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Focus on the Rider in Dressage, by Betsy Berrey



"Dressage" by Equibet Photography

“Dressage” by Equibet Photography


Dressage has become increasing popular in the United States because it is endlessly challenging and fascinating. Each horse is different, every ride, warm-up or test presents new challenges and the horses have gotten better and better in their athletic abilities. It also provides an opportunity to interact with those big creatures that we are passionate about without the risks inherent in jumping and eventing.
However, since the majority of our riders are Juniors, Young Riders and Adult Amateurs it is sometimes easy to forget that dressage is truly about the correct gymnastic training of the HORSE. Yes, good riding is essential to this process but an effective rider who lacks elements of the classical seat and position can still do well in the arena. I trained for many years with a professional who had a hip replacement. Her seat was unconventional but her horses were correct and she scored well on all of them.

Decades ago, when I started out on my judging career, I had the good fortune to work with Mike Matthews, a popular and well-known judge in the mid-west. He taught me the foundation of how I look at the rider throughout a test. “When all goes well the rider deserves credit. When there are problems the rider must bear responsibility.” No horse, munching his breakfast hay, thinks “I’m looking forward (or not) to riding First Level Test 4 and Second Level Test 1 today.” If a horse is upset, shying repeatedly, resistant to the rider’s aids and unwilling to go freely forward then the rider score must reflect this. Today, in this test, the aids were not effective and the horse was not reliably on them, whether the rider is new to the sport or a former Olympian.
The decision to show your horse on a specific day in one test or another is entirely that of the rider, often after consulting with his or her trainer. It is always best to show one level below what you are training at home. This assures that you and your horse will not need to struggle with unfamiliar or weak movements and figures. As my friend, FEI rider and trainer Chris Hickey says, “With luck you will have 80% of the quality and content from the warm-up once you enter the arena.”
If you hope to have winning rides at Second Level it is ideal to be working on half passes, extensions and single flying changes at home. As the show gets closer you can concentrate on the Second Level movements such as counter canter, simple changes and travers, but the additional training you’ve accomplished will make these movements easier for you and your horse.

In 2007 the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) made a significant change in the Collective Marks at the end of every national test. The rider score was increased from a co-efficient of 2 to one of 3, giving it greater weight and emphasis. The thinking behind this change was to further encourage riders to work on themselves in order to better show their athletic, capable horses.
In order to show your horse to the best of his abilities you need a secure, independent seat. The reins have many uses but maintaining the rider’s balance is not one of them. The ideal way to improve your seat is on the lunge line, where you don’t have to worry about controlling the horse. If you have an opportunity to take some lunge lessons they will be very beneficial to your riding.

The on-going debate over whether or not to continue allowing the double bridle in Third Level was also a factor in increasing the Rider co-efficient to 3. After much discussion everyone agreed that the bridle is simply another tool for refining the aids, when used properly. Rather than ban it from Third Level it is better to be sure that riders have the independent seats and elastic connections needed to master 4 reins attached to 2 different bits.
The proper use of the double bridle requires both education and practice. The reins can be held in a variety of ways and there are different exercises for improving the connection. The purpose of the double bridle is to enhance the development of the horse’s haunches. Correctly used it should increase both impulsion and carrying power. In a full bridle 80% of the weight of the contact should be on the snaffle. Ideally the arm of the curb is at a 45 degree angle to the ground and the horse willingly accepts both bits.
Having a visible loop in the curb reins during a test indicates to the judge that your horse does not accept the curb. When used correctly the double bridle should allow the horse to maintain an uphill neck carriage. When the arm of curb is close to being parallel to the ground, the poll is low and the nose behind the vertical, the bridle is not accepted in the right way. There is a very well-written section, with good photographs, about the double bridle in Charles de Kunffy’s book “Training Strategies for Dressage Riders.”

The same thinking applies to whips and spurs which can amplify or refine the aids. The ability to use these tools correctly is dependent on the rider’s seat, position and balance. The rider must also concentrate on not over-using his legs, whip or spurs because the horse will then become less sensitive to the aids. Our goal is a prompt response to the aids. Since the horse can feel a fly, he should also obey light aids. If the response is not immediate a second stronger aid may be necessary but constant nagging produces a dull, less responsive horse.
Whips are allowed in most classes at USEF shows so there is no reason not to carry one if you need it. The tradition of carrying the whip on the inside came about because, when riding indoors, it is better not to use the whip between your horse and the outside walls of the ring. However there are no walls in a dressage arena so you may carry it on the side where you need it the most. There is no need to change the whip when you change directions. In fact it is best to leave the whip in one hand throughout the test because changing it may disrupt the movement and your horse.
Carry it on the side where you are likely to need it the most and leave it there for the entire test. If you prefer to carry the whip in your right hand, for example, when you salute you have 2 options. You can put the whip and the reins into your left hand and salute with the right arm or put the reins into your right hand, along with the whip, and salute with your left arm. You must salute by putting the reins in one hand but the rules do not specify which hand is to be used. Do not salute with the whip in your hand because you run the risk of disturbing the horse’s halt.

Dressage is a dance in which horse and rider become partners and the movements and figures should be smooth and accurate. The overall goal is a harmonious partnership in which both horse and rider are alert and attentive, not tense and distracted. Harmony is one of the components of the collective mark for Submission. These also include attention and confidence, lightness and ease of movements, acceptance of the bridle and lightness of the forehand. Submission is the Collective Mark which is tied most closely to the Rider mark since its elements are the product of correct training and development of the basics through the Training Scale – Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsions, Straightness and Collection.
I hope this article has been interesting and informative. The 4 DVDs in “The Winning Edge” series which I created along with Pan Am Gold Medalist Christopher Hickey will provide you with much more information about training and showing your horse. Volumes 1 and 2 cover all 18 of the 2007 USEF Dressage Tests. Volume 3 focuses on the Young Horse Tests for 5 and 6 Year Olds and Volume 4 includes the Young Rider Team Test, Prix St-Georges and Intermediaire.

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