Raising the Ante at First Level

U.S. dressage judges have now had a year to see how riders are handling the tests that were introduced in December 2010. I would say, in general, that the tests are a success but that many of the riders attempting them aren?t addressing the challenges as well as they should. I felt when I judged last weekend in Georgia, for example, that the riders at Second and Third levels were handling things pretty well, but—at this show at least—the riders at Training and especially First Level were struggling.

One big difference at the lower levels (Training through Second) is that the number of tests per level was reduced from four tests to three. In addition, the tests themselves are a little tighter, with each movement coming up more quickly than in the past. These challenges mean that riders have more at stake when they enter a show, especially if the test and level is a “stretch” rather than a level where they have confirmed their work.

An effect of having three tests instead of four is that the progression through each level is now steeper. Test 1 is harder than in the past, not a gradual introduction to the level. Test 3 is a summary of the questions being addressed at that level in preparation for the step up to the next level. You can’t just ease your way up to a new level and test the waters, you have to be prepared to jump into the deep end and really swim.

My impression after watching riders all year is that the effect of having only three tests per level is felt most strongly at First Level ? Training Level flows much as it did before with some room to make mistakes, and Second Level is still mostly an examination of how well the horse and rider understand collection. The judges just can’t be as forgiving of mistakes at First Level as they are at Training Level, and without a gradual progression through the tests to learn from these mistakes, their effect becomes more glaring. Right from the start at First Level Test 1, the horse must be on the bit, supple though the top line, correctly bent through each corner, and show clear transitions within all three gaits with clear lengthenings.

It seems that riders who have shown above First Level in the past are handling this pretty well. They are training their young horses above the level where they are showing, to be prepared for the challenge of performing under show conditions. Riders who haven’t previously shown at First Level seem to approach it mostly as new patterns without also considering that the overall quality of the performance is more demanding.

One big difference between Training and First levels is that the rider has to pay more attention to what happens ?between? the movements around the short ends of the arena to prepare for what comes next. Often that involves gaining control of the outside shoulder in shoulder-fore so the horse is straight when the rider asks for a trot or canter lengthening. The key moment in First Level Test 3 is a very brief counter bend coming out of the corner that precedes the first leg yield, from the long side to the centerline. If you don’t change the bend so you can half halt on the new “outside” rein (which is actually toward the inside of the ring at that point), you can’t get that leg yield, the figure 8 that follows, the leg-yield back to the long side and even the “stretchy chewy” after that, because the horse loses his balance and often his composure, and tHere’s just no time to get them back. I rarely see riders make that initial change of bend and half halt with clarity and confidence, and then they’re doomed to muddle through the next four movements until they breathe a deep sigh of relief going into the walk portion of the test.

With the trot patterns becoming so relentless at First Level, the test writers decided to give the riders (and horses!) a break by allowing the option of posting the trot. All the movements can be performed just as easily posting and sitting, although the half halts will come through with greater clarity for the riders with a secure position who can sit the trot through all these transitions. Maybe the posting option made First Level look easier than it really is, because many of the riders I’ve seen just seem to be out of their depth.

The irony here is that decades ago First Level used to be exactly that, the first level of tests offered and the first level of difficulty. These were considered to be the most basic requirements for anyone entering the show ring in dressage. Now there are two levels that precede First Level: Training and Introductory. But, First Level now again seems to be the spot where riders have something at stake that requires real preparation and understanding of how the quality of their training at home will pay off for them in the ring.