Dear Jessica, I learn something from every horse-sense mailing, it's the first thing I look for after the weekend. I don't know why you are so generous with your expertise and your time, but I am very grateful to you!!
I have been riding for about ten years and focusing on dressage for the last two years. I have been competing my gelding at Training Level for a year, and we have had some good ribbons and some nice comments. My instructor thought it was time for us to move up to First Level because Sam does very clean transitions and we have no problem with the smaller circles and leg-yielding. His lengthenings aren't very good yet but I assume they will improve as we go along.
Sam and I went to a show last week and did two First Level tests. Our scores were just awful! He'd been getting 7s and 8s at Training Level, and now, on the same gaits and almost exactly the same movements, we got 5s and 6s. It wasn't a strange judge either, we showed in front of her last year and she gave us good scores. I don't understand what happened. Sam was having a good day, he felt exactly the way he has felt to ride for the last year, so what do you think could have happened to us? My instructor couldn't explain it, she thought that maybe it was because Sam isn't a big Warmblood (he's a 15.2 Appendix QH). I'm not asking for riding advice because you haven't seen me ride, but I hope you may have some idea of what is going wrong. I know my horse really well, and I know how his walk and trot and canter feel, and even though the circles are smaller at First Level, I am positive that his balance and trot and canter are exactly the same! Nothing has changed except our scores. Help please!
Thank you, I will be waiting for your answer to show my instructor.
Hi Jan -- you're right, I haven't seen you ride, but I think I know what has happened. I think that you are probably right on target when you say that even though the circles are smaller, etc., your horse's gaits are just the same and nothing has changed.
That's the problem: NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
There's a significant difference between Training Level and First Level, and moving up from Training to First is not just a matter of learning the test. If that were the case, all it would take to go up the levels would be a good memory and an obedient horse. ;-) But that's not the case -- going steadily from letter to letter is just one small part of what you're being asked to do.
Training Level calls for free, forward movement in working paces. Your horse will do well if he has reasonable gaits, if he is steady and rhythmic, and if he accepts the bit and remains relaxed in the arena. The Training Level horse is a beginner, and Training Level tests are designed to check on the correctness of his basic training.
First Level has other requirements. Yes, the horse has to have all the basic training and good gaits that it showed at Training Level, and it has to be able to maintain its forward movement and balance during more difficult transitions, but that's not all. The horse's balance and muscular development need to have changed from its Training Level days. At First Level, the horse should show more impulsion, and more consistent impulsion, in the form of thrust from behind. This additional activity in the hind legs is accompanied by a shift in balance that marks the beginnings of self-carriage.
Dressage is a building-block method of training, and the competition levels reflect this. First Level builds upon Training Level, and the impulsion, thrust, and balance that you need to demonstrate at First Level will become the collection and engagement required at Second Level, and so on up through the levels. Each level builds on the previous one; each level builds the foundation for the next one.
It sounds to me as though you have a horse that is confirmed in good work at Training Level, but is not yet ready to compete at First Level. Try to avoid showing at the level you're schooling; it's confusing for the horse and frustrating for you. Showing and schooling are two completely different tasks; show what you are ready to SHOW OFF, and school what you are learning or confirming.
You'll get there and do well; you just aren't quite there YET, and it's better to spend your time and money learning the skills and building the muscles and the reflexes and the habits that will allow you to do well when you are ready to SHOW at First Level. Have fun -- getting there is MORE than half the fun in this game, it's most of the fun!
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