes practice to get it right so don't just assume that the walk will be easy. The reason it's so important is that the mark you get for it is doubled in many tests, making it more important than any other movement. It's also important because it teaches you how to keep your horse relaxed and free, which is vital for dressage and also for welfare. The free walk is generally performed across a diagonal - sometimes long and sometimes short.
A nice free walk.
Here are some top tips:
  • Get yourself onto your line before you lengthen the reins
  • Once you're heading straight across the school, gradually let the reins slip through your fingers. This is far easier with normal reins than bar reins! 
  • Keep the walk active - imagine you're pushing off a swing but don't overdo it. The horse shouldn't dawdle; the steps should be long and active.
  • The horse should stretch his head down to seek the contact. If he's reluctant to lower his head, give him a little rub on the withers. It's very calming and a useful trick for all sorts of situations!
  • Try to sit as level as possible - you won't be able to use your hands to steer so easily and if your horse drifts about you're in trouble. 
  • Gather up your reins before returning to the track. Often you will be asked to move up into trot or canter shortly afterwards, so you should be ready to ride the next movement.
Ready for anything...
There are two thoughts I'd like to leave with you, both of which are, I think, more crucial to dressage than pretty much any other equestrian sports (with the possible exception of vaulting, which is marked in a similar way). These are the principle of marginal gains, and the principle of getting on with the next bit!
Marginal gain #1 - nail the trot down the centre line. Look above the judge's head and s/he won't put you off as much!
Marginal gains
Made famous by British Cycling, this is the idea that tiny improvements amass to have a dramatic impact upon the final result. It's simple, right? But very effective! This year, to my immense surprise, I won the biggest dressage class at the RDA National Champs. It wasn't that anything I did was particularly amazing, but looking at my scoresheet I realised that I had just been able to raise every mark by 0.5 or 1.0 - and that made all the difference.
From here.
Get on with the next bit!
I'm sure I could think of a natty phrase to describe this too - maybe 'movement isolation marking' - but 'get on with the next bit' sums it up best. In dressage, you get some marks for how you perform throughout the test (the collectives), but the majority are awarded for specific movements. If you do one great movement, you get a great mark. If you balls something up entirely, you get a less good mark. If the next bit is better, you get a better mark. The bad mark for your bad bit only affects that one bad bit, unless you freak out and panic and let a wobble affect your next move.
I need this...!
Just two days ago I had a test like that where, towards the end, I messed something up badly. It was meant to be a 20m circle in canter followed by cantering the long side and trotting at the other end, but we broke canter when still on the 20m circle, then tore down the long side in a horribly rushed and unbalanced trot. For this we were generously awarded a '4' ('insufficient' - could have been far worse!) and it made my entry to the next move (a long diagonal in trot) a bit wobbly, but as soon as I got on that line I got my s*it together and controlled the horse again, meaning that we got a 6 on that bit.

Moral of the story: one move is one move, and one mark is one mark. It doesn't affect your next mark unless you let it.

The final part of how to ace a beginner dressage test is how to do a good warm-up. This is covered in a separate post, here!

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