Driven Dressage from the Judge’s Eye
By Nikki Alvin-Smith
For carriage drivers that love to compete, the dressage portion of any event is often a dreaded component of their day. Something that everyone wants over and done with as quickly as possible so they can move on to the more exciting Marathon portion of the competition. The requirement for dressage essentially stems from the need to demonstrate that you have excellent control of your horse and vehicle at all times and can positively effect changes in direction and pace without fuss or upset.
Thus the dressage phase encourages competitors to train their horses properly, which adds a valuable safety factor for all concerned.
Expect to be judged on your horse’s forwardness, responsiveness, elasticity, and grace while executing a set pattern of movements. The arena is a 40- by 100-meter space and the judges eyes will be on you for the entire test. Don’t panic! Judges are notoriously kind to the novice whip. The judges are looking for certain criteria in your horse’s manner and movement. A rhythmic cadence, a good quality of movement, and precision of transitions all contribute to the score. It is also imperative that you have your horse appropriately turned out in the right equipment and that as a pair you present a pleasing picture full of elegance and confidence.
Here are a few tips on how to nail that dressage section and to showcase your horse based on what the dressage judge wants to see and how to avoid disappointing dressage scores. It is important to note that competitors who score well in the dressage portion of a three-day event or 3-phase event often win the entire competition. The basics of being in full control of your horse and vehicle for the dressage phase will also be measured in the last portion of the 3-phase event when you are asked to drive at speed through the cones. Once again, this will come down to precision. So if you are serious about competing, now is the time to get down to dressage.
Accurate Movements Count
As an international Grand Prix dressage rider I am well aware of the difficulties that can arise during and between movements in the arena. I have suffered the error of going off course more times than I would like to confess, entirely forgetting our route. My equine partners have done all manner of things that were outside the purview of the test. They have taken impromptu solo journeys around the grounds leaving me literally ‘behind’ in the dust, spooked clear across the ring at pots of bright flowers, broken white boards and plastic chains and stepped gaily in and outside of the arena. Loose dogs, blowing tents, escaped plastic bags have all joined us in our arena uninvited. Schooling has sometimes been entirely forgotten and the horse has utterly refused to stop and halt at X. These things happen. As long as nobody gets hurt we can always give it another go the next time. The important thing is to know you are not alone in any nervousness you may suffer and that with experience you will learn to channel it productively. Horses do keep us humble!
The judges want to see that the horse maintains its balance around corners, demonstrates evenness in its gait and rhythm, and displays a soft connection from bit through the rein to the rider’s hand. I sympathize with the learning curve that driven dressage presents to the neophyte driver. Remember everyone has had those crushing high scores at driving with test sheets littered with penalties, and gone off course or made a giant mistake. The best way forward during a test is to forget the error and focus on the next movement at hand. Or as us British say, “ Keep calm and carry on.” Your hands should always remain calm, your smile and look at me attitude intact. Things will become easier. I promise.
The best way to improve your horse’s balance and transitions is to ride the horse. Ideally this would be following a dressage program that teaches the horse all dressage basics. Naturally the bit connection is slightly different for the driven horse versus the ridden horse, and a driven dressage judge will not mind some slackening of the inside turning rein in the carriage or seeing a horse that is slightly behind the vertical. By riding the horse correctly you will strengthen its topline, improve its balance and encourage it to take vocal instruction and bit contact.
When riding you can also practice all the figures that are required in novice driven dressage such as beautifully round circles, riding from letter to letter and become familiar with the location of those letters. An easy way to score well in a dressage test comes up twice, that is at the halt. So working the horse correctly to attain a good transition into and out of the halt will please any judge. The required patience to stand quietly will immediately enhance the overall positive impression when you start your test, and the judge will keenly reward a good start and finish to a test.
Once your horse has acclimated to the halt under saddle you can add the weight of the vehicle and the voice commands you have instilled and immediately improve your score. It is prudent to add a command after the ‘whoa’ such as ‘stand’ and when practicing this at home always do it at the end of a workout when the horse is tired and wishes to oblige. The added bonus reward of then finishing the training session will help ingrain into your horse that being patient is a good thing.
How to make circles completely round is always an issue for the novice driver. If you practice both with the horse under saddle and when put to the carriage utilizing ‘gate’ cones placed two at the centerline on each side and one on each track i.e. at each quarter on the circle, it will give you the basis for correct work. As you drive or ride always focus on the cone gate at the next quarter of the circle, this will turn your head in the direction of travel and will drop your inside shoulder slightly when driving which is enough relaxation of the inside rein to allow the horse to bend in the direction of the turn. Remember judges do not wish to see a whip try and pull a horse around the turn with the rein so keep your hands as still and steady as possible. As a clinician in dressage I often see riders trying to make their horse bend to the inside by hauling on the inside rein. This simply blocks the movement of the horse’s shoulder on that side and prevents him from stepping up from behind with his hind leg and enjoying the freedom of bending in the turn. Don’t do it!
When you make any change in direction e.g. from the short side of the arena across the diagonal, always start the turn just before the letter. If you make the turn as you meet the letter you will always be late and miss the line. As you approach the track on the other side of the arena aim just to the left of the letter if making a right turn and just to the right of the letter if making a left turn. Judges love to see accurate turns.
When you begin driving dressage you will most likely be in a smaller cart or carriage than later in your career. Remember corners are not to be driven as a right angle but rather on a curve. The judge will be looking for you to utilize the scope of the corner and not to cut in or have your horse fall on his shoulder to the inside of the turn. The smaller your horse and vehicle, the deeper into the corner you need to go to score well. Once again proper ridden work will help your horse improve his balance in the turns and as you have the benefit of your leg and seat aids you are able to drive that inside hind leg up into your inside rein with a soft leg aid which will help him avoid losing his balance.
Keep Things Straight
Judges love to see a novice whip drive the horse in a truly straight line. The best way to keep your horse from meandering about the highly visible centerline as you enter and walk into and out of the halt toward the judge is to be sure you maintain an excellent active walk. What do we mean by that? It means the walk should be energetic but not rushed with the hind foot touching the ground in front of the footprint of forefeet with an even and determined stride. Rein contact should be light. Focus your gaze at a point past ‘C’ and the judge, as you send your horse into the walk. Judges always want to see a free and active walk throughout the test and it is wise to always ask your horse for the same at any time he is put to the carriage. The adage, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect,” is one to remember. Whether riding or driving, the horse should always be paying attention to you and he should move off promptly from the halt to the walk.
A trick I use with my dressage students to help them follow a straight line or make a true circle and to gain spatial awareness in the arena is to lay a track of sawdust on the track I wish them to follow.
Attitude and Turn Out
It is a fact that when we dress for the occasion we tend to execute our duties with more confidence. Both your horse and the judges will appreciate a confident air and happy (though not inane) smile and a well turned out pair. The quickest ways to score badly are to have a groom that chatters, to not know your test, to talk too much to your horse throughout the test or to have help from others outside the ring. Inappropriate tack, dirty or unkempt tack or poor appearance of whip, groom or horse will be immediately detrimental to the score. Know all the rules before you begin. It is heartbreaking to lose a good place because of a missing piece of tack or whip, or ignorance of a rule.
Mitigate the chances of having a bad go by making a good first impression. If you are concerned that your horse may spook at new objects then use the 90 seconds after the bell rings to walk your horse past the scary objects like the judges booth, tables, chairs and flowers in pots. If your horse is particularly susceptible to new objects, take the time before the classes begin to bring your horse for a tour of the space so he can adjust to the new environment without the stress of the show atmosphere. Practice at home by adding flapping flags to fence posts and similar objects o your schooling ring will also help desensitize your horse.
Remember that ribbons and trophies are won by the work you do at home. If you are not properly prepared by your training at home, the added excitement and tension at a showgrounds will do nothing to enhance the confidence of yourself of your horse. The show arena is the place you showcase all that hard work you put in at home.
Judges want to know that you are keen on the art of driving, have done your homework and contrary to your worries that they are there only to cast their critical judge’s eye on your partnership, they really want you to excel and to help you learn so their criticism is usually extremely constructive. Always check your scoresheet for errors such as missing scores. Human error happens.
About the author: Nikki Alvin-Smith is a professional freelance writer and content creator, who works with a variety of publications and manufacturers worldwide. She is a British international Grand Prix dressage trainer/clinician who has competed in Europe at the Grand Prix level earning scores of over 72%. Together with her husband Paul, who is also a Grand Prix rider, they operate Willowview Hill Farm, a private horse breeding/training farm in Stamford, NY. Please visit her website at https:/www.nikkialvinsmithstudio.com to learn more.