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Article published in "Topline Ink" Equestrian Magazine

Correct Dressage Training & Solid Basics for the Show Ring

There is a difference between correct dressage training and 'poodle dressage'. Find out what that is and how the Judge knows the difference.

Written 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 and soundness.

Use the Dressage Training Pyramid as your dressage show guide:

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 training.

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 hands
• 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 neck
• 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.

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