Dressage Test Tips for Fourth Level and Prix St. Georges

Janet Foy explains how to the combine shoulder-in, volte, circle and half pass, with tips on how to ride and judge the movements.

As the levels progress from the highest national level into the first Fedration Equestre Internationale (FEI) level, the test patterns start to string the movements closer together. A good example is a familiar pattern in both the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Fourth Level tests and the FEI Prix St. Georges, where shoulder-in, a volte/circle and a half pass are all combined in some sort of pattern.

Credit: DressageTestTips

What I see as a judge is that many riders do not understand how to start and finish these movements correctly, and so the entire trot tour looks rushed and lacking in collection and organization. As a trainer, I always like to ask a simple question: Which movement has more bend, the shoulder-in, the volte/circle or the half pass? The answer is usually wrong, as most riders think the volte/circle is the movement with the most bend. The correct answer is that the half pass has the most bend while the volte/circle has the least.

In the sections below I will assist riders with their placement and organization of these patterns. I will also discuss with judges how to make helpful comments for these issues so we can all enjoy a more harmonious test.

Prix St. Georges

Let’s start with the shoulder-in on the rail to the volte. I cannot stress enough that you must use your corner before the shoulder-in. As you go into shoulder-in, remember that it has three tracks. However, do not take this same bend into a small volte of 8 meters or less or you will encourage your horse to fall down onto his shoulders. To prevent this, my suggestion would be to straighten your horse a bit on the last stride of the shoulder-in before starting the volte. Think of your volte as turning your horse’s shoulders uphill around his hind legs. I would say the majority of voltes end with the horse’s shoulders falling down due to over-exaggerated bending. As a result, the haunches fall out, allowing the engagement to escape.

Now let’s go to the volte on the rail to the half pass to the centerline. The most common mistake here is the rider worrying so much about the half pass she does not finish her volte.Your horse must take a full stride on the rail (i.e., the entire horse must return to the rail) before the half pass. If you don’t you will have the haunches leading in the half pass, which makes correct cadence impossible. Your horse will also be falling onto your inside leg and this will negatively affect your ability to get the right amount of bend for the movement.

Also remember that of the three exercises, half pass has the most bend on four tracks. My advice is to finish the volte and do one stride of shoulder-in with a lot of bend, half halt, use your outside leg to move the hindquarters over around your inside leg and then use your weight to allow the horse to move sideways. If you don’t position your horse’s shoulders correctly, you will not have the correct bend, engagement or cadence needed.

Now let’s discuss how to finish the half pass on centerline and prepare the horse to go straight prior to the turn. You never want to turn while still in half pass. It teaches the horse very bad habits. He must learn to wait for the aid to turn, not think he always falls in the direction of the bend. This is an important concept for the zigzag you will ride as you move up in the tests.

Do not go too sideways in the half pass and arrive too soon at I. It will not increase your score. Instead, arrive a bit before G and slowly straighten your horse. Ride straight ahead for a stride before the turn at C. If you need to turn the opposite direction of the half pass, straighten and then position your horse in the new bend for the turn. This takes a bit more time and organization. Remember, this is all right in front of the judge and we can see it all. Make your half-pass finish sharp and organized.

Fourth Level

In Fourth Level, Test 1, the pattern has the half pass, circle and shoulder-in all in the same direction. I think this pattern is more difficult than the Prix St. Georges because it starts with the half pass and then has the shoulder-in on the centerline.

It is important to use your corner and test your bend as well as the reaction to the outside leg behind the girth before the half pass begins. Start with the first stride straight out of the corner with a little shoulder-in. Make sure your whole horse is through the corner and the shoulders are correctly positioned to X before starting the half pass.

Plan to arrive on centerline a stride before X so you can ride one stride straight ahead before the circle. Again, allowing your horse to fall in the direction of the half pass into the 10-meter circle will create bad habits for him. Remember to think about turning his shoulders around his hind legs and do not allow his hind legs to fall out.

The shoulder-in requires your horse’s hind legs to stay put as you travel down the centerline. The test says the shoulder-in finishes at G, so return to shoulder-fore prior to the turn at C. Do not ride shoulder-in in the turn.

Fourth Level, Test 3, has the most difficult pattern with the circle and shoulder-in after the half pass going in the opposite direction. It requires the rider to move the shoulders to the other direction and change the bend between movements. This is all about control.

To ride this test prepare your half pass as discussed for Fourth Level, Test 1, but arrive two strides early: one stride to ride straight ahead and one to move your horse’s shoulders to the new direction. Make sure you can half halt and check that your horse has accepted the new bend. Then ride your 8-meter circle, and remember it has the least amount of bend.

The shoulder-in should have more bend than the volte, and the hind legs must be secure on centerline. The exercise finishes at G, so be sure to straighten before the turn. In Movement Five, you will have to straighten your horse, change the direction of his shoulders and then adjust the bend for the turn, as you must ride from shoulder-in left into a turn right. Again, this all takes place right in front of the judge at C, so impress her with your control of your horse’s shoulders and your organization of the movements.

Judging Shoulder-In

“Needs more bend” is too common a comment. Remember it’s only three tracks, so look more at the contact and the cadence and notice the whole picture. In any test at Second Level or above, make sure to mention when the shoulder-in is not finished correctly. The rider must straighten her horse before the corner or the turn. I usually deduct a half point from the total mark for this. It is important that we encourage the riders to prepare correctly and also finish the exercises. Read my article on the shoulder-in in the December 2012 issue of Dressage Today to learn more about how I judge the shoulder-in.

The most common mistakes I see when riders are performing the shoulder-in are as follows, scored from 4 to 6:

  • Angle varies
  • Lacks bend, or becomes four tracks
  • Falls down onto outside shoulder
  • Poll not supple, tilted
  • Too much neck bend, shoulders don’t leave the track.

Here are some good things to try to ride for in the shoulder-in, scored from 7 to 10:

  • An elevated and expressive outside front leg
  • Cadence
  • Control of the angle
  • Correct contact and uphill balance.

Judging Voltes and Circles

Be reasonable about the bend in the voltes and circles. Too many judges are too focused on the amount of bend rather than the correct balance and cadence in this movement. Remember, of the three movements this has the least amount of bend.

Instead of saying “large” talk about the rider’s control of the turning. You can also consider mentioning the fact that the volte or circle is too large because the horse has no collection. You can note that the horse’s shoulders fall down due to too much bend. Riders appreciate helpful comments from their judges, so try to notice why the circle was large rather than just state it was large. Use the scale on this movement. I don’t see many 8s, 9s and 10s given here.

Judging Half Pass

Comment on the position. Did the rider start in haunches-in because she never got the shoulders in the correct position? This is especially common when the half pass comes down centerline. Where did the rider finish early, late? How was the finish, sloppy, good, controlled?

Discuss the cadence. For me, if there is a lot of bend but no cadence, I will not give it more than 6.5. But, on the other hand, if there is cadence and correct positioning but there could have more bend, then I tend to give the movement 7.

As a judge, if the rider is running from movement to movement and not preparing or correctly stringing the movements together, I will also lower the rider score in regard to correct and effective use of the aids. I know my scribes can tell if there is enough collection and control in these tests. The speed at which the comments need to be recorded can be very telling.






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