Friday, May 23, 2008

Switching Disiplines - Part 2

Switching Disciplines- Part 2


If you decide to switch from your comfort zone to dressage, you may have to find a new trainer. Some trainers can handle both hunter/jumpers and the beginning basics of dressage. If your present trainer is competent in both disciplines, lucky you, stay where you are if you are happy with your present training. If you do need a new trainer, attend a few dressage shows, watch the lower levels and determine which trainers students are doing well. How their horses are going and most notably how they are interacting with their trainer. Do they look happy, stressed or tense? Ditto for the horses. Is the trainer supportive or downright surly?

When you spot a trainer you feel may be the one for you, approach them between rounds and introduce yourself. Tell them what you are planning and most importantly ask them their philosophy of training and dressage in general. Any trainer who advocates the use of “hyper flexion” or “Rollkur”, kicking chains or any other artificial means to get the horse on the aids correctly, might I suggest you head for the hills. The best kind of trainer to look for is one who is steeped in the classical dressage-training mode. This is where the basic philosophy is simple; it takes as long as it takes, learning in small steps, until it clicks between horse and rider. Softness and subtlety are the name of the game in dressage, and do not let anyone convince you otherwise. Dressage is a horse and rider team working toward being the best they can be getting the most out of each others abilities and complimenting those abilities. Good trainers are rare and hard to find, you may have to ride with a lot of toads before you find your training prince/princess charming.

Interesting Statistics

In case you thought you were too old to start something new here are some interesting statistics about dressage members. According to the official dressage site at:

USDF Members

The federation currently has more than 35,000 members:

  • 90% are adults
  • 96% are female
  • 66% are over the age of 41 years of age
  • 96% own at least one horse
  • 87% compete at least one horse
  • 37% own at least five acres of land

The Lower Levels in Dressage

You should know that dressage tests are separated by levels. Below are listed the levels a beginner may want to participate in and their particulars.

Intro Level

The least intimidating division, horses are required only to walk and trot through a very basic test.

Intro level: Consists of tests 1 and 2 only. Requires walk and trot, no canter.

Movements: 20 meter circles in the trot. All trot work is trot rising, develop the medium and free walk, and halt.

Training Level

Training Level Movements: Consists of 20 meter circles in the trot and canter, halt, free walk, medium walk, change rein across the diagonal in the trot, trot rising and sitting, and serpentines on the centerline in the trot. This level has 4 tests.

20 meters is 66 feet. Meters always confuse me, so a tape measure might come in handy before practicing circles. Measure and mark it out with traffic cones or whatever you have handy to give you an idea of the size of a 20-meter circle.

Horses at Training Level should accept the bit. A horse has accepted the bit when it allows a soft contact of the rider's hand with its mouth without any resistance. Such as setting the jaw, tossing the head, rooting, going above or behind the bit to evade contact, opening the mouth or sticking out the tongue – these are evasions that tight, drop, flash and crank nosebands seeks to artificially hide, and which, though legal in dressage, should be avoided.

First Level

First Level, Movements: All of the above plus halt, medium walk, free walk, halt to medium walk, 10 meter circle in the trot circles, 15 meter canter circles, lengthen stride in trot sitting and rising, full arena serpentines in the trot, leg yielding, you will also be adding canter lengthenings.

First level has 4 tests

Horses in this level should be on the bit. A horse cannot be “on the bit” until it has “accepted the bit” - that is, you cannot “put” a horse “on the bit”, you can only ask it to accept your hand. When it does this, the horse will then (and only then) put ITSELF “on the bit” as it is ridden forward into a soft, flexible contact...

(we’ll have more on how to accomplish this correctly in future posts)


Just a quick note here on bits: in the lower levels, the only bit allowed is a plain snaffle – no curbs, pelhams, etc... If you would like to check out the tack and equipment used in Dressage, Sustainable Dressage has a great page on tack and auxiliary equipment. In addition standing martingales draw reins, boots, wraps, earplugs etc… are not allowed, they are very strict about this and many of these items are not even allowed on the show grounds. It comes down to you and the horse, and no artificial devices are permitted; you are however allowed to carry a dressage whip, that shall not exceed 43 inches long and wear a regulation spur, but these are optional at the lower levels.

The only place on the show grounds you are allowed to use boots, wraps and a running martingale is in the warm up area. If you forget to remove this tack from the horse, you will be disqualified.


In the levels of Dressage, there are standardized tests, which I find helpful. As an equitation rider, I never knew what the course or test would be until arriving at the show. Suffering from foggy brain syndrome, it would take me forever to remember the course, watch a few rides go and then enter. With dressage, you know beforehand exactly what you are working towards and so can practice at home and be prepared. You also have the option of bringing along a reader to stand beside the arena and call out the elements of your test to you so you don’t forget where you are going. This kind of organization appeals to me.

Most tack stores sell Whinny Widgets laminated Dressage test books, which are formatted for callers as well as riders in an easy to read print size with arena diagrams in the lower levels. These great little books come in handy for schooling or at shows.

Dressage beginners who are working up to Second Level need only have a horse that is balanced and paying attention to the aids. The horse will be required to perform more and more advanced collections, extensions and turns as you progress through the levels, so balance is the key ingredient in this recipe for success. However, the beautiful thing about this system of levels is that it takes you through all of the steps you need to get there in a simple, progressive way – and you can go entirely at your own pace.

Until next time

Quote for Today

Ask often, be content of little, reward always.

Nuno Oliveira

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