Dressage Dimensions
Dressage Dimensions

Getting More 10's on the 6.5 Dressage Horse

By Betsy Berrey, Senior USEF Dressage Judge, Member of "L" Program Faculty and its Standing Committee

This is a topic that has interested me for many years. Although the quality of our dressage horses has increased steadily over the past decade, most riders are still on capable but not spectacular horses. This is fine since many of those superstar horses are hot and more difficult to ride, even when they've matured.

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What is a 6.5 Dressage Horse?

Dressage is a numbers game. Judges can only use whole numbers, 0 to 10, when judging national and international tests. The only exception is in freestyles. Therefore I decided to use .5 when describing the horses we ride. In referring to our imaginary mount as the 6.5 horse, I'm describing the raw material that we have to work with and train.

The more correct and thorough the training is, the higher the scores can be. On a good day the 6.5 horse will get quite a few 7's and maybe an 8 or 9. These horses are likely to receive a 7 on Gaits and perhaps another 7 or two in the Collective Marks. The greatest success comes from riding the test accurately and precisely and showing the horse to the best of his ability.

If you are lucky enough to have a 7.5 horse that is correctly trained, you will have the pleasure of seeing quite a few 8's after a successful ride. These horses frequently earn 8's on Gaits and Impulsion, tend to be show natural uphill balance, and are easier to put on the bit.

On the other hand, if you have 5.5 horse the process will be much more difficult. The 5.5 horse is more limited athletically and can be more difficult and frustrating to train and show. Perhaps he has a lateral walk or a flat canter that lacks elasticity or has little freedom in the shoulder. Don't be overly impressed by the "auction trot" since the trot is the easiest gait to improve. Dressage horses must have good walks and canters to do well in our sport.

Conformation problems can include being croup high, built downhill with shorter forelegs, or a thick throatlatch, which makes it hard to go on the bit. Sometimes temperament, which challenges the rider to create energy and activity or causes tension and inattention, is also a factor.

If you have a horse like this-one that tends to get lower marks for gaits which then prevent higher scores in the test- you must accept him as he is and understand his limitations. If this is the horse you love and plan to keep, be realistic about your horse's ability to cover the ground or travel in uphill balance and don't punish him for what nature has given him.

If you want higher scores and more ribbons in addition to moving up the levels, you may need to find a horse that is more suitable for dressage. Basic training is beneficial to any horse, but most horses were bred for particular jobs and can't always cross the disciplines easily. Would you want to ride over the desert, which is easy for an Arabian, on your Dutch Warmblood? Would you want to rope cattle, for which the Quarter Horse is ideally built, on a Hanoverian or a Holsteiner?

Modern dressage and today's athletic sport horses owe their origins to Germany's history, in which horses played a significant role. After World War Two it became clear that horses would no longer be needed by the military or for other daily work. In order to maintain their place in German society and culture, the decision was made to breed good riding horses and to promote dressage- as well as jumping, eventing and driving-as goals in training.

Each mark on a dressage test has a specific meaning. Ten is Excellent, 9 is Very Good, 8 is Good, 7 is Fairly Good, 6 is Satisfactory, 5 is Sufficient, 4 is Insufficient, 3 is Fairly Bad, 2 is Bad, 1 is Very Bad, and 0 is Not Performed. Most judges will ring the bell and score an error rather than giving a 0 if a movement is not visible to them.

How to Earn Higher Scores

There are five ways in which you can improve your performance and raise your scores, at any level:

1. Read, Read, Read!

The importance of reading for successful competitive riding is not always clear to riders and trainers, but it definitely is to the judges. Understanding "The Purpose" at the top of each test is critical for making sense of the judges' scores and comments. Each of our five national levels has its own purpose, and they change significantly as training progresses.

For example, The Purpose of Training Level is "To confirm that the horse's muscles are supple and loose and that it moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit."

The Purpose of Second Level is "To confirm that the horse, having demonstrated that it has achieved the thrust (pushing power) required at First Level, now shows that through additional training it accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection), shows the uphill tendency required at the medium gaits and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at first Level."

The Purpose of Fourth Level is "To confirm that the horse has achieved the requirements of Third Level. These are tests of medium difficulty designed to confirm that the horse has acquired a high degree of suppleness, impulsion, throughness, plus a clear uphill balance and lightness while always remaining reliably on the bit and that his movements are straight, energetic and cadenced with the transitions precise and smooth."

Here is some additional reading material that will help to clarify issues and answer many questions about dressage.

There are many other books out there, but I tend to prefer the classic ones that emphasize correct basic training. Although they are now more athletic, horses are still horses and you can't go wrong with the time-tested techniques of training.

2. Learn to ride the "simple" or "non-brilliant" movements very well.

This includes halts, rein backs, turns on the haunches, walk pirouettes and corners. Any horse can learn to ride these movements accurately. After Training Level there are 3 halts in every test. Here is a great opportunity to earn 3 high marks whatever type of horse you have. The same is true of rein backs which begin in Second Level. When 4 steps back are required learn to count accurately, be precise, and be sure that your horse is straight. Mastering turns on the haunches, with correct bend and balance, will prepare your horse for walk pirouettes since the only difference between the 2 movements is size.

As you move up the levels corners become increasingly important for suppling your horse and preparing for upcoming movements. First Level requires 10 meter circles so use this as a guide for how deeply you ride the corners throughout the test. The short side of the arena, from corner to corner, is also an ideal time to show off your horse, his outline and his basic gaits to the judge.

3. Ride accurately from letter to letter, with correct geometry and clear transitions.

The judge arrives at a score by using the formula B + C +/- M = S. This means that the judge looks at the Basics (Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection) plus the Criteria (requirements of that particular movement) plus or minus the modifiers (including size, accuracy, geometry and corners.) Modifiers can move the score up or down so they are important when riding any test.

Be sure that you ride correct geometry on all figures and that every transition is clear and well-marked. On a circle, whether it is 20 meters or 8 meters, the horse needs to be correctly bent on a curved line and the circle needs to be round and even, not square or oval. A circle should not have straight sides so if your horse is on the track for more than a stride or two the circle will not be accurate.

It is also important to know the correct distances in the arena. All of them are measured in meters and this will help you in riding accurately. The distance between H, G and M from the end of the arena is 6 meters. The same is true of K, D and F. All of the other letters are 12 meters apart. Therefore when riding a 20 meter circle at B or E you should cross the centerline 2 meters inside of I and L. Drawing a diagram or walking this in an arena will help with the geometry.

The Old Masters said "Ride your horse forward and make him straight." Since all horses are stiffer to one side your goal in training is to make the horse as evenly supple to the right and to the left as possible. Then circles in both directions, as well as turns, loops, serpentines and lateral work will be similar if not exactly the same.

4. Diagram the tests you plan to ride.

This will help you to understand where each movement begins and ends. There are no gray areas in a test - every stride is counted in one movement or another. If a problem occurs you may be able to confine it to one movement so it doesn't spill into the next one. Then you need to recover and go on! The same is true if you go off course. It only costs two points but you must regain your composure and ride confidently for the rest of the test.

There are several ways to diagram the tests. You can use small drawings of the arena and do each movement in one color per level or in different colors for walk trot and canter. You can also put diagrams of the movements in the comment boxes on a copy of the test. This will help you to see that some movements are quite long as in Training Level Test 2, #2 which goes from the right turn at C down the long side, including a 20 meter circle at B, and continues all the way to K. In the same test there are 2 separate scores for 12 short meters of medium walk in movements #7 and #9.

5. Compare all your tests over a season of competition.

Set aside the high and low scores and look at the ones in the middle. You will then have a clear picture of you and your horse's strengths and weaknesses. Then you can plan future training based on past results.

Today most judges have been to the "same school" and are looking for very similar things on each test. However sometimes one judge is more bothered by seeing the nose behind the vertical or seeing extravagant front legs than another judge. Rides can also look quite different when judged from the side, at B or E, than from C.

If all of the judges came up with Identical scores we wouldn't need to be sure that scores for awards came from different judges. Each one of us may see movements a little differently or emphasize certain modifiers more than others. Therefore it is best to look at the tests which are in the middle range of scores to see how the majority of judges viewed your horse and your tests. There will be general agreement about your strengths, for example medium paces, and weaknesses, the transitions into and out of those mediums. This will be very helpful as you work to improve your scores and the overall picture that you present when riding a test.

I hope this information has been interesting and useful. As Wilhelm Museler wrote in "Riding Logic," 1937, "The end of all schooling and dressage is perfect harmony between man and mount - Beauty. The horse must show that he feels comfortable and rider must not betray how hard it is to achieve this!"