In modern dressage competition, successful training at the various levels is demonstrated through the performance of "tests" of prescribed series of movements within a standard arena. Judges evaluate each movement on the basis of an objective standard appropriate to the level of the test and assign each movement a score from zero to ten - zero being "not executed" and 10 being "excellent". A score of 9 is considered "very good" and is considered a particularly high mark, while a competitor achieving all 6s (or 60% overall) should be considering moving on to the next level.
The standard dressage arena is 20m by 60m. The standard dressage arena letters are A-K-V-E-S-H-C-M-R-B-P-F. There is speculation as to why these letters were chosen. Most commonly it is believed because the German cavalry had a 20 x 60 meter area in between the barracks which had the letters posted above the doors. The letters in the middle of the arena are D-L-X-I-G, with X marking the center.
At the start of the test, the horse enters at A. There is always a judge sitting at C, although for upper-level competition, there are up to five judges at different places around the arena—at C, E, B, M, and H—which allows the horse to be seen in each movement from all angles. This helps prevent certain faults from going unnoticed, which may be difficult for a judge to see from only one area of the arena. For example, the horse's straightness going across the diagonal may be assessed by judges at M and H.
The dressage arena also has a centerline (from A to C, going through X in the middle), as well as two quarter-lines (halfway between the centerline and long sides of each arena).
Dressage competitions can be held at local clubs, some beginning with Prepatory level classes where riders need only walk and trot. Horses and riders advance through a graduated series of levels, with tests of increasing difficulty at each level, until the most accomplished horse and rider teams compete at the Grand Prix level and international competition, such as the Olympic games.
Dressage consists of the lower levels: Prep, Preliminary, Novice, Elementary, Medium and Advanced. The FEI (Federation Equestrian International) levels: Prix St. Georges, Intermediare I, Intermediare II and Grand Prix.
Each test is segmented into a number of sequential blocks which may contain one or more movements. Each block is generally scored between one and ten on the following scale:
9 Very good
7 Fairly good
3 Fairly Bad
1 Very bad
0 Not executed
In addition to marks for the dressage movements, marks are also awarded for more general attributes such as the horse's paces, submission, impulsion and the rider’s position. Some segments are given increased weight by the use of a multiplier, typically x2, which then doubles the marks given for that segment.
Penciling is the writing down of the scores and comments of Judges at dressage events, so that the Judge is able to concentrate on the performance. In addition to this the penciller should check the identity of each competitor, and ensure that the test papers are complete and signed before handing them to the scorers. The penciller should have some knowledge of dressage terminology, be smartly dressed and have legible handwriting. The penciller should also be professional in manner, neutral and will generally not engage in small talk or make comments. It is permissible to use abbreviations provided they are accepted and intelligible.
The dressage training scale is arranged in a pyramid fashion, with “rhythm and regularity” at the bottom of the pyramid and “collection” at the top. The training scale is used as a guide for the training of the dressage horse (or any horse, for that matter). Despite its appearance, the training scale is not meant to be a rigid format. Instead, each level is built on as the horse progresses in his training: so a Grand Prix horse would work on the refinement of the bottom levels of the pyramid, instead of focusing on only the highest level: “Collection”. The levels are also interconnected. For example, a crooked horse is unable to develop impulsion, and a horse that is not relaxed will be less likely to travel with a rhythmic gait. However, this training scale as presented below is a translation from the German to the English. As such, it is possibly not as accurate as it could be. It has been suggested, for example, that Losgelassenheit might be more accurately translated as "Suppleness".
Rhythm and Regularity (Takt)
Rhythm, gait, tempo, and regularity should be the same on straight and bending lines, through lateral work, and through transitions. Rhythm refers to the sequence of the footfalls, which should only include the pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter. The regularity, or purity, of the gait includes the evenness and levelness of the stride. Once a rider can obtain pure gaits, or can avoid irregularity, the combination may be fit to do a more difficult exercise. Even in the very difficult piaffe there is still regularity: the horse "trots on the spot" in place, raising the front and hind legs in rhythm.
The second level of the pyramid is relaxation (looseness). Signs of looseness in the horse may be seen by an even stride that is swinging through the back and causing the tail to swing like a pendulum, looseness at the poll, a soft chewing of the bit, and a relaxed blowing through the nose. The horse makes smooth transitions, is easy to position from side to side, and willingly reaches down into the contact as the reins are lengthened.
Contact—the third level of the pyramid—is the result of the horse’s pushing power, and should never be achieved by the pulling of the rider’s hands. The rider drives the horse into soft hands that allow the horse to come up into the bridle, and should always follow the natural motion of the animal’s head. The horse should have equal contact in both reins.
The pushing power (thrust) of the horse is called "Impulsion," and is the fourth level of the training pyramid. Impulsion is created by storing the energy of engagement (the forward reaching of the hind legs under the body). Proper impulsion is achieved by means of: Correct driving aids of the rider and Relaxation of the horse.
The flow of energy through the horse from front to back and back to front. The musculature of the horse is connected, supple, elastic, and unblocked, and the rider’s aids go freely through the horse. Impulsion can occur at the walk, trot and canter. It is highly important to establish good, forward movement and impulsion at the walk, as achieving desirable form in the trot and canter relies heavily on the transition from a good, supple, forward walk.
Impulsion not only encourages correct muscle and joint use, but also engages the mind of the horse, focusing it on the rider and, particularly at the walk and trot, allowing for relaxation and dissipation of nervous energy.
A horse is straight when his hind legs follow the path of his front legs, on both straight lines and on bending lines, and his body is parallel to the line of travel. Straightness causes the horse to channel his impulsion directly toward his center of balance, and allows the rider’s hand aids to have a connection to the hind end. Working in an arena can be tricky: the horse moving along the sidewall will respond to the sidewall and bring the shoulder 'out' (the inside front hoof will be nearer to the sidewall than the inside hindhoof).
At the apex of the training scale stands collection. It may refer to collected gaits: they can be used occasionally to supplement less vigorous work. It involves difficult movements (such as flying changes) in more advanced horses. Collection requires greater muscular strength, so must be advanced upon slowly. When in a collected gait, the stride length should shorten, and the stride should increase in energy and activity.
When a horse collects, he naturally takes more of his weight onto his hindquarters. Collection is natural for horses and is often seen during play in the meadow. A collected horse is able to move more freely. The joints of the hind limbs have greater flexion, allowing the horse to lower his hindquarters, bring his hind legs further under his body, and lighten the forehand. In essence, collection is the horse's ability to move its centre of gravity more backward. This should be shown during each transition to a lower gait, even by a novice horse.
The Spectator's Guide
Like most sports watching dressage is more interesting the more you know about it. Dressage tests used at competitions are divided by graduated levels, from the most basic walk/trot to the Grand Prix test which is the same test that is used in the Olympics. The tests are divided into separate movements, and the judge gives a score for each movement. The score sheets are then totalled to determine overall class results. It will help you understand what is going on if you can get a copy of the test you are watching, plus here are some additional thoughts:
1. Less is More
In dressage, the less you see the rider do, the better. This means that the rider is communicating with their horse quietly and the horse is attentive – i.e. they are working as a team.
2. Accurate Figures
Circles are round and lines are straight, a concept that is true in geometry and dressage. A 20 metre circle should go from one side of the arena to the other, and a 10 metre circle only half way across. A horse should not wobble on a straight-line movement.
3. Tempo and Rhythm
Rhythm is the repetition of footfalls. A sound dressage horse has only three correct rhythms – a four-beat walk, two-beat trot and three-beat canter. Tempo is the speed of repetition of the strides. Every horse should have a consistent tempo throughout the test that is controlled by the rider; a tempo so regular you could sing a song to it.
Horses, like humans, have good days and bad days, as well as days when they are just feeling a little too good. Naughtiness in horses can be exhibited by bucking, rearing, tossing of the head, or even jumping out of the dressage ring!
During a test, the horse needs to remain calm, relaxed and attentive. If the horse gets tense, they become rigid through their neck and back, which can exhibit itself in stiff movement, ears that are pinned back and a tail that swishes constantly and doesn’t hang quietly.
6. Rider Seat and Position
The rider should sit upright quietly and not be dependent on their whip, spurs or voice to perform a good test. Riders who use their voice have points deducted off their test score for that movement.
7. Salivating Lips
When a horse is relaxed in their jaw and poll (the area just behind his ears), they release saliva; you might see white foam around their lips and mouth. This is a good sign, as it means the horse is attentively chewing on the bit and comfortable with the work. The amount of white foam varies from horse to horse.
8. Horses and the Flight Instinct
Horses have two main mechanisms for protection from danger: they run (flight instinct) and they kick (fight instinct). Remember to always allow plenty of room for the horses at a competition and never approach any horse without first alerting the rider that you are doing so.
9. Scary Stuff
Horses have the strangest aversions: plastic grocery bags can remind them of Satan’s minions and an opened umbrella can cause bolting to the next state (the good old flight instinct!). Again, use caution at horse shows and think before you toss away noisy garbage, open an umbrella or put on and take off rain coats.
Focus is important during any test, from Prepatory Level to Grand Prix, so remember to be courteous and follow the rules by staying at least 15 meters back from the competition ring and remaining as quiet as possible during rides. If you have any questions about where you may stand or sit, check with a member of the organising committee.