Article published in "Topline
Ink" Equestrian Magazine
Dressage Training & Solid Basics for the Show
is a difference between correct dressage training
and 'poodle dressage'. Find out what that is and
how the Judge knows the difference.
by Ivetta Harte "L" Dressage Judging Program
Graduate with 'distinction'
Do you know the difference between a good scoring dressage
circle and a bad one? If you will ride a round 20-meter
circle starting and ending on the correct letter, will
that be enough to score an 8? The answer is no. Actually,
even though geometry and accuracy plays an important role
in the show arena, the most important thing that the dressage
judges are looking for are “correct basics and training
that is on the right track.” Start thinking this
way and showcase your horse’s solid basics to get
an 8 on your next test! Here is how:
Correct dressage training or “poodle dressage”?
Dressage is progressive training that develops the horse’s
muscles in the correct way. “Poodle dressage”
does the opposite. Even when your horse is standing, a
dressage judge can see if your training methods are correct
or not: For example, a bulging under-neck muscle is a
sign of resistance. If the horse is wide behind the ears
and narrow in front of the withers, that’s another
sign of incorrect dressage training. One of the main goals
of correct dressage training is relaxation. If the neck
and top line muscles are not correctly developed, that
points to the conclusion that neck the muscles are tight
and resistant during training, then head and jaw muscles
are tight, rigid as well, then the horse can’t accept
the bit. (Try to tighten your neck and talk at the same
time, you’ll see that you can’t relax your
jaw and lips) Thus, even if the horse is in the dressage
frame, his incorrect muscle development shows that the
horse resists the bit. Incorrect muscle development of
the horse, particularly of the neck and top line, will
help to pinpoint “poodle dressage.” Nothing
can hide a strong under-neck muscle, a muscle of resistance
from the judge, but with correct dressage training you’ll
be proud to showcase the correctly developed muscles of
the topline of your horse.
It takes about 6 months or more to tone up muscles. That
is a reason why it is so important to train correctly
every day. But how do you know if you are on the correct
path? Dressage classical training methods were refined
for centuries as is evident from the book of a Greek general
Xenophon (ca. 400 B.C.) To ensure classical principles
in our present day, a Dressage Training Pyramid, or Training
Scale, has evolved. These steps are a general guidance
of the correct development of the dressage horse. The
correctly developed musculature protects the joints, tendons,
and ligaments and contributes to the horse’s longevity
Use the Dressage Training Pyramid as your dressage show
1. Rhythm Correct, clear rhythm of your
horse’s hoof beats shows to the judge that you horse
is sound and fit as an athlete who belongs in the show
ring – a good start to score an “8”!
Basically, rhythm refers to the horse’s soundness:
lame or off horses don’t have a steady rhythm. Horses
that are not relaxed, whose muscles are tense will also
display an unclear rhythm. As well, some younger horses
who simply don’t have enough strength to hold the
difficult figures for a long time can start to break their
clear rhythm. Rhythm is a sequence of footfalls and timing
of a pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter. Rhythm should
be expressed with energy and suitable, consistent tempo.
2. Relaxation. Relaxed muscles of your
horse’s back, shoulders and neck will sent a clear
message to the judge that you are ready to score an “8”!
Relaxation is a mental and physical state of a horse.
Does your horse have “relaxation”? The first
place to look for it is at the horse’s back –
is it swinging or is it stiff? When a horse’s back
is relaxed and swinging with a rhythm of footfalls, the
rider also has a comfortable place to sit in the saddle.
Another place to look for relaxation is the horse’s
shoulders– if a horse is scrambling and trotting
around like a sewing machine, the shoulders don’t
have time to relax. Give your horse time to relax its
shoulders by slowing your horse down and through repetition
of simpler figures. Then you want to check the neck of
your horse and see that it’s arched in the soft
manner and that the horse is stretching slightly downwards.
If the horse’s neck is tense then the under-muscle
is working too much, developing the dreaded under-neck.
When relaxed, the horse accepts rider's aids, moves with
a supple back, and can bend through the body, lengthening
and shortening his strides willingly. Relaxation is a
trust that the rider gains with many hours of patient
3. Connection. Steady and even contact
from your horse’s mouth to your hands clearly shows
to the judge that you successfully developed a clear language
with your horse that is worth a score of 8. The judge
doesn’t want to see any of the “toddler hissy
fits” such as tossing head, dunking behind the bit,
ripping the reins out of the rider’s hands, or tilting
the head to evade contact. All of these show the judge
that you are still developing the language with your horse,
but you are not there yet. Connection is an acceptance
of the bit through acceptance of the aids. If you can
show the judge that you can keep steady contact when changing
directions – you are definitely on the way to score
an “8;” however, the ultimate exam of your
contact and connection are transitions. Oh yes, horses,
just like us, get exited, anxious, and even freeze up
in transitions. If you can keep the dialog going and reassure
your partner that you are a solid team during the transitions,
you’ll seal the deal to score an “8.”
Connection gives a fluent interaction between the horse
and rider with appropriate response from the horse. Chewing
the bit and a moist mouth are good signs of elastic contact.
Every judge knows how recognize a horse that is not on
the bit. For the lower levels of dressage it is utmost
importance to have “steady contact” regardless
of the horse’s frame. The horse’s frame comes
to play only at 2nd level. Prior to that, judges are more
concerned with steady and consistant contact. When a horse’s
head position changes all the time, it’s a sign
that it doesn’t have steady contact. Try to develop
steady head and neck carriage and steady bit contact with
a horse and only then position the horse head slightly
in front of the vertical. There are many mistakes and
ways to be “not on the bit:”
Horses above the bit that repeatedly toss their head
• Horses that jerk the reins out of the rider’s
• Horses that are bracing against the rider’s
hands, putting lots of pressure and tightening their necks,
that result in the use of an under-neck muscle.
• Horses that tilt their heads, accepting contact
only on one side of their mouth but not on the other.
• Horses that are behind the vertical with a low
• Horses that are behind the vertical with a broken
neck-line in the 3rd vertebra, which shows evasion from
the bit, are the worst fault and must be scored the lowest.
4. Impulsion. If you thought that showing
the first 3 things to the judge will get you an “8,”
think again. Impulsion basically gives the air time needed
in trot and canter. Some horses are born with it; others
need years of gymnastic exercisers to develop it. It doesn’t
matter how you get your impulsion: through breeding or
through further training, you will see that it can be
a quality that is difficult to control… and that
is exactly why judges will award you extra points for
having it. Everything is easier with a slower, lazier
moving trot, yet, when you ask a horse to move more forward
with more energy – the contact might become stronger,
the horse is harder to sit, and so on. That is the reason
why “impulsion” is in 4th place: it should
be developed only after the horse is relaxed and has a
steady contact. Start increasing and asking for more impulsion
slowly, so you will not loose “relaxation”
and “connection”. Impulsion comes with an
increased energy and thrust; eager, energetic, yet controlled
thrust generated from the hindquarters. The horse's desire
to carry himself forward, suppleness of his back and engagement
of the hindquarters that are also necessary for the development
of the medium paces.
5. Straightness. The famous artist Leonardo
da Vinci was ambidextrous– amazingly, he could write
equally well with both hands. Develop the same symmetry
with your horse to score an 8. By nature every horse is
crooked: hollow on one side and stiff on his other side.
Horses use one side of their body differently from the
other one, just like people. With gymnastic dressage exercises,
horses can develop their symmetry, becoming straight.
A horse is straight when the footfalls of the forehand
and the hindquarters are appropriately aligned on straight
and curved lines. A horse shouldn’t pop the shoulder
or go haunches in-- that is not straight. Straightness
is an improved alignment and balance.
6. Collection starts at 2nd level and
continues to improve through Grand Prix level. Although
there are many different levels
of collection, lowering of the inside hip is a must for
any level of collection, that is one of the requirements
that a dressage judge will look for along with increased
engagement, lightness of the forehand, self-carriage.
The horse shows collection when he shifts his center of
his mass backwards, on his hind end. That results in light
contact and increased mobility of the forehand. The horse
lowers his hindquarters and appears to be more uphill.
Without collection any tests at 2nd level and above will
be considered “poodle dressage,” ie, riding
tricks without correct dressage training.
Accuracy and correct geometry. Only
after you show all of the qualities mentioned above, accuracy
and correct geometry come into play in the show ring.
Without correct basics such as 1. Rhythm; 2. Relaxation;
3. Connection; 4. Impulsion; 5. Straightness; and later
6. Collection – the rider and her horse are not
on the right track and probably doing “poodle dressage”
even if they do all the tricks on the right letters with
the right geometry.
Read more dressage articles published in Topline
Ink Equestrian Journal Magazine for the Dressage and
English Sport Horse rider.