The Challenges of Competitive Dressage
I believe that test riding is an art in itself. Good dressage exists quite separately to it and equally good dressage can exist within it; though perhaps, because of it’s origins, slightly against the odds. There is Dressage the sport and dressage the process; the two are indivisible of course because the sport could not exist without the process. The process can, and for millennia did, exist perfectly well without the sport; the sport is a new development and needs to be seen in context. This is not a negative perspective at all; I believe that riders need to know where dressage competition originated in order to understand it’s particular nature. Only when we understand something can we be good at it.
The dressage test is derived from late 19th and early 20th century military equitation. It has mutated and adapted over the decades to a sports format and is under pretty constant review by the FEI. If we choose to engage with dressage as a sport it is worth understanding what a test is designed to do and what it cannot do. A dressage test is exactly what it says on the can. It tests the training of your horse. It was not created to allow you to showcase the training of your horse, in the way a freestyle test or display riding can do. They are not easier than test riding by any means, as those who have done them will know very well; the challenges are simply different.
The way in which a standard dressage test functions is very like a course of show jumps. The designer is asking you a set of questions.
The biggest mistake I see riders make is to imagine that the question they are being asked is “can you execute this list of movements required for the level.”
The need to be proficient in the movements for the level is a given, but that is far from the heart of the matter.
The real questions are around the horse’s way of going and the order in which the movements are required to happen.
The way in which one test movement flows into the next is where you must focus your analysis. It is analysis which makes for good test riding.
My horse might be able to perform all of the movements for a given level and yet to perform them in a test format might seriously reduce the overall quality of the work. Why would that be? In day to day training we can use one movement to perfectly set a horse up for the next. We might take shoulder in to assist in setting the green horse up for a canter transition or we might wind a travers circle down into a working pirouette. Tests are not set up like that. Often a movement is preceded by the very last thing that you would want to use in order to set that movement up in training; that is the whole point of it being a test. To compete successfully we need to treat the dressage test as though it were a course of jumps and work out exactly what question we are being asked.
How to Break Down Your Dressage Test.
I will always help a pupil prepare for a test with equal seriousness regardless of the level they are riding at. There is no such thing as an easy test, no matter how experienced a rider you are or how basic it’s elements.
From the start of the test to the end ask yourself this “when I ride from movement X to movement Y what is it that could go wrong, why is is difficult to do that?” Because it will be difficult, it is designed to be so. Knowing what could go wrong tells you what you must do, because that is the inverse of what you must not do.
Understand the possible negative outcome, acknowledging it is perfectly healthy and necessary. If you know that it is realistically within your power to ride the movement really well then work out how you can best ride from movement X to movement Y. It can be useful to talk someone through it, as you might walk a course of jumps with a pupil, explaining your thinking as you go.
We want to end up in a place where we can focus our mind purely on the positive, on the desired outcomes. In order to get to that place however we need to look closely at the potential pitfalls which the test designer has put in place for us. Once we have examined them and we know how to avoid them we can create our positive visualisation. Then, having visualised how, we can ride from movement to movement calmly, happily and in the best possible way.
My process is something like this. I will use one set of movements from from a mid level test as an example. If the test is asking me to make extended trot over a diagonal and then to turn onto the centre line and make half pass back to the wall there are three main elements to consider.
Let us suppose that the diagonal was set up well and the horse began the extension in good form. It was attentive, engaged and supple throughout. But many a diagonal in extension begins well and ends not quite so well.
- I could lose balance (mine and/or the horse’s) towards the end of the diagonal. My horse could be wide behind, disengaged and relatively tense through the back. Therefore if I want to make the best of the overall test performance I must not ask for greater length of stride than my horse can comfortably handle in good balance. If I err on the side of caution I will keep the horse soft through the back and light in the hand. I might have slightly understated the scope of the extension but the balance will be good and we will flow softly into the corner. Instead of going all out to maximise marks on one movement I have ridden more conservatively in order to maximise marks over several movements. This can prove the superior strategy.
- As I ride into the corner I must ensure that I don’t allow the bend to lose its uniformity. Those of you who have read my earlier articles will know that I am a stickler for controlled bending, you might say the straightness within the bending. If the horse breaks at the wither it will fall onto the outside shoulder to some degree. If it does that you will compromise your turn onto the centre line. This goes for every centre line, at every level.
- As I ride onto the centre line I have the shoulder mass exactly where I want it and I can focus on placing the shoulders ahead of the quarters. I was taught to begin every half pass with a step or two of shoulder in. Because the turn was well set up and well executed I know that both hind legs are softly engaging, the back is relaxed and the bend is uniform through the body of the horse. No half pass could have a better set up than that.
With every test I look at the link between the first movement and the second, the second and the third, and so on in this way. I recognise the potential pitfalls and I think about how I can strategically avoid them. That is one aspect of the process. The second is to look at the composition of the test in more general terms.
In early levels there is more use of a mirror image format. Something is done on one rein in one gait, then often you return to a lower gait for a while, and then on returning to the higher gait you repeat the earlier movement to the other side. This provides respite for the horse’s cardio system and the transitions allow you to rebalance. In more demanding tests there is less and less respite as you go up the levels. The canter work is often more of a block and it requires a higher level of cardio fitness if the movements nearer the end of the test are going to be executed well. You need to be realistic about the level of fitness your horse has relative to the test and build that up if necessary. Your own fitness needs to be far greater too, if you want to get the very best performance from your horse. In Rider Fitness I wrote about how your performance as a dressage rider can be greatly improved through physical fitness.
The final, and the most important, thing I want to talk about is the horse’s way of going, relative to the test. It is no coincidence that many good riders compete a level or two below the training level of the horse. They have not fallen into the vanity trap of competing outside of their comfort zone in order to say that they are at this level or that. It is far better for your confidence and that of the horse to know you are competing well within your training limits. It is a huge advantage to work with a coach, one who will be kind but honest with you! It also helps to go watch a range of horses at your chosen level; it is wise to pay most attention to elite combinations. See how well the movements are performed but also pay attention to the way of going, the level of fitness and most of all the muscular development of the horse. To succeed at competitive dressage it really is a case of ‘its not what you do, its the way that you do it’.
Pre Competition Checklist
- You need to analyse how well you execute the test elements, then how the performance level stands up to your linking those elements together in a test format. Finally work through the test in it’s entirety and see how it feels.
- You need to know if your horse is fit enough for the level. The best horses at every level are cardio fit and correctly muscled.
- Lastly you should watch a range of combinations at your level and honestly compare video of your horse with what you have seen. If your horse is as relaxed through it’s body, as steady in the contact and as light in the forehand as the better combinations then you will feel confident in the results you are likely to get. Most important of all find a good coach and listen to their advice.
When the way of going is right for the level, when the horse is fit and strong and when you learn to strip down the test, look at it’s components and then put it back together you will be well equipped for success. Most importantly of all you will feel confident and enjoy the experience of competing!
It is you versus the test, not you versus the other competitors!
If you would like to find out more about riding better lateral work have a look at these earlier articles –
A Dressage Dilemma!
Which would you choose if you had to? If I said you can have a brilliant horse or a horse which will perform reliably well, which one would you take? Of course in the ideal world we wouldn’t have to choose, our horse would be brilliant and consistent. In reality most horses are not at either end of this spectrum but somewhere closer to the middle and we have to ride the horse we have on the day. There are horses, and indeed humans, though who definitely tend towards one extreme or another and all too frequently the human half of a combination selects a horse who is similar in disposition rather than one who complements his or her personality.
Personally I am drawn to brilliance over consistency. I value consistency and work at achieving it because I recognise it’s importance. In competition I often feel it to be an injustice when consistency triumphs over talent. I am well aware that this is personality driven and that I am not necessarily right to feel that way. A dressage test was, prior to 1921, a test for military riders and their horses. Now brilliance isn’t what you need on campaign, let alone in battle. Go back a few centuries and nobody ever said “shame, he was killed but did you see that floaty uphill trot the horse was doing?”Even now I strongly suspect army units on parade duty really wouldn’t want many of our top level dressage horses in their ranks. If the dressage test is a test of obedience, control and correct athletic development then the consistent horse deserves to win hands down.
But we have wandered a long way from where we started in 1921 (not that I personally remember) and civilian riders, amateur and professional alike, have gradually transformed the sport into something utterly different. A second thread has been woven into the fabric of what we do. It is as ancient and important as the need for a reliable horse in war. This second thread is the expressive power of the horse in display. Whenever a human climbs up onto the back of a horse that human will feel inclined to show off just a little! Some of us feel inclined to show off quite a lot. Re conjuring under saddle the display behaviours of the horse at liberty is a big part of dressage. It may not have been at the forefront of the mind when dressage tests were initially developed for officers chargers and cavalry mounts but it had been around forever in a broader social context. There has always been an elite prancing around on the backs of beautiful, valuable horses. When we re conjure those display behaviours in half ton creatures we play with fire. I think that is a subtle part of the appeal. When I hear people say dressage is for wusses I just grin and think of some horses I have ridden. I wonder just how long my hunting friends would remain onboard! As a rider I have never been particularly brave but I am adventurous. My desire to experience the sharper, hotter, more challenging horse has often won out over the fear I have felt curling in the pit of my stomach. The need to be a better rider for these horses has driven me to think, to read, to listen and try, when I might otherwise might not have bothered.
When I judge, as I was doing a few days ago, I have to be very very careful not to let my love of brilliance create a higher tolerance for mistakes than would otherwise be there if the horse were less impressive. I cannot have the mindset I would have as a rider or spectator. I cannot say a mistake did not matter in the broader context of potential future greatness. Sometimes I am the judge who allows consistency to triumph over talent and whereas that can seem galling it is also only right. The less brilliant horse is usually a trusting, willing partner to its rider. It tries its heart out and it might not make your jaw drop but it very often deserves its victory. I am always very aware of the two contrasting elements, the context of a test versus the forum for display, and it is a truly wonderful thing when a horse is the personification of both expression and control. That is when the role of a judge is easy. The rest of the time there is always an inner disagreement taking place, which has to be resolved each time in the space of a few seconds.
It is a good thing that there is such diversity of opinion and personality within the ranks of riders, coaches and judges. If we all had the same priorities it would be terrible. I was once told that only by tolerating imperfections in horses would I ever get close to perfection. It was seemingly contradictory advice but it began to make sense over the years. Now I wonder if some of the less brilliant horses might have been more so if they had not been burdened with inhibitions by riders who value control at all costs. I cannot recall the exact quote but Nuno Olivera wrote of there being, in his opinion, subdued horses and educated horses. I have experienced the difference and I know what I prefer. When we take a young colt or filly out of the herd and train it I think we have a duty to respect its personality and offer it an education which is customised for that personality. Hopefully we can allow the brilliance to grow in even the quietest of horses and equally cultivate some self control in the most unruly of horses. This has to be the ultimate test of the rider, to shape the horse’s personality without crushing it. Hopefully then, if we choose to, we will be able to bring it down the centre line towards a judge who will envy us every second of the ride.