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By Kit Rolfe

A few tips to help you ride your first Preliminary dressage test.

Whether you be a show rider, show jumper or simply a pleasure rider, taking up basic dressage can only enhance your enjoyment of your chosen discipline. In this article I'll give you a few tips designed to help you ride your first Prelim test.

In recent years dressage has really opened up to the masses and become very popular .I passionately feel that this can only be for the greater good for all our horses. An obedient ,mannerly ,well schooled horse or pony will rarely have a problem finding a home.

O K so you're going to try a test. Why ? well you want to improve your communication and mutual understanding between you and your equine friend ,you want to feel the sense of achievement and satisfaction that a good performance gives you and maybe you just want to do it for pleasure.

The aim of a Preliminary test is to show that the horse has true, regular paces, is calm and obedient to the riders aids, moves forward in a naturally rounded outline and accepts the bit willingly. He should be straight on straight lines and bend accordingly on a circle. He should also perform smooth transitions and remain still when halted. The rider should adopt a correct position and show that their seat is independent of the reins. Aids should be applied clearly and a constant light contact maintained with the horses mouth.


Jazmyn demonstrates a square halt while I check my position.
The tip of the toe should be directly under the knee. The shoulder hip and heel should allow a vertical line to be drawn through them and it should be possible to draw a straight line from the elbow through the wrist and down the rein to the horses mouth. As you can see in this picture all this is possible.

When I teach a new pupil , before any riding is done, we have a discussion on various basic issues of horsemanship. Position is crucial as the distribution of your bodyweight will dictate much of your horses way of going, so work hard on getting your position right and show as little movement as possible. The most valuable tip I can give you on this is to ride without stirrups on a regular basis ( though not on a youngster, and always warming up the horse through the back before removing your stirrups ). If you do this you will find your balance ,position and effectiveness is greatly improved.

The next point to discuss is 'accuracy .If you adopt the habit of riding accurately from day one you will always pick up marks in a dressage test.When you school your horse always plan exactly what you're going to do and always insist that your horse goes exactly where you want him to go.

At Preliminary level you will find you have some leeway in certain tests as to the exact point that you make a transition e.g. in Prelim 7 you can make a canter transition at any point on the circle between X and A .Choose these easier tests at first until you can be confident of making a transition at the exact point stated.

When you practice at home it's wiser not to practice the whole test too many times as this will make your horse anticipate. Practice riding parts of the test and make sure you understand the exact size and shape of the patterns yo will be riding. My first riding instructor, the late Lionel Graham, taught me a wonderful way to memorize tests. He told me to draw a picture of each movement in the test .I would roughly draw the required amount of mini arenas and fill in the movements with dotted lines. By the time I'd laboriously done this I could picture the whole test clearly in my head. Of course,as you ride, more and more tests you automatically start to memorize them quickly.

1 A three loop serpentine starting from letter A

At Prelim level you will ride 5 metre loops, serpentines, 20 metre circles , half ten metre circles and changes of the rein through X'. You may perform your test in sitting or rising trot but don't forget to sit on the correct diagonal in rising trot (always sitting when the outside shoulder comes back ) . This is another habit best learned from day one as you will encourage your horse to become one sided and unbalanced if you are not strict on this.

2 A half ten metre circle between H and G returning to the track at letter E

When riding serpentines change the diagonal when crossing the centre line. When riding a loop change diagonal at the widest point of the loop and again when reaching the track . When changing the rein through letter X this is where you change the diagonal.. When changing the rein aim just before the marker, this will ensure that as you hit the track and straighten up you will be spot on.
When you feel ready to make your first attempt at a test it's most important that you think positively and ride positively , always remember the 'F' word , .FORWARD . Ride your horse forward in all paces and through all transitions , it's just as important to ride forward in the downward transition as in the upward. Forward does not mean faster, it means creating more energy, power and impulsion. This needs to come from behind the saddle as this is where the horses engine is and it will mean the difference between obtaining good marks or adverse comments such as 'not in front of the leg'.

Czak demonstrates his medium walk.

In most tests the best mark can be picked up from the walk work as one of these marks will usually be doubled. In your free walk on a long rein the horse should be stretching down and out and seeking the contact of the bit . The reins should be long but not loose or baggy. He should be 'marching' , as if walking toward a bucket of oats. If you allow your horse to dawdle in the walk he may not even track up,get a friend to watch you from the ground and tell you when you are obtaining a good 'overtrack'. This means that the hind feet should be falling ahead of the tracks made by the front feet and this is what you want.

Note the difference as Czak now performs his 'free walk on a long rein'.

It may be a good idea , the first time you compete, if you get a friend to call the test for you then you can concentrate solely on what you are doing. Don't make the mistake of going out and performing just one test ,if you can help it.It's essential, if you and your horse are inexperienced, that if things go badly in the first test you then have an opportunity to go in again and put things right. My experience with novices is that things are much less tense the second time in.

lf you are nervous it's quite easy to make an 'error of course' and go wrong. It's only one movement so it needn't affect the whole too seriously. If I make an error of course I use this little hiatus of time to collect my thoughts, my horse and my wits! I then turn it to my advantage by preparing carefully for the correct movement. You only lose 2 marks for your first error but things can become costly if you make more than one mistake and 2 marks can easily cost you first place if you're unlucky ( as I know to my cost ).

Finally we come to the turnout of you and your horse.In this aspect dressage is similar to showing.You should look your best in order to create a good overall impression. This combined with a good entry and a straight centre line will set your stock soaring with the judge.
At the lower levels of dressage it's correct to wear a tweed jacket together with a neatly tied stock (practice makes perfect ), beige or cream breeches or jodhpurs, a velvet hunting cap or crash cap and long boots or jodhpur boots (in the case of a junior).It's also acceptable to wear a collar and tie. It is compulsory to wear gloves. You may carry a schooling whip and you may wear spurs .Chin straps are compulsory at most unaffiliated venues but not at affiliated ones. It is not permitted to carry a whip in championships.

Ideally your horse should be plaited , in the case of an Arab or mountain and moorland pony a crest plait is desirable ( again, practice makes perfect ). A snaffle bridle should be worn and although there are several types of snaffle bit you can only use one where the mouthpiece is made of the same substance, i.e.. no copper link in a stainless steel bit etc. Martingales and bit guards are not permitted, even in the warm up, and boots must be removed before entering the arena.

If you possess a dressage saddle obviously this is the best type of saddle for you to wear as it will help you. If not a straight cut saddle ( show or working hunter ) or a GP will be suitable in brown or black . For a numnah I think a simple white dressage square looks nice.
Well, you're all set to go! As the judge rings the bell, or beeps the horn (this means you have one minute to enter ), think positive! You owe this to your horse because however hard your heart is beating or however powerless your legs have become, your horse needs you.

So, go ahead, ride him and good luck !

Kit Rolfe

If anyone would like to discuss placing a horse with Kit for schooling , dressage / showing production or breaking please e-mail or Tel 01787 472053 (North Essex )

© Kit Rolf & Arabian Lines 2005

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