Dressage Levels for the Everyday Horseman
Part I of III
Written by Terry Church
An Overview of Dressage Basics
Dressage means"training" in French, and was originally developed as a means of schooling horses to be highly maneuverable on the battlefield, requiring them to work deftly off their haunches in order to perform actions that demanded a great deal of strength. Today, however, most of us recognize dressage as a competitive sport. Just like the term "natural horsemanship," "dressage" is viewed positively in some circles and negatively in others. But stripped of personal judgments and competitive trappings, dressage remains a gradated system of gymnastic exercises designed to develop a horse's physique, agility, attentiveness, and responsiveness. The exercises that make up this system are based on movements horses do naturally in brief bursts of energy, oftentimes in pasture when at play. Under saddle these same movements are sustained. Used properly, dressage can enhance a horse's abilities in any discipline. More importantly, it can help to educate a person about the steps and stages a horse needs to go through in order to become adept at doing advanced work while simultaneously developing that person's riding and handling skills. However, this learning process can proceed without strain only when we figure out how to ask for what we want in a way that the horse can understand.
The "Object and General Principles" of dressage are listed in the rule book put out yearly by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). They are cited here in part:
1. The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. As a result it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible but also confident, attentive and keen thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider.
2. These qualities are revealed by:
b. The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements;
c. The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating in a lively impulsion;
d. The acceptance of the bridle with submissiveness throughout and without any tenseness or resistance.
These are the words that have attracted many people to the sport. They are also words to help us discern the ideal from what is often put into practice. I had to learn the hard way that memorizing what is written on the page is the easy part, and that becoming a good technician is only half the battle. In reality, learning to embody good intentions and express them into action has been a lifelong practice that never ends. Adding depth to a skill requires a willingness to be sensitive. Feel, that difficult-to-impart but not-impossible-to-learn ability, is inherent. Like the horse, it is a part of our make-up, too. By giving it value, we enhance our capacity for it, and like any other inherent personal quality that may yet be latent or weak from lack of use, each one of us has room for improvement.
Usually, however, we learn the mechanical steps of any new endeavor first. In an effort to enable the general populace to understand and then utilize the principles of dressage, a series of "levels" were standardized within countries that recognize dressage as a sport. In the United States, a body of judges and trainers are appointed to outline the levels every four years. The levels are: Training, First, Second, Third and Fourth (with other auxiliary levels for various competitive events). However, the subsequent, more advanced levels are standardized worldwide by an international body called the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale). Those levels are: Prix St. Georges, Intermediate I and II, and Grand Prix. Each level is comprised of a series of movements that are organized into "tests" performed in competition. Riders who opt not to compete can nevertheless use basic movements as stepping stones in preparing their horses for more difficult maneuvers, or to elicit greater agility and strength for other disciplines - or to ride just for fun.
Real strength and agility, however, require suppleness. An inflexible or stiff muscle cannot be adequately strengthened because building muscle mass requires that the oxygenated blood flowing through arteries and capillaries reach the muscle tissue, and that oxygen-depleted blood is efficiently removed so that the muscle can be continually replenished in order to grow itself. The more constricted or tense the muscle, the more difficult task the blood vessels have of allowing the blood to flow in and out of the muscle.
Basic dressage is primarily about suppling the horse, using movements to stretch the muscles and keep the horse's body malleable. According to the rule book, the objectives and standards of Training Level are "to confirm that the horse's muscles are supple and loose, and that it moves freely forward in clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit." In training level, the movements consist of riding the horse forward at walk, trot (usually posting) and canter, making large circles (20 meters) and bending lines (loops), making transitions gradually (not on-a-dime), and stretching the topline (nose to the ground). First Level is more difficult, asking for smaller circles (10 meter), more precise transitions, asking the rider to sit the trot (a forward trot, not a jog), changing leads through a few steps of trot, and preparing for counter-canter. However, the emphasis is still on suppling the horse by continuing the use of circles and bending lines (serpentines), stretching the topline, riding a free walk (loose rein), and then adding the use of leg-yields (side passes) and a lengthening of stride at the trot and canter. (A complete list of movements and figures and their explanations can be found in the USEF rule book and online, and tests can be found online at usef.org, and at usdf.org).
Suppleness, however, cannot exist without some degree of relaxation. Relaxation is the emotional/psychological state of being that enables a horse to physically release tension or tightness in the body. While letting go of tension, a horse becomes more receptive to the person, and so their body becomes more receptive to the pressure of a hand, a leg, or a person's intention, for example. The resulting responsiveness is another key factor in a horse's ability to be soft, light, and maneuverable. In every dressage manual, relaxation is acknowledged as a primary building block of dressage, and is supposed to make up the foundation upon which all subsequent "training" takes place. More importantly, a full measure of happiness - for horse or human - cannot be realized without it.
The Basic Movements
Using the suppling movements of dressage can be a wonderful way to learn about and elicit relaxation from our horses. Here are a few guidelines upon which those exercises are based:
~ Stretching the horse's nose to the ground, particularly while in movement, is a suppling action for the horse longitudinally (over the topline).
~ Lateral movements (sideways movements) such as turns on the forehand (crossing the hindquarters) and leg-yields (side passes) are suppling actions as well, requiring the adductors and abductors (muscles on the inside and outside of the horse's forearm and hind legs) to stretch and flex as the fore and hind legs cross with every other stride.
It is possible, however, to ride movements by rote and is why we often see a great deal of tension in dressage horses, whether at home or while performing at horse shows. So what is the key to using the movements in a truly effective manner while maintaining our horse's happiness?
I would like the reader to consider that the vast majority of us have been brought up in a culture that is achievement oriented. That is not all bad, but we have generally been taught that in order to achieve success we have to "make it happen." Many of us have therefore become adept at manipulating the things around us, whether they be circumstances, events, other people - or our horses - to get what we want. The more we want something, the more we tend to use coercion to get it until we become habituated to preempting our days so that everything, including our training session, works out the way we had planned. If we approach dressage with such a mind-set, we will go through the training of the movements exactly as described on the page, and end up with horse that does all the tricks but is tied up in knots or is stiff as a brick.
Some of us already know that good horsemanship includes engendering respect and a natural curiosity for our horses as individuals. It also includes becoming more observant and sensitive to the positive or negative effect that our presence has on them and the world around us - and then learning to see that world from our horse's point of view. It also includes going through the process of becoming better handlers and riders, of gaining experience through doing, of learning about our own bodies as we learn about the horse's body, and what it means for us to be relaxed, supple, in balance, strong, coordinated, and equally adept on both sides, to know which seat bone our weight tends to rest upon a horse's back and where our crooked places are. In other words, to achieve the kind of relationship where our horses happily respond to their own participation in this complex system of gymnastic exercises called dressage, we might consider holding ourselves to the same standards we set for our horses. Just as relaxation enables our horses to be more responsive to us, so our relaxed demeanor brings us into a state of mind where we are more patient and thereby better able to deal with whatever our horse presents to us each day.
Another aspect to consider is that if we try to ride a dressage movement perfectly the first time out, our best intentions for feeling patient and showing respect will go out the window. Breaking a movement down into parts, however, can allow us to maintain our equilibrium while we learn its complexities, its purpose and its many benefits. A circle, for example, is one of the most basic suppling movements in dressage. It sounds simple, but ridden really well and in a way that is beneficial to the horse is not always so easy.
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