Coming up through the levels of Dressage can be intimidating and daunting. Especially if you are prepping a horse for two other phases of an event ie; Stadium Jumping and Cross Country. But if you focus on the basics and keep things steady- you will be set up for all three in no time!
At the very elementary, intro levels of Dressage, the most important things to focus on are-rhythm, connection and transitions.
Your rhythm and tempo should be consistent throughout each gait. Of course, when you ask for a lengthening in the trot/canter- you will cover more ground and your tempo may change (ideally it will slow and you will have more push from behind, meaning you will have more airtime) but within each working gait, your rhythm and tempo need to be steady. No rushing in the corners, no running into the next gait, and no sucking back! Steady eddy wins the race 😊 Concentrate on keeping your posting regular, your hips even and your leg pressure consistent. You’re not in a rush to get anywhere in a Dressage test, so take your time and keep it regular.
Connection is a big one. You should have steady, even pressure/weight in each hand. If your horse has a tendency come behind the contact ie; curl, shorten your reins and work to push the horse into your soft hand. If your horse wants to push out in front of the bridle, more half halts and suppling wrists are the key. As if you are massaging the bit in the horse’s mouth. (not wagging back and forth) You should have a nice, solid weight in each hand in all three gaits.
Transitions are a big point maker in Dressage tests. The above two topics play into a quality transition and if you have rhythm/tempo/solid connection, your transitions will be seamless. In a daily training ride, you should have 100-200 transitions, walk-trot-canter up and down, and multiple transitions within each gait as well. If you have a rough transition, your horse tosses his head into the trot, walk-fix the connection and the rhythm, and try again. Every bad transition is just an opportunity to do it again!
All three of these pieces then play into the movements as you develop up the levels. If you are solid on these you can then move into leg yields, shoulder ins, haunches in and eventually half passes.
In your shoulder in on the rail, the objective is to have three tracks. The horse’s outside shoulder steps over into the track and is essentially in line with the inside hind leg. You will be lifting that outside shoulder with half halts on the outside rein, outside leg forward at the girth, inside leg asking for bend and tempo control and inside rein softly suppling for a polished shoulder in. Be sure to not overdo the bend, this is a big misconception often seen in this movement. Too much neck bend and your three tracks will disappear. Its also easy to overdo the angle, three tracks is all you need. Use a mirror. If no mirror is available have someone video you. You can also use a 10-12 meter circle in the corner to set yourself up for a proper shoulder in. This helps create the bend right before heading straight down the rail. Make your 10-12 meter circle and as you come to meet the rail at the finish of said circle, feel as if you could turn onto the diagonal with your outside aids, then add inside leg and a little inside flexion to continue down the long side in a shoulder in positioning.
Leg yields are another fun movement for suppling the horse through the body. A good way to start is turning up the centerline and immediately adding inside leg at the girth. As the shoulders start to lead, add outside rein half halts to control the speed at which your horse is crossing towards the rail. Ideally the body stays parallel to the long side, your inside leg is on and off asking the horse to supple his mid section and cross both front and hind leg moving laterally towards the rail. Shoulders should be slightly leading, but no more than one track. Again, careful with neck bend on this. Just enough bend to see the horses inside eye. Too much neck and you will not have a leg yield at all, but a bulging shoulder.
These are just a few movements in the lower levels of dressage tests, but they are vital to progressing to more upper level and complex patterns/movements. Videos, diagrams and even tracing patterns on a whiteboard are all helpful ways to practice your tests! I know personally it helps me to see a movement from above, as if I were sitting on top of the arena looking down at a horse performing a shoulder in. Most dressage test books have diagrams such as these. Most importantly, perfect practice makes perfect! Do your transitions with integrity and as if you were at a show everyday with a judge watching. This will take the stress of show day to a minimum and give you as well as your horse more confidence to perform!
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