Natural Sporthorse

Dressage Levels for the Everyday Horseman

Part III of III
These series of articles first appeared in several issues of Eclectic Horseman in 2009

Written by Terry Church
© copyright 2016

In the previous two articles, my intention was to present a construct to help describe how the gradated system of gymnastic training called dressage works to develop a horse's capacity for collection, maneuverability, and athleticism. To better understand this system, some discussion of the movements is necessary because movements make up the levels and detail the actual steps to be taken in order for a horse to develop in this particular way. As was previously noted, athletic ability requires the development of strength and agility, which are in turn dependent upon relaxation. Relaxation is the mind-body bridge that not only enables better physical development but a good rapport and deeper connection between horse and human while allowing the horse to enjoy its work. Relaxation is also linked to suppleness which, along with freeing the stride, enables the horse to remain responsive and light to the touch while gaining muscle and power.

Every movement or exercise in dressage has the ability to help the horse maintain relaxation while engendering strength as long as, a) the horse is given sufficient time to understand the directions of the rider, and b) the rider understands how to use the movements to maintain longitudinal and lateral suppleness in the horse. In both cases, the horse needs to be given ample freedom (or release) from the various rein and body pressures of the rider within a movement. Only then can good rapport remain intact as one moves up the levels. As I have stated numerous times before, if riders truly understand how to use the movements appropriately, they will never need to rely on brawn (the "cram and jam" method of training) to make their horse's collect.

Longitudinal suppleness is best initiated through stretching the horse's topline because it allows the horse to "let go" of emotional as well as physical tension in the way it needs to, further enabling the relaxation process particularly while the horse is in movement. In a similar way to how yoga benefits people, stretching is a great warm-up for horses at any level, freeing the hindquarters to reach farther underneath the belly, a necessary action for engagement and collection later in their schooling.

Many dressage riders are horrified at the thought of having their upper-level horses stretch their noses to the ground, claiming they would be teaching them to carry themselves on the forehand at a time in their training when collection and the carrying capacity of the hindquarters is paramount. Perhaps they have not considered that for the 23 hours per day that the horse is in its stall, paddock or pasture, their nose is often on the ground to eat, pick up scraps, search for a place to roll, or to sniff their surroundings. More importantly, this concern is indicative of a rigid concept of training horses, as if the animals were machines with merely the capacity to learn "cues" from their rider by rote. But the truth is that, if understood by the person and communicated with appropriately, horses will much more happily respond to the rider's intention moment--by-moment - or in present time. This means that asking our horses for a particular response at one point does not preclude that we will be asking for a different response minutes later, or seconds later. If the horse is "with us," then they will respond to what we're asking for at any moment. (For more insights on "getting your horses with you," please see the The Pyramid of Training article series). No principle ballet dancer or Olympic gymnast would dare ask their bodies to perform such demanding feats without adequate stretching of their muscles. Why should we expect it to be different for our 4-legged upper-level athletes?

Lateral suppleness can be initiated through bending and flexing the horse's body laterally, releasing stiffness and bracing associated with physical and emotional tension in the same way that longitudinal suppleness does, but by targeting different muscle groups. Lateral bending likewise enables a greater reach of the inside hind leg underneath the belly. The better the horse learns to reach underneath itself with the hind legs, the better prepared (strengthened) the hindquarters will be to carry the horse's weight as that weight is distributed more and more toward the rear with each progressively advanced maneuver.

Maintaining suppleness and strength while the horse is tracking on a straight line can add yet another layer of difficulty to the work because there is no bend to rely on for suppling, and so malleability and softness in the hand while the horse is moving freely forward must already be obtainable without it. Second Level is the first time where straightness is underscored in the objectives and standards of the rule book. (I oftentimes refer to straightness as alignment because straightness can also refer to a horse on a circle).

Straightness, or alignment, is the absence of crookedness. Just as humans generally have a stronger and a weaker side, so do horses. Horses, like humans, usually compensate with their stronger side, thus further developing a dependency on those muscles and creating an uneven use of each side. In dressage, the goal is to supple and strengthen the horse equally on both sides.

Full-sized 20 x 60 meter dressage court. The rectangular shape allows for work on straight lines as well as on the circle.

Harmonizing Qualities and Attributes

Relaxation, along with forward movement, is requisite for straightness because a tight muscle on one side of the body will not move as freely as a supple muscle on the other side. Muscles must be equally supple as well as strengthened in order to extend and contract evenly, allowing alignment to occur. An accordion type of action can be felt as the horse gathers and then extends and then gathers its body again without strain, making transitions that are smooth and soft from a long stride (lengthening) into a short stride (collection), or from one gait to the next. In order for this kind of malleability to occur, all of the qualities and attributes that have thus far been mentioned must be working in unison because each one is dependent upon the other. For example, a good relationship with our horse engenders trust which paves the way for relaxation, the foundation of our work. At the same time, suppleness engenders relaxation which in turn improves our ability to communicate and establish a good relationship. Suppleness also allows for an open, free flowing stride. Likewise, forward movement can increase suppleness by allowing the horse to work out bracing in the body. Both forward movement and suppleness combined engender straightness (equal maneuverability on both sides), throughness, and malleability, all necessary for sufficient strengthening of the muscle. And so, if the true art of horsemanship is practiced as our horses move up the levels, all of these qualities can be more fully realized and progressively harmonized, enabling them to reach their full potential for agility and athleticism, not to mention allowing them to feel better inside their own skin - an essential requisite for maintaining a good relationship.

Third and Fourth Levels emphasize this spectrum of qualities and attributes. The main thrust of the objectives and standards of Third Level are: "...[The horse] now demonstrates in each movement, especially in medium and extended paces and in the transitions to and from collected movements, rhythm, suppleness, acceptance of the bit, throughness, impulsion, straightness and collection..." The objectives and standards of Fourth Level include: "...These are tests of medium difficulty designed to confirm that the horse has acquired a high degree of suppleness, impulsion, throughness, balance and lightness while always remaining reliably on the bit, and that its movements are straight, energetic and cadenced with the transitions precise and smooth." In Third and Fourth Levels, the horse is executing additional movements which include extensions at walk, trot and canter, half-pass at trot and canter, flying changes of lead, "tempi changes" or flying changes of lead every third and fourth stride, and 180 degree pirouettes at walk and canter in addition to quality transitions in and out of these movements on the spot. At this level, the horse is being asked to sustain a fairly high degree of collection for an extended period of time.

Gathering the Stride

Below, two movements designed to shape a horse's progress toward sustained collection while maintaining supplemess.

Figure 2: Leg-yield . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Figure 3: Half-Pass

Newcomers to dressage often misunderstand the difference between a leg-yield and a half-pass. In a leg-yield (Figure 2), ridden at First Level, the horse's body is straight and its nose is flexed away from the direction it is moving, making it easier for the horse to yield its body in the opposite direction. The result is a crossing action with both front and hind legs with the body remaining relatively elongated. The leg-yield can be executed at walk and trot.

In a half-pass (Figure 3), executed at Third Level and above, the horse's body is bent toward the direction in which it is moving. Although this movement is executed on a straight line, the bend has the same gathering effect on the horse's body as would a six or eight meter circle, shifting the center of gravity, and therefore the horse's weight, toward the rear. While the bend helps maintain suppleness as the horse moves in collection, the half-pass itself demands greater coordination and strength as well as a willingness to work within more confined parameters. The half-pass can also be viewed as a travers (haunches-in, see Part II) that moves along a diagonal line instead of along the wall, and like travers, can be executed at walk, trot and canter.

Lengthening the Stride

The difference between a lengthening, executed at First Level, a medium trot, executed at Second Level, and an extension, executed at Third Level and above, is the degree of collection in the horse's body along with a corresponding elevation of the front end. In First Level, no real collection is required and so the lengthening shows a longer stride with added suspension or lift. In Second Level and above, a progressive degree of collection is required. The medium trot is therefore executed with a mild degree of "sitting action" from the hindquarters, and then more so in the extended trot. The forehand naturally elevates in proportion to the degree of sitting action. In Third Level and above, extensions at walk, trot and canter are required.

Working trot, Tr. & 1st Levels . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lengthening at trot, 1st Level . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Collected trot, 2nd Level and above

Medium trot, 2nd Level . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Extended trot, 3rd Level and above

Note the difference between the lengthening and extended trot in both the elevation of the front and "sitting action" of the hindquarters.

The International (FEI) Levels

Horses performing at the FEI Levels (Prix St. Georges, Intermediate I and II, and Grand Prix) are required to execute progressively demanding variations of what has come before, such as a full canter pirouette (360 degree turn), steeper half-passes (half-passes that move more directly to the side), zig-zags (half-passes from one direction immediately to the other), and flying changes every second stride and every stride. New movements include piaffe (looks like a trot in place) and passage (looks like a very animated trot). Their objectives include reaching "a standard of physical and mental balance and development, which will enable [the horse] to carry [the exercises] out with harmony, lightness and ease... progressively and without harm to their organism... characterized by the total absence of resistance and the complete development of impulsion..." Here the rules acknowledge that "the complete development of impulsion," or energetic, forward movement that includes collection or "carrying power," is dependent upon "the total absence of resistance," or softness throughout the body. This combined with "harmony, lightness and ease" cannot happen unless the horse embodies a calm mental state - derived from an ability to relax.

The objectives also use the term "submission" which, to my way of thinking, is not the ideal characterization of the relationship that mindful horsemen seek. An Oxford American Dictionary's definition of submission reads: "The action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person," not exactly the description of a give-and-take relationship based on mutual respect. The idea of submission permits forceful action toward our horses which is common within competitive sports that reward the execution of "tricks" over a calm eye and a relaxed tail. But a horse who puts up with us and "submits" is not the same as one who expresses genuine agreement with what we are asking for. One is merely a physical concession. The other is a giving of the heart. We may not always be able to see the difference with our physical eye, but if we learn from our horse to become sufficiently sensitive and aware in the way they are, we can feel it.

The Nature of Rules and Levels

The rules that define the levels of dressage initially help us to learn. They provide guidelines and allow us to hone necessary mechanical skills while alerting us to dangers when we haven't yet experienced first hand the pitfalls we might get ourselves into by our lack of knowledge, feel and awareness. While it is generally a good idea to practice simple exercises before torturing our horses mentally or injuring them physically by demanding they do for us what is beyond their preparedness, it is also important to realize that every horse is unique and progresses differently. In order to be the most effective, every action we take is ultimately a judgement call, not a rote decision dictated from a rule book. The rigidity and formulaic nature of rules and levels cannot adequately reflect our ever-changing circumstances or our ability to discern which approach and which action is the most appropriate to each horse at any given moment. Likewise, establishing the kind of communication that leads to partnership goes beyond an assessment of a physical movement or exercise, but requires a moment by moment observance of what is actually happening with us and them on the inside. And so, after spending much time and energy learning the principles and functions of dressage and the world it opens up for us, hopefully we continue to look to the horse to better apply our skills, deepen our sensitivity and feel, and broaden our awareness of our world, inside and out.


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