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Your Questions

What changes when I want to go from first to second level?

Answer: This is a great question! I think that the big mystery in dressage is, how is it that we can get high scores at training level, yet when we want to move up to first level, it seems so difficult to do the tests? We can have our horses moving beautifully around these big circles and perform the required transitions and make it look easy, but we need to put the transitions closer together or make the circles smaller and nothing goes right. One of the biggest mistakes riders make is to make everything look like it is going well when really we are holding our horse together or manipulating the movements. The higher the level the more trouble this brings.

So the first thing we need to keep in mind when we are looking at the exercises is "what is the essence of the movement?" What are we showing that we can do by performing this movement for a good score? What will this mean for the future training of my horse? Next to each movement is a description of what the judge is looking for. Be realistic! Are you showing the judge truly what is happening and is the horse working with suppleness and balance? Or are you showing the judge what he or she wants to see by faking it? This starts to be super important when you move up to second level. First of all the transitions get more difficult. So if the half halts or preparations for the transitions are not clear then it will not be possible to perform them with balance and without force. The most difficult are the canter walk canter transitions. Without the half halts working through the body the horse will not understand to take more weight behind and lower themselves to the walk with ease. In addition the communication needed to go from walk to canter and stay within the aids needs to be clear and relaxed. A horse that does not respond correctly on the leg aid will not be able to strike off to the canter without some trot steps, and a horse that has been held strong in the rein in the upward transitions in order to keep him round will need to pull through in order to get the canter accomplished. On the contrary, a horse that understands being supple in the bridle and that the leg means to activate and not to run off onto the bit will have an easy time moving into walk canter, canter walk transitions.

The lateral work also becomes more difficult where one is asked to show shoulder in and haunches in, which requires some level of collection, as opposed to leg yield which is simply a forward and sideways exercise. It is important while riding first level to create an understanding of the inside and outside aids. Keep yourself and your horse honest about the balance and the bending and eventually flexion. For instance the canter diagonals with the trot transition at X. As your horse becomes stronger in a first level frame this should be done with nice organized steps, proper preparation for the transition and a balanced working trot immediately when coming to the trot. It is possible to get a good score on this when one holds the horse together desperately until X and motors to the corner out of control praying to make the turn and show the judge a reasonable trot on the short side. It is not that judges want to give high marks for incorrect riding, but it can sometimes be difficult to see from this angle, they want to give you the benefit of the doubt, it is up to you to know the honesty of the movement and what needs real training.

One really important part is the stretching down circle. Does this really work for you? This will tell you a lot about your horses understanding of the changes he needs to make in his body when you retake the reins. This is an exercise that should be done at home every day, not just in tests. How long does it take for the reins to be taken down softly and without losing balance and rhythm? How easy is it for you to retake the reins? Does your horse immediately stand up and under behind and become more upright? Or pull through, looking for balance or resistance in the reins? When we move to second level it is important that our horse understands to stand more upright on all four legs. There must be a little more flexion in the hind leg and upright movement in the shoulder. Many people think the neck needs to be shorter and forget about the hind legs making smaller more upright steps. Developing a feel in first level for the size of the steps will make moving to second level much easier.

One of the biggest changes in second level is also the introduction of rein back and turn on the haunches. These two exercises truly show that the horse understands to stay within the aids. I think it is important to teach rein back early on, but I also like to use turn on the forehand as a super positive way to teach the horse one step at a time about moving the hind leg up and under the body without pressurizing the reins. Turn on the forehand is not asked for in the tests, but do it anyway!

The last thing that changes it the balance asked for in the forward trot and canter. In first level it is called lengthening, longer steps, longer frame, a bit more suspension. In second level it is called medium, bouncier steps, more suspension, uphill balance, more engagement, some lengthening of the frame is allowed. This is a big change from lengthening. It is important as one develops through their first level career that they keep in mind the positive direction of the training. Again, it may be possible to get a good score for a long slightly on the forehand lengthening, but this is not taking you to second level. So as your horse gets stronger and more attentive to the aids one can build toward a more upright lengthening with honest push and self carriage, this will create the understanding and strength necessary for moving to second level.

In closing I believe that the way to move successfully up the levels is with true belief that the movements when done correctly improve suppleness and balance, and suppleness and balance improve with doing the movements correctly. Going to the horse shows can be a test of where you are in your training, how much your horse understands you and tests other aspects of your competitive spirit such as focus and stamina. However, allowing good scores to cloud your training as far as the honesty factor, or a bad score to change your riding because you needed to create a clear understanding of what your aids meant in that moment is not what showing is about. When used properly the exercises in the test will build confidence, strength, understanding and suppleness. This is not where fake it till you make it should be applied!

Have fun and ride with purpose!
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