Now that spring has arrived, we look forward to longer day and the show season that is ahead of us. Now is the time to think about tuning up your horse for driving dressage. Do you want to go from a score in the sixties to a score in the forties or lower then here are a few tips to help you get there. Driving dressage with purpose is the best way to accomplish this.
First, I will address the all important walk. Does your horse know how to do an active walk? So many times I see horses that have never been taught to walk properly. I know that it is more fun to go fast than it is to go slow.
The US Equestrian rule book describes the walk like this:
“Walk is a regular four beat movement, with the horse remaining in light contact, walks energetically, supple, with even and determined strides with the hind foot touching the ground in front of the foot print of the fore feet and stretching forwards and downwards.”
For your horse to understand that there is a difference between just walking along down a trail, and walking in a dressage test, you have to practice this at home just like all of the other movements of a dressage test. The easiest way to teach your horse the difference is to do transitions from a free walk, take up the reins, controlled four beat walk, then back to a free walk. For the upper level test you can practice the controlled four beat walk, then extended walk and back to four beat walk. This way your horse will learn the difference between the various walks.
Many of the lower level driving dressage tests end with you doing a working walk down the center line. In this case it is the last thing the judge sees so why not make it spectacular!
Knowing your driving dressage arena is really a good idea. When you get to a new venue, it is a good idea to walk the dressage arena at least once so that you know what is there. The items that can be found around a dressage arena can be many:
- Pop up tents or small wooden house for the judges.
- Bleachers or lined up chairs along the side lines.
- Sides can be marked by white rails or white chain.
- Letter posts are usually white but they can also have pots of flowers on them.
- Judges booths can include flower pots, tables, chairs, etc.
If you know your horse well, you will have some idea of any strange items that he might not have ever seen. Once the judge blows the whistle, then you have 90 seconds to get into the arena. Generally, this is enough time for you to drive around the outside of the arena, which I suggest that you do. This gives your horse a chance to see all that is around the arena, and if he is going to spook, it is better before you enter the arena then spooking during the test.
I was at a CDE with my horse Sailor and it was the first time where the judges sat in the little wood houses. Sailor felt he had to stop at each one as I went around and say hi to the judges. I was thankful that I took that one drive around before entering the arena.
So, what is that centerline all about? In every dressage test you will go down the center line two times. This is how the test starts and also how it ends. This is your first and last impressions on the judges. You need to make the most of the two times that you will drive it.
When you come down the centerline you need to be businesslike the whole time. Smile, look where you are going, and look like you are having fun! Look at the judge so that they know that you mean business. When you horse is coming down the centerline the judge cannot tell if your horse is a great mover or just an average mover. Make sure that your horse is aimed straight for the “C” and is balanced and obedient. Always make sure that your horse halts and is immobile. When at home you can mark the centerline with dots of paint or small colored rocks to learn to drive a straight line. The horse will not make a straight line if you can’t drive a straight line. Your focus when driving a straight line is a point beyond the judge and letter “C”. Once you come around the corner to come down the centerline, and your horse is straight, keep your hand very still and you will find that your horse will do the rest.
The halt needs to be practiced at home the same as all the other movements. Your horse needs to stand still at least ten seconds. The best time to practice halts is at the end of a training session when your horse is a bit more tired. You can use it as a reward, if he stops and stands still for those ten seconds, then call it good and end the lesson. If he does not stand still, then take him around a couple more times and try it again.
I always use the word “stand” after my horse stops so that he knows the difference between “whoa” and standing still for a period of time. If you say “whoa” and he stops and then he wiggles a little bit and you keep saying “whoa”, he will not get the idea of standing still.
Remember to use the whole arena. Be sure to round the corners to the size of your horse and carriage (A 12 hand pony with a four wheel carriage will go deeper into the corner than a 16 hand Friesian and a four wheeled carriage). Corners are meant to be rounded and not squared. When doing a diagonal across the arena, you need to start your turn before the letter, so that when you get on the diagonal you will be straight. You will aim just to the left of the letter across the arena before you turn back onto the long side, so that you are straight before having to turn the corner.
Now, to the circle that generally starts out as an egg and end with a flat side.
Circles are basic geometry, if you need a 40m circle that is half of the arena, and a 20m circle at the end of the arena is quarter line to quarter line and so forth. You always start your circle at the designated letter. If you break the circle into quarters, it will make it easier to drive. Once you start your circle say at “C”, you will then look toward the first quarter point in your circle. Once you get to that point, you will then look to the second quarter point and so on. If you are doing a circle to the left you look to the left at the quarter point, you will drop you left shoulder and the reins will adjust just enough to guide your horse around (again at this point keep your hands very still). You cannot pull your horse around the circle with the reins. All circles start at the letter and end at the same letter.
All judges really want the drivers to do a good job. Drive like you love what you are doing. You are there to show off your horse and driving ability to the judges and the spectators. Always have a “Watch This” attitude. And always let your horse know that you appreciate all the effort that they put into your test. After all, I’m sure they would rather be in the barn sleeping or eating!