Masterclass: the first dressage test

For this lesson, professional eventer Dannie Lodder helps a returning adult rider, Ingrid Herdson, prepare for her first horse trial with a new horse. Eight-year-old Mr Tambourine Man (Salute the Stars) had previously show jumped to 1.30m level, but at this stage of his career hadn’t ever been in a competition dressage arena.

1. Down and round: A softer frame

Dannie says ‘Tom’ is a very beautiful horse, but tends to sit in a bit of a false frame and she would like him to draw the rein forward and poke his nose out a little more. Dannie has suggested that Ingrid rides him in a soft rubber bit, to encourage him to stretch and take the hand forward.

“We need to keep him a lot more pliable and soft, so he is not so set in his neck,” explains Dannie.

Starting off in the walk, Dannie feels Tom is in ‘nowhere land’ – he looks pretty, but he’s not taking the rein forward (below).

She tells Ingrid to slow Tom down a bit and use some little rein flexions to encourage him to seek more of a contact and draw lower. “I’d use a little inside flexion, then centre his neck, then outside flexion,” advises Dannie. “We don’t want him too high in the poll – get him as low as you can go. Then, when you get him where you want, just let your hand breathe forward.”

Once Ingrid gets Tom lower in the neck, he begins to move more over his back. Then his walk naturally becomes softer and longer, so Ingrid doesn’t have to battle for a bigger walk; it’s just there, observes Dannie.

Dannie gets Ingrid to slow the walk down by keeping her seat still, so it’s a bit more on the spot, concentrating on staying very straight. Then she can relax and open up the walk again, staying relaxed so he takes longer steps rather than getting too quick.

Moving into trot, Tom gets a little high in the transition and Dannie notes his ears are pricked forward, indicating he’s not completely focused on Ingrid (below).

“He hasn’t quite got his ear on you – when his ears are a bit back, he’s listening to you more,” she says.

She gets Ingrid to trot for a few steps then walk for a few steps before trotting again, all the time trying to keep him soft and round. “Fire the transitions at him – four or five steps of each,” she says. “A million of these are going to help him. He is quite subtle, so don’t over-ride – you don’t have to use a lot of leg or hand.”

Within the transitions, Dannie tells Ingrid to think about pushing Tom sideways into a bit of a leg-yield away from her inside leg, which helps him soften his body and bend more through his ribs rather than just through the neck.

“He’s got to be lower in front and come over his back – that’s your mission. Then you will build his back muscles and his bum.”

2. Keeping the contact alive: Learning to play the bit

A big key to keeping Tom soft and round in the neck is Ingrid playing the bit in his mouth to stop him getting too set in his frame, explains Dannie.

“When he starts to brace, you brace against him,” she observes. “That’s the moment when you need to realise he’s getting a little bit high and you have to do something about it. Move your hands, move your wrists, so you don’t get to the point where you’re both locked and rigid. Keep a bend in your elbows and keep your elbows against your side – remember that’s your link to his mouth and you want it as soft as you can.”

This manoeuvering of the bit should be subtle, warns Dannie.

“It’s just the ring finger rolling him through the rein – I shouldn’t be able to see you doing it,” she explains.

“You don’t have to take your hand miles away from his neck to the get the flexion; just sponge the rein. We don’t want him to bend his neck too much and fall out through his shoulder. It’s more about getting him elastic in his gullet and softening at the poll than anything else.”

3. Start slow and build: Developing suspension

Dannie tells Ingrid to keep the trot rhythm a little slower and steadier – if she starts slow and finds the point where Tom is soft, then she can open up the stride a little more and his steps will be longer and more expressive, rather than just flat and hurried.

“Don’t start off with him high and too fast,” she warns. “Start slow because we can always build. Make sure that you’re using a lot of gears within your pace.”

When Tom speeds up in the trot, Dannie tells Ingrid to use her body and her rising to slow him down, spending more time in the saddle than out of it. “Take away all the speed and unlock him. The crucial thing is he’s not running away with you – just think about him putting one foot in front of the other.”

Dannie gets Ingrid to go wide around the arena, riding next to the railing as she’ll need to in her dressage tests. She tells her to keep it slow, holding Tom against the railing with her inside leg, in a bit of a shoulder-in position.

From here, Dannie gets Ingrid to ride a half 10m circle, before leg-yielding back to the track. “Use your calf muscle to move him sideways – your whole leg, not just your spur,” says Dannie.

At first, Tom gets a little hollow in the leg-yielding and Dannie reminds Ingrid to keep playing the rein so he can’t lift his head and block (below).

“Shake him down, rounder. Guide him around a little bit until you find the place where he’s happy with his head,” she says. “It’s just finding the timing between your hand and leg.”

Dannie has noticed that Tom tends to get too much neck bend and drift through his outside shoulder on the right rein, so she gets Ingrid to go on to a 20m circle at one end of the arena to work on the straightness. She tells her to think of the circle being a little bit like a square box, using her outside rein to square up the shoulders.

By this point of the lesson, Dannie is really happy with how Tom’s trot has improved. “Now you’ve got his back up and a better rhythm, can you see how his trot has changed?” she praises. “He’s not running now and you’ve really got that moment of suspension so you can be elastic in your arms. That’s much better – well done you!”

4. Prepare, prepare, prepare: Riding perfect canter transitions

Ingrid says one of the things she is going to find trickiest in her dressage tests is riding smooth canter transitions, particularly when they have to be ridden in the corner after a change of rein.

Dannie tells Ingrid she’s got to get Tom as deep as she can in the trot before asking for the canter transition; otherwise, if he’s a little bit above the bit, the transition with be high and hollow. She also warns her to take her time and plan the transition, rather than demanding abruptly with her leg, which will cause the horse to block and lift his head.

“Take your time building,” says Dannie. “When he hits your hand, come back again and re-group, get him rounder and deeper. Talk to his mouth the whole way through the transition by playing the rein and wait for your timing, gently picking him up into canter – he’s got to give and be soft into it.

“You’ve got all the time in the world today, so you might as well set the precedent and make every canter transition as perfect as it can be.”

Once in the canter, Dannie wants Tom to be a touch rounder and slower, so she tells Ingrid to hunker down in the saddle and use her seat to slow him down, while sponging the rein to unlock him (below).

She tells her to wind the circle down, thinking of a pirouette feel, using her outside leg and outside rein to turn him in more of a square than a circle.

“He’s never allowed to take the bit and go – it all has to be on your terms. Dictate the speed the whole time,” says Dannie. “We don’t want to get to the point where you block with your hand. Keep your wrists soft and alive by moving the rein.

“Think about getting his eyes on the ground, so he’s looking at the sand, with his poll even lower. You want to get him as low and as round as you can – that’s your mission. It’s not just going to happen so you’ve got to ask for it; you’ve got to demand a little bit more.”

Dannie gets Ingrid to ride forward and back in the canter, asking for a few strides of medium canter up the long side. She doesn’t want Tom to take off hard and fast though, and tells Ingrid to bounce the canter, because as soon as his poll gets too high she’s lost him and he can spook. Then Ingrid brings the canter back on her circle/square box, seeing how slow she can go just by making the circle tighter rather than using a backwards hand. “So you’re pushing him slower and collecting him in the nicest possible way.”

Soon the canter has improved and Tom looks much straighter and more rideable, to Dannie’s delight. “That’s super Ingrid – there you go,” she says. “It doesn’t just happen, does it? You’ve got to ask for it and it’s a million little things that get you to that point.”

5. A gentle pick-up: Riding the free walk

Ingrid’s upcoming dressage test has a free walk on a 20m circle and the lesson ends with Dannie focusing on this movement. She tells Ingrid to feed Tom the reins, slowly getting him longer and lower, but still maintaining a contact so he doesn’t lift his head and look out into space.

Once Tom is low enough, Dannie tells Ingrid to flick her rein forward, so his nose pokes out more as he needs to be more in front of the vertical (below).

“He sits in a round frame the whole time and ideally his nose needs to be more in front of the vertical. As soon as he does it, his stride completely changes because his shoulder is a lot more open,” she explains. “Follow with your elastic, walking arms, so you give the impression you’re really following through with your hand.”

When Ingrid goes to gather up her reins again, she asks for collection a little too swiftly and Tom hollows. “Just gently pick up your reins and upper body without stiffening,” corrects Dannie. “We don’t want a dramatic reaction like that. Slowly take up the left rein and then the right rein, so it’s no big deal going from a longer, lengthened walk to a more collected walk.

“The next time you reel him in, go wider with the rein and just slowly pick him up, flexing him through one rein, so you’re thinking about having him down and round as you’re picking him up.”

Ingrid’s next pick up to the collected walk is much smoother and Dannie is happy to finish the lesson.

“This horse can stay here – I love him!” she concludes.  “He’s a super horse with fantastic paces and Ingrid’s a very lucky lady.”

Dannie on…test riding

Prepare, prepare, prepare! Give yourself time in your tests, so you’re not doing things at the last minute, because that’s when you going to get a reaction from the horse, with the head flicking up. It’s about forward planning.

Use your corners and try to fix things before they happen. It’s too hard fixing things once they’ve happened – it snowballs and you get to the point of no return. Dressage is the illusion of softness; it’s just a big show and you want to show your horse off. If things are subtle and quiet, the horse always looks softer and happier. Don’t get desperate and rushed.

  • This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of NZ Horse & Pony