Are You Ready to Move Up to Second Level?

Kate Fleming-Kuhn explains how to be sure you and your dressage horse are prepared before moving up a level.

Q: I’ve been riding at First Level for three years, showing regularly, mostly at unrecognized shows. My score is usually in the 60s. How do I know I’m ready for Second Level? Do I need to score consistently in the 70s to be able to move up? My horse is an American Warmblood that I’m training myself. —Name withheld by request

A: Before moving up, you should consider how prepared you and your horse are for the requirements of the new level. Scoring consistently well at the level below is not necessarily an indicator that it’s time to move up, but it is a good indicator that you are going in the correct direction.

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The purpose of First Level, as stated on the tests, is “to confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed improved balance, lateral suppleness and throughness, as well as the thrust to perform lengthenings of stride. The horse should be on the bit.”

The purpose of Second Level, as stated on the tests, is “to confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics and now begins to accept more weight on the hindquarters as the collected and medium gaits develop. A greater degree of straightness, suppleness, throughness and balance are required to perform the movements with ease and self-carriage.”

The most important factor in knowing you are ready for Second Level is being able to consistently and correctly ride the necessary exercises and movements. This includes collected trot and canter, shoulder-in, travers (haunches-in), renvers, simple changes, 10-meter canter circles, rein-back, turns on the haunches, medium trot and medium canter. In addition, all trot work is required to be in sitting trot (as opposed to First Level where the rider is given the option to sit or rise throughout most of the test). 

Keep in mind that being in a show environment (especially if either horse or rider gets anxious) tends to highlight movements that might still be tenuous. For that reason, many riders choose to school a level (or even two) above where they compete in an effort to have an element of security in the exercises required in competition.

Once you feel that you have met the requirements at Second Level, the next step before entering competition is to ride through those tests several times at home. It can be quite a different experience riding the required movements and exercises when you have as much time as needed to prepare them, as opposed to test riding when you are required to execute movements in a designated location. 

If you have a coach or even a dressage-knowledgeable friend, ask her to observe you going through your test. Eyes on the ground offer a very helpful and needed perspective. Sometimes what the rider feels from the saddle presents quite a different picture from the ground. Another useful tool is to have someone videotape you riding your test. (Make sure the person zooms in so you and your horse don’t look like a dot on the horizon.) This gives you both an opportunity to assess yourself and your horse during the test and evaluate areas that could be improved.

Once you feel that you and your horse are well prepared for the new level, then it is time to move up.

Kate Fleming-Kuhn is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. Kate trains horses and riders from beginners through Grand Prix with her husband at StarWest in Illinois (