There is much more to the introductory tests in dressage than riding a few lines and 20-meter circles. As with all dressage tests, they are designed so that the execution of the patterns demonstrates the correct training principles for a horse at that level. In other words, it’s not the patterns you are being tested on, it’s the underlying principles of correct training that you are demonstrating by riding certain patterns that form the basis of the test. While riders often use these basic tests to debut competing for themselves or a new horse, approaching the introductory test as if one is just riding a memorized pattern is missing the essence. If you want to start out on the right foot with your dressage journey, use the test as it was originally intended, and demonstrate that you grasp the underlying principles of correct riding and that your horse is trained in this way.
To understand the primary purpose, let’s first review the ultimate goal of dressage training. “Dressage” comes from the old French word “dresser” that simply means ‘to train’. We train the horse in this discipline to restore the horse’s natural movement and balance with the addition of the rider’s weight and actions. We can only do this by teaching the horse to manage his own balance and making the horse fit enough to sustain the new balance. We want to make the horse physically fit for his job, which will keep him sound and give him a long working lifetime. Nowhere in literature does it say that the purpose of dressage is to teach a horse and rider how to ride a 20-meter circle perfectly so they can win at a show.
On the test sheet for Intro B it states the purpose as: “To introduce the rider and/or horse to the sport… To show understanding of riding the horse forward with a steady tempo into an elastic contact, steady hands and balanced seat. To show proper geometry with correct bend…”
Let’s break it down in training terms.
To introduce the rider and/or horse to the sport:
I would take this statement a step further, and say these tests are to “Introduce the rider and/or horse to competition in the sport”. You don’t have to enter a show to participate in the sport and train correctly in the art of dressage, in fact, in classical terms competition is secondary. But if you do want to compete as a beginner these tests should be your first entry. Intro tests score the rider’s skill as well as the horses, so it is possible to be a novice rider and use a more trained horse for the test. Also, a young or green horse with a more experienced rider is appropriate. Some dressage organizations create different classes with that distinction and some do not.
These demonstrations of skill are meant to “confirm” that the pair has attained sufficient prowess in that level in order to move up. It has long been good practice that you enter a show at a level or two below where you are currently training. Many riders jump right into competing with the ‘let’s see where I’m at’ attitude. You will have more success if you understand the basics of the level you are riding, and are confident that you have attained those levels before entering the show ring. This will make the judge’s remarks more constructively focused on improving your training skill, instead of useless statements like ‘circle is not round’.
To show understanding of riding the horse forward with a steady tempo…:
“Regularity” means that your horse’s strides are even in all four quarters and generally the same length. This is one of the foundations of correct dressage training. Tempo is rate of forward movement (fancy way to say slower or faster) and each horse has a natural tempo where they are most comfortable. “Forward” does not mean fast. It means that the energy, (called thrust, or impulsion) of the hind end is flowing without resistance toward the direction of travel.
Most horses are not perfectly regular in their strides as every horse has natural crookedness, which at this level you are just starting to understand and correct. Tempo relates to “longitudinal balance”, or balance from head to tail. These four characteristics: regularity, tempo, forwardness, and longitudinal balance, are intimately connected. If your horse is overly balanced on the forehand, he may tend to have a quicker than optimal tempo. Heavy on the forehand can also turn into sluggishness or lack of forward energy. So the requirement of the test to ride in a “steady tempo” can be translated as the horse must be able to consistently balance front to back with the rider on top. It doesn’t matter what pattern you are doing, you have to pay attention to the balance in order to get that steady tempo. So from a judges perspective, a horse in the ring that is speeding up and then slowing down, or just sluggish all around, is struggling with longitudinal balance, and will be marked down on each movement and the overall collective marks (the general scores that measure the overall skill of horse and rider).
…into an elastic contact, steady hands and balanced seat:
The second part of this statement reflects the riders influence on the horse’s balance. A rider that is unsteady in their position, and tips forward or back, will disrupt the horse’s balance. This lack of stability will affect the rider’s hands, and thus the connection of the reins and bit to the horse’s mouth. An “elastic contact” is one that moves with the motion of the horse’s head. At this level, a horse will have motion in the head and neck, especially at the walk and the canter. A rider that has difficulty following this motion with the reins, while maintaining a connection (some slight weight in the reins), will inadvertently give the horse improper signals. He or she may have too much slack in the reins at one point and too much pressure at another. This will interfere with the horse’s balance and thus the tempo and forwardness of the movement. The horse may again speed up or slow down due to the mixed signals from the rider.
At this level, a “balanced seat” simply means that the rider has enough body control and awareness so that their position is reasonably stable and erect. You might think of this more as a “balanced position” rather than a balanced seat. For example, the rider who is tipping forward and back with the upper body is not in balance, nor is the rider who is shifted to one side or the other in the saddle, or collapsing in the rib cage to one side. All these issues affect the balance of the horse, and thus the accuracy and quality of the movements in the test, regardless of the geometry.
To show proper geometry with correct bend:
So why do we ride circles and other movements? Think of each pattern in a test as a mini-demonstration rather than simple geometric shape, and then ask yourself “what am I supposed to be demonstrating?” When a horse travels in a curved line, like on a circle, he (and the rider) must resist the forces that tend to push him out, like when we are riding in a car and go around a curve. The horse will tend to balance toward the outside, and put more weight on the outside pair of legs, which is what actually creates the “correct bend” in the horse’s body. Pulling on the inside rein does not create bending.
The circle demonstrates “lateral balance” (side to side balance). If the horse overshoots the balance outward, he will drift to the outside and make the circle larger. If he leans more to the inside he will fall in, or make the circle smaller. This is simply the bio-mechanics that govern a four-legged creature.
As you can surmise, a horse with poor lateral balance or one that is disrupted by a rider with poor balance, will make a wiggly or more commonly an egg-shaped circle. So a comment on a test that “circle is not round” is actually translated as “horse and/or rider has lack of lateral balance”. To improve, you must begin to understand and address the balance issue, not just attempt to drill perfect 20-meter circles.
If you notice, each of the tests has the circles in different positions in the ring. Why is that? It’s because the edge of the ring, or the wall, has a marked influence on the horse’s way of going. When the circle is at A or C, there is effectively a wall on three sides. If the horse lacks balance, the wall creates a boundary that assists the horse in maintaining the circle. The wall becomes an “aid” so-to-speak. So it is very obvious to a judge that if the horse drifts off the correct circle on the side where there is no wall, there is a balance issue. In Intro A, the circles are at A or C, which is lower difficulty than Intro B, where the circles are at B and E and there is no wall.
Straight line geometry is important too! If your horse wiggles down the centerline or drifts off the line on a diagonal, lateral balance is again the issue. In order for a horse to truly move in a straight line, his balance (and the rider’s) must be equal side to side. This is also why during the halt, a horse may not stop square (all four feet on the ground with an even distribution of weight), or will step out at the halt to catch their balance.
One last point about the free walk. The free walk is another test of longitudinal balance. If the horse collapses onto the forehand once the rider gives with the rein, or struggles to regain the working position at the end of the free walk, it indicates to the judge that the horse is not physically able yet to hold its weight stable.
My hope is that after reading this, you will look at tests in a different way. Every element of the test was thought out to demonstrate the foundation principles of correct training. They are not just a random grouping of movements. If you think of them as demonstrations of skill in your mind, and try to work on the principles underlying each, you will find that the tests are built to both assist in setting the horse up for success, and to expose the gaps in training. The more you improve the horse’s fitness and balance, the easier the tests will become, and the higher your scores will be.