Are You Ready for First Level Dressage?

Make an educated and confident decision about moving up.

It is exciting to think about moving up a level in riding competition. It is a journey requiring patience, empathy, fortitude and commitment. Before you can explore the possibility of competing at First Level you must appreciate what Training Level has taught you. 

To make an educated and confident decision about moving up to First Level, you must have a clear understanding of the purpose and requirements of Training Level. The USEF defines the purpose of Training Level as follows: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.”

Corinne Foxley rides Aragon GAF, owned by Cynthia and Craig Roberts of Glen Aryn Farm. At this moment, Foxley is lightening her inside rein to check Aragon’s ability to balance himself through the turn and to invite him to reach for the contact. (Credit: Holly Linz)

Training Level movements are designed to challenge the horse and rider’s understanding of the basics. Those basics include rhythm and tempo, relaxation and connection, which not coincidentally, are the first three elements in the Training Scale. 

According to the 2015–2018 USEF Dressage Test Guidelines, there are three Training Level tests and each progressively increases in difficulty. Collectively these tests require you to change the horse’s bend, perform a transition on a straight line, allow the horse to stretch over his topline and demonstrate correct quality of the gaits in the walk, trot and canter. There are also critical responsibilities of the rider. While not specifically mentioned as USEF requirements, they are vital to successfully performing the movements of Training Level. Two of the most important are the effective communication of the aids and the ability to allow the flow of movement through the horse. The latter demands a rider’s ability to maintain the horse’s rhythm while sustaining a sensitive, independent hand that directly results from correct upper-body balance. The upper body should be capable of moving with the horse without compromising a consistent rhythm and tempo. 

Is My Training Level Sufficient?

As you progress through Training Level you must begin to feel how your growth as a rider develops the horse’s abilities. Bending, which includes lifting through the horse’s rib cage, lifting of the forehand and greater impulsion (the fourth step in the Training Scale), is crucial for a supple horse. A correct bend, combined with a basic half halt from the rider, allows for better utilization of the corners in the arena, thereby creating a more accurate test. These skills also enhance the horse’s balance and rideability, which creates a softer feeling in the hand and promotes self-carriage. Consequently, these skills strengthen the prospect of better marks from the judge and are vital in your preparation toward First Level.

Your understanding of Training Level requirements and improved performance can come from several sources. In the competitive aspect, you receive an assessment from the judge. In your schooling and training rides, an assessment comes from your trainer. A third and no less important source is the horse himself. 

Discussing the judge’s marks with your trainer can help you objectify your ride. An objective eye is crucial to your progress and refinement because, once again, it provides the lens through which you see yourself. Your progress depends on obtaining the information in the first place, then assessing it with objectivity to ultimately find solutions for strengthening your weaknesses.

One indispensable tool for making objective evaluations of yourself is to watch video recordings of both your competition and training rides. Reflecting on what you felt during a ride while connecting with it visually will provide a realistic picture of your rides.

Before starting any exercise, be aware of what you feel. For instance, when riding a bend, make sure that the horse’s rib cage is giving to the impulse of your inside leg, that his jaw is soft and that the flexion of the poll occurs without a head tilt (which could be a result of a stiff rib cage, a stiff jaw and a lack of an outside rein connection).

Exercise: Counter-Bending Figure Eight

This exercise challenges throughness and impulsion and begins to establish straightness (the fifth tier on the Training Scale). It helps improve the mechanics of the outside aids and how they work to keep the horse from falling through them. This exercise is meant to help build the skills needed for First Level and promotes the evolution of our aids from what is required at Training Level toward the higher skill set of First Level. 

Counter-Bending Figure Eight

Your position should remain balanced in the direction of the bend. To ride the counter-bend your position should remain over your inside hip with your shoulders turned slightly in the direction of the bend. Maintain a steady contact with the outside rein while your outside leg rests against the horse. (Note: In this case, the outside rein refers to the rein on the opposite side of the bend. If you are bending to the left, your right rein is the outside rein and vice versa.) 

1. Start by riding a 20-meter circle at X. 

2. Establish the bend.

3. Upon returning to X, begin riding a 20-meter figure eight. Maintain the same bend, so the opposing half of the figure eight is in counter-bend.

4. Return to X without changing the bend and continue riding the figure eight. 

Once you start to feel the horse staying straighter, softer and more connected on the outside aids while staying up in his rib cage with the inside aids, change to the other bend. Work the same exercise until the horse is more connected, through and straight between both the inside aids and the outside aids in either direction. 

Troubleshooting. Keep a feel with the outside leg, as it tells you if the horse is falling through your aids. If that occurs, give the horse an impulse with your outside leg while half-halting with the outside rein. If the horse stiffens on the outside rein, slowly change the flexion to the outside while giving a soft impulse with your outside leg. When counter-flexing, keep your inside aids alive so the horse doesn’t fall through them. Once the horse has softened, return to flexing him in the direction of the bend.

Plan the line of travel for an accurate figure eight. Avoid riding into the corners, as it will become difficult to retain the feeling that the horse is staying up off the inside aids while remaining connected and straight on the outside aids. Just as a 20-meter circle should not drift into the corners, neither should a 20-meter figure eight. When riding this exercise you want to make sure the horse is evenly balanced on four legs.

This exercise will be useful as we begin to ride some of the required movements in First Level, especially for First Level Test 1, which requires 10-meter half circles at the trot, a 15-meter canter circle and lengthenings in the trot and canter. The feeling of a horse that is connected but soft on the outside rein is crucial for lengthenings. It is also invaluable for beginning to work toward small circles. Looking ahead, this exercise can be utilized to develop counter-canter, which is introduced in First Level Test 3.

A strong grasp of the Training Level requirements allows us to evaluate and work to improve the basics of the horse and the skills of our riding. Together with the horse as our partner, we will be able to move up to First Level and ultimately bring out the best not only in ourselves, but in the horse. Next month we will look at what’s required of the rider at First Level. 

Corinne Foxley has been an assistant to Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel at Maryland’s First Choice Farm for more than seven years. She also spent time with Uta Graf in Germany and has earned her USDF bronze medal. Foxley teaches a classical but creative and systematic approach to help the rider’s position and the horse’s self-carriage.






Larissa Williams copy
Stirrup Control for Greater Stability
Sabine in cavals2
Ingrid Klimke's Tools of the Trade
Mindful Training in Dressage
Connecting with the Seat in Canter


10 Tips for Better Driving Aids
horse contact
How to Correct a Horse Who Gets Heavy and Leans into Contact
How to Fine-Tune Your Dressage Aids with Steffen Peters
Are lumps or swellings under the jaw reason for concern?