Building Skills for First Level Dressage

Focus on rider balance and coordination of aids.
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Credit: Courtesy, Corinne Foxley Bomol, a Russian Warmblood formerly owned by the late Betty Thorpe, is helping to demonstrate the moment when a rider is in balance when practicing the Up, Up, Down exercise. The rider’s hands are forward, without pulling on Bomol’s mouth, while her balance is over the ball of her foot with her shoulder, hip and heel aligned.

Credit: Courtesy, Corinne Foxley Bomol, a Russian Warmblood formerly owned by the late Betty Thorpe, is helping to demonstrate the moment when a rider is in balance when practicing the Up, Up, Down exercise. The rider’s hands are forward, without pulling on Bomol’s mouth, while her balance is over the ball of her foot with her shoulder, hip and heel aligned.

Last month’s column helped you understand how the requirements of Training Level prepare you for First Level. Now you are ready to work on building First Level skills. These skills require a refined view of yourself as a rider and a greater understanding of the influence your riding has on improving the balance of the horse. These concepts must come together as we coordinate your aids to further the development of the horse.

Insight into the Purpose

First and foremost, study the purpose of First Level. This, according to the USEF, is “To confirm that the horse performs correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.” This purpose clearly states the evolution from the requirements of Training Level. The key point in this purpose is that the horse has “developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness.” 

Without balance, throughness is not possible. Your success in First Level, as well as your long-term development as a rider, is influenced by your understanding of the relationship between balance and throughness. Developing your feel for better self-carriage in the horse is necessary, but your balance as a rider directly affects the horse’s aptitude and growth for self-carriage. 

International dressage rider Betsy Steiner defines throughness as the moment when the horse not only accepts the contact, but moves into it by pushing forward from behind, coordinating and engaging his entire body. Accepting contact, if you recall, is part of the Training Level purpose, but at First Level the contact has matured. The contact at First Level has begun to connect the horse from back to front and front to back in a more uphill frame, making the movements of First Level possible. 

The rider’s aids and balanced position need to enhance the horse’s ability to develop a more uphill frame while creating power. Gradual development of an uphill frame will help open the door to Second Level, where collection is introduced.


Rider Balance

In order to create balance and throughness while performing the movements of First Level, which include lengthenings, 10-meter circles, leg yield and serpentines in the canter, you must be able to coordinate your aids while simultaneously maintaining your position. It is impossible to have soft and effective aids without independent, following balance. This means that your body must flow with the horse’s movement without being hindered when applying your aids. 

When mounted, you have the difficult task of balancing your movement while staying in harmony with your horse. The key element to mastering balance is the ability to stabilize your core. Correct engagement of the core is possible only when the upper body is tall; the shoulders are relaxed, back and down; and the lower back is vertical and not hollowed. This can only be accomplished by riding from the floor of the seat, defined as the area within the two seat bones and the pubic bone, which are all in contact with the saddle.

Mastering the use of the core with correct alignment of the upper body will allow for a relaxed leg with a following hip, both of which are important skills to master as we begin to learn to sit the trot, a Second Level requirement. Your improved position as a rider will have a positive influence on the horse’s progression toward self-carriage and freer, more dynamic movement. Keep in mind that as your work through the levels advances, the quality of movement in the horse should not diminish. As the lateral challenges increase, the expression of the horse’s movement must not be hindered. It is your duty as a rider to constantly challenge your balance and work on your position. This will ensure more expression from the horse, even in the more difficult movements. 

Coordination of the Aids 

While the basis for coordinating your aids stems from your improved position, the capability is born from your body awareness and a feel for the horse’s balance. Coordinating your aids allows you to shape the horse and maintain his self-carriage through the movements. At First Level, you are challenged with 10-meter circles, leg yields, lengthenings, counter-canter and trot-to-halt transitions. All of these require coordinating your inside aids with your outside aids while simultaneously maintaining the uphill balance of the horse without compromising impulsion. 

The coordination of your aids includes a feel for how the horse responds and accepts the aids. Recall the counter-bending figure eight from last month’s column. In that exercise, you are asking the horse to lift and bend his rib cage with your inside aids. However, if you don’t connect your outside aids, then the horse will fall through your outside aids, therefore leaning to the outside. This feeling and use of your aids is mandatory for riding an accurate leg yield. Your feel for the horse enables you to coordinate your aids to correct and improve his balance while performing movements. 

Improving the use of your aids will allow you to better prepare for the movements of First Level. Your successful performance of these movements involves your ability to utilize the corners and to utilize the half halt. Corners are your opportunity to reinforce the bend, lift the rib cage and create more impulsion with balance through a half halt. Correctly utilizing a corner will set the horse up for the movements that follow, such as the leg yield or lengthenings. 

The very first movement to master at First Level—the trot-to-halt transition—is a test of the horse’s better acceptance and understanding of the aids. In order to prepare for this transition, you and your horse’s understanding of the half halt should have evolved. Up to this point your half halts in Training Level were mostly directed toward maintaining a good rhythm and tempo. As you start working on First Level movements your half halts should have developed to help your horse use his haunches for smoother transitions which improves engagement of the hind leg. This engagement is crucial to developing and maintaining the impulsion needed for the First Level requirements. 

Exercise: Up, Up, Down (Stand Up and Stay Up)

This exercise is meant to improve your ability to stabilize and align your position. It prevents you from getting left behind the movement and increases articulation of your hip and knee joints, which act as the body’s shock absorbers. If the exercise is performed correctly, the lower body will be supporting the upper body, naturally aligning your shoulder, hip and heel.

1. Begin at walk and establish a good rhythm.

2. Stand up completely in the stirrups so your knees and hip joints are open.

3. Stay up for at least two strides before sitting for one stride.

4. Repeat in the trot once your balance is established in the walk.

When practicing this exercise, keep the ball of your foot flat on the surface of the stirrup. As you rise, focus on standing so your balance stays on the ball of the foot toward the big toe with your heel relaxed and down. You should be able to stand completely in the stirrups without feeling as though you are falling forward or backward. Once you feel balanced and stable at the walk, try the exercise in the trot. In the trot, continue the up, up, down pattern. Finding a rhythm will help your body adjust its balance and have a moment of rest. Tighten your core, maintaining a vertical lower back, when you are standing in the stirrups to keep your upper body stable. Your leg should be long and get a little heavier in the stirrup without the feeling that the inner thigh or knee is gripping the saddle. In the trot, your knee should stay relaxed and soft to absorb the movement of the horse.

Troubleshooting. Be careful not to use your hands when rising out of the saddle. If you have trouble finding your point of balance, grab mane to keep yourself standing and out of the saddle. Once you start to feel more stable, lighten your grip on the mane to see if you can stay up without the use of your hands. It’s important not to pull back on the reins when performing this exercise so as not to pull back on the horse’s mouth. You should be able to stabilize your balance without the use of your hands. 

If you continually fall back into the saddle, you may be pushing the stirrup and your lower leg forward when you try to rise. Instead, concentrate on keeping your lower leg underneath your hip to rise and stabilize the stirrup from swinging forward by making sure your foot is flat on the surface of the stirrup. 

If you continually fall forward toward the neck of the horse, it’s possible that you are gripping with your knee and allowing your lower leg to swing too far back. To correct this, focus on keeping the knee slightly away from the saddle as you rise before allowing it to rest, not grip, against the saddle as you stand, making sure your foot stays flat on the surface of the stirrup.

Challenging your capabilities as a rider will create an intimate partnership, which will bring success at First Level and beyond. Next month we will look at the secrets of how to create a lengthening. 

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