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In Stride: Progressing to and from First Level
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In Stride: Progressing to and from First Level


By Kristin Hermann

Horsetrend Magazine, April 1989

("Tests have been revised since this article were written, but the basic premise is the same progression." Kristin, July 2002)


All dressage tests build upon one another and each movement within each test prepares the horse and rider for the next level. Also called movements, they are merely the gymnastics exercises the horse needs to further its progress to Grand Prix. Progressing from Training Level to First Level is a minor jump in the scale of levels to Grand Prix, although it is a major transition as Training Level prepares the horse for all dressage. First Level follows suit by setting the groundwork for collection, and achieving collection is the basis for all advanced work. Therefore, entering First Level properly with an understanding of its purpose is mandatory if one is to progress through the levels of dressage.


Training Level


At Training Level, the horse goes willingly forward and the rider learns to harness the horse's rhythm by asking the horse to move off the leg aid and flex at the poll. Thus, with each stride the horse's energy is captured in the hand and recycled back to the horse's haunches through the aids.


Training Level requires 20-meter circles. In Tests 1 and 2 the horse does not have to be on the bit. The horse need only show that it fluently goes forward and is relaxed, accepting the rider's aids. In Tests 3 and 4, the horse is expected to go on the bit at a trot and canter. There is not sitting trot until the horse fully accepts being on the aids and its back has developed elastically to carry the rider unburdened (First Level).


Canter departs for Training Level Tests 1 and 2 are performed out of the corner and/or in the corner. The horse has the benefit of the doubt, plus five or six strides to get the canter depart. The corner also prepares the horse for the correct lead. Tests 3 and 4 requires more accuracy since the horse is advancing, thus the canter depart is at the letter and not in between.


A rider can clearly see what is required of their horse in First Level by reviewing the tests. First Level Tests 1 and 2 requires fifteen-meter circles and lengthenings at a trot and canter. In Tests 2 and 3, the circles become ten meters and leg yielding begins. Free walks are required, but these are mandatory in all tests until Second Level.


Canter departs out of the corner are still required until First Level Test 3 when the horse begins canter departs on the straight line of the diagonal. (Keeping the horse straight in the haunches for a canter depart is vital when it comes time for flying changes [Third Level] as the haunches should not swing higher in or out, but remain straight so all the thrust and power is forward.)


Ten-Meter Circles


In First Level, the circles get smaller in order for the horse to come more under from behind and carry more weight. As a result, by riding First Level movements, the muscles required for the horse to collect himself (Second Level) begin to develop. But, this only happens provided the horse is not stifled in its forward impulsion, and the rhythm of the trot and canter does not fluctuate.


Riding a correct ten-meter circle is challenging not only for a rider beginning First Level, but for the horse as well. Horses may try to swing the haunches either in or out on a smaller circle because it is easier than stepping under to carry the weight. Therefore, a rider must be ready with the leg aids to hold the haunches onto the arc of the circle, and the rein aid to capture and receive the impulsion. For this reason, First Level movements in Test 2 begin with a ten-meter half-circle instead of a full ten-meter circle.


Moving up to First Level develops a little shorter frame within the horse, and as the rider schools the First Level movements in Tests 1 and 2 this frame will develop. In other words, as the horse does a one-half ten-meter circle, and is ridden balanced on the aids and steps under to achieve the circle, its head will come up. Since staying on the bit at First Level must be consistent, the rider's job is to not only keep the haunches from falling in or out with leg aids, but to keep the horse soft in the jaw and flexed at the poll while it makes the smaller circles.


When the horse begins working on a smaller circle, it is normal and natural for the head to come up. In actuality this is what the rider wants. The head comes up as a direct result of the haunches coming more underneath the horse's center of gravity to carry the rider and the horse. The head coming up is not a threat to the performance as long as flexion at the poll is achievable. Thus, a continual contact through the rein will keep the rider feeling for flexion at all times, so the horse remains on the bit throughout the circle's arc.




First Level Tests 1 and 2 show a lengthening at a rising trot as this gives the horse's back freedom to use itself and lengthen, but in Tests 3 and 4, the horse is expected to have enough suppleness within its back muscles to carry the rider who remains sitting for the lengthenings.


Lengthenings at the trot and canter in First Level show important aspects of the horse's gymnastic ability - lengthening and relaxation of the back muscles, the ability to do downward transitions within the gait, and/or the engagement of the haunches, without the rider pulling at the horse to slow it down. A rider's ability to show a lengthening proves that their horse is submissive to the aids as it strides forward into the hands with rhythm, and easily returns to the working gait without resistance.

The ten-meter circle at a sitting trot will help to train lengthenings providing the rider is not contracting the horses muscles only. Ideally, if one does a ten-meter circle, the horse's haunches come under the head up - the frame shortens, and the back muscles soften with the bend, but the impulsion is not lost. As a result, the elasticity within the back also remains. Then, when the rider goes back to the rail, the horse stretches into a working trot frame. This process is continual as one rides a circle (the frame shortens), then goes straight (the frame lengthens) and then rides another circle.


Lengthenings also show that the horse is able to stretch further under with the hind legs and not lose balance or rhythm. As the rider and horse progress up the levels, what were originally lengthenings of the muscles turn into suspension within the strides. The horse becomes more animated within the stride rather than merely lengthened. The muscles are still lengthening only they spring up and forward, not just forward. The medium gaits, which begin in Second Level, are the transition or groundwork towards achieving the extending gaits.


A horse that performs lengthened, medium, and extended gaits is rather like an accordion that the rider is playing between their aids as they allow the horse to stretch and contract under their weight. The rhythm, or music, of the gait remains harmonious as the accordion (spine and back muscles of the horse stretch longer then shorter).


Allowing the horse to stretch within its workouts whether it be with a rising working trot, lengthenings across the diagonal, or down and out, is important toward keeping the back muscles supple and relaxed. If the horse is only asked to come up and shorten the frame, the ability to lengthen its muscles may be jeopardized. The back muscles of the dressage horse will create and sustain a springy gait if they remain supple under the riders weight. (See the article "Down and Out, Acquired Natural Carriage in Dressage").


Riding Straight Lines


A true lengthening cannot be performed unless the horse is straight, so riding straight lines off the walls of the arena at a sitting, rising trot, and/or a canter are an excellent way to know if the horse is on the aids and straight. If we ride too many circles, we may neglect to feel if the horse is truly on the outside rein and as a result, our horse may over bend laterally in both directions. Therefore, test this by riding on the quarter line of the arena (half way between center line and the wall). The horse may try to wander toward the rail because it is has become dependent on the wall. Riding straight lines, besides helping to train for lengthening the outside the rein and/or knowing for sure if the horse is balanced and on the aids, will help with progressing to leg yielding.


Leg Yielding


Once you begin to train leg yielding (first shown in First Level Test 1), the horse may anticipate moving sideways every time you leave the wall. So, here again, riding straight lines is important. When practicing leg yielding toward the wall, suddenly ride a straight line before you reach the wall. This simple exercise will show whether or not you and the horse are performing harmoniously together or riding mechanical movements. This exercise of riding a straight line from a leg yielding can also be done out of a circle where the horse is spiraling in and out to learn leg yielding.


In test 3, however, where the circle left would naturally produce a leg yield right, in test 4, the horse must wait for the riders' command because the horse has to change the bend or positioning in its body to leg yield to the left. Here again, is another proving ground that shows the horse's response to the rider. Similar to a lengthening where the horse will stretch forward into the rider's hands and come back without losing its balance or rhythm, with leg yielding the horse learns to move sideways off the rider's leg and into the hands especially into the outside rein without losing balance or rhythm. (Stepping sideways is the beginning of lateral work and the stepping under is also a movement to help develop collection.)


When the horse accepts moving sideways off the leg aid and not only going forward off the leg, is its way of communicating to the rider that it accepts being on the aids (working from the leg to the hand accepting the bit), and is capable of carrying more weight with its hindquarters without rushing. Thus, when the horse is able to leg yield, the rider knows it is now ready to learn shoulder-in, which is essentially a more concentrated effort of the rider's leg and hand aids working in diagonal communication to harness the horse's First Level gymnastic abilities into Second Level.


Upon reaching this point, all the trot work beyond First Level is done sitting. All the movements learned thus far (leg yielding, lengthenings and especially the 10-meter circles) help to develop the horse's muscles to carry the rider unburdened at a sitting trot. As the horse moves into Second Level, its frame becomes even shorter to the eye, but with all the lengthenings, and medium gaits in between the collection, the muscles remain long and supple. It is really a misconception to say that the frame shortens because the horse only steps more underneath from behind and begins to lower the haunches as the head and poll rise. The frame looks shorter, but in actuality it is only collected, ready to spring out with rhythmic impulsions to fluently express its ease and natural freedom carrying a rider to the final goal of Grand Prix.

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