Riders often ask me, “How do I know it’s the right time to move my Training Level dressage horse up to First Level?”
In this article, I’ll give you a way to come up with a logical plan for introducing new work at Training Level.
First, I just want to make a general comment. All training should be a systematic progression toward a desired end result. So you need to be able to see the big picture.
For example, even at Training Level the quality of your 20-meter circles is going to make it possible to collect later down the road. Circles show your horse’s ability to bend equally to the left and to the right. So his ability to
bend on a large circle makes it easier for him to progressively increase his bend from 20 meters to 18, to 15, to 12, to 10. As he becomes flexible enough to bend along a tighter arc, you’re laying a foundation for advanced
lateral work such as shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half pass.
A lot of times people say to me, “Oh well, I am ONLY working at Training Level.” You need to understand that the work that is done at Training Level, such as correctly bending on a 20-meter circle, is essential for your horse’s systematic progression to the more advanced work.
So let’s look at one way you can plan your program. Here’s what I did. Back in the early 70’s, I had to work a lot on my own. So I used the USDF tests as my guideline. I knew those tests were designed with the systematic
progression of the dressage horse in mind. I thought, “Well, this is a good place to start since I don’t have anybody around to tell me what to do.”
I’d work on whatever was at Training Level. And even if my horse wasn’t ready for the next level, I’d always look ahead and read what was in the First Level tests. That way I’d have an idea of what was coming up next.
Let’s say my dressage horse is at Training Level. I polish my 20-meter circles, my basic transitions from gait to gait, and the stretchy circle. That’s all great, but I also look ahead. I see that I’ll need to do serpentines, where I have the complication of changing the bend from left to right.
I’d also begin to add smaller circles because eventually, at First Level, I need to do 10-meter circles in the trot and 15-meter circles in the canter. Now that doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to go from 20-meter circles in the trot to 10-meters.
Instead, knowing that my dressage horse will have to do 10-meter circles down the road, when he can comfortably do 20-meter circles, I’d do some 18-meter circles. And then in a few weeks or months, when he could comfortably do
18-meter circles, I’d do 16-meter circles.
Because I look ahead, and I know what is required at First Level, I plan a program where I progressively make the arc of my circle tighter and tighter until eventually I can do 10-meter circles easily in the trot.
And what I mean by “easily” is that my horse can handle the arc of that curve without having to find an evasion such as swinging the hindquarters in or out from his line of travel.
I’d also see that there are leg yields in the First Level tests. So I think, “My horse has to learn how to move away from a leg that’s behind the girth”. Maybe I should incorporate some turns on the forehand into my work at
Training Level so that I’ll be ready to do some leg yields when the time comes.
At First Level, I also have to show lengthenings in the trot and in the canter. So I work on developing elasticity by lengthening and shortening. Even at Training Level, I start to do rubber band exercises. I go a little more forward for three or four strides and then come back for three or four strides. And I repeat that– three or four strides a little more forward and three or four strides a little bit back. While doing that I really focus on maintaining the same rhythm and the same tempo in both “gears”.
I also notice that at First Level there is a little counter canter. So I think about incorporating some counter canter into my work. I come 1-meter off the rail by the time I’m across from B or E. Then by the end of the long side, I’m back onto the track. I do this pattern so gradually that my horse doesn’t even know that I’m asking for a couple of counter canter steps.
Little by little I come off the rail a bit more. My next step is to come one and a half meters off the rail. We’re one and a half meters off the rail when we’re across from B or E, and then we arc back to the last letter.
So, I keep polishing the movements at Training Level with my dressage horse, but I always have an eye on what’s at First Level and start to incorporate a little bit of that work as well.