Hilda Gurney: First Level Movements with Young Horses - Dressage Today
Learn how to begin schooling First Level movements with a 4-year-old.

The 4-year-old dressage horse is usually developed enough to begin showing at Training Level and schooling at First. Training Level tests the correctness of the basic connection with the bit, the development of a consistent rhythm and the beginning of lateral suppleness. Training Level basics include maintaining a consistent tempo well enough that I can ask for more impulsion without him quickening or leaning on the bit.

If my horse hurries when I ask him to work with a little more energy and power, I give him light checks on the reins, I use half halts (more on these later) and I maintain the same tempo with my body language, whether I am posting or sitting the trot. It is easy to incorrectly quicken my posting tempo, or the tempo of my hip strokes, when urging him forward. Counting or humming a rhythmic tune often helps me stay consistent.

The USEF First Level tests are my training guide. They have several new requirements for my young horse to master: They need to be performed at working gaits that show better balance and more impulsion than in the Training Level tests. The lengthening of stride at both trot and canter are introduced. A lengthened stride must cover more ground, not quicken in tempo. Also introduced are leg yield at the trot and 10-meter trot circles.

Judy Bergquist lengthens the canter. (Elaine Olsen)

Judy Bergquist lengthens the canter. (Elaine Olsen)

Canter lengthening: I have found that one of the most difficult exercises for First Level horses is the transition back into working canter from the canter lengthening. So, I begin schooling the transitions into and back from the lengthened canter on a large circle. The curve of the circle makes it easier for the horse to carry his weight and step under his body with his inside hind leg. My aids for the canter lengthening are:

1. Squeeze with both of my calves just behind the girth.

2. Swing with longer strokes of my seat bones.

3. Follow my horse’s increased head and neck movements with my hands and arms. If I feel my horse wanting to hollow his back, I slightly widen my hands, working my softening fingers and wrists with increased rein pressure until he responds by loosening and rounding his topline. As soon as my horse responds to the correction, I lessen the pressure on the reins without losing contact with the bit.

If I feel my horse thinking about taking over during a lengthening, I immediately rein him back in. It’s a big mistake to allow a horse to run through your aids and get the upper hand, especially in a canter lengthening. You don’t want your horse to ever wear the top hat!

Lehua Custer lengthens the trot stride. (Elaine Olsen)

Lehua Custer lengthens the trot stride. (Elaine Olsen)

Trot lengthening: The trot lengthening is generally schooled in straight lines. I ask my horse to lengthen his strides in as consistent a tempo as possible. Usually posting the trot makes it easier for young horses to lengthen their strides, but others keep the balance better if I sit the trot. Under no circumstances do I allow myself to bounce on my horse’s back during a trot lengthening. The moment I feel my horse hollow or tense his back during a lengthening, I bring him back to working trot and make his frame extra round to get him to use his back correctly before I again ask for a conservative lengthening. An association of trot lengthening with back discomfort will not help your horse’s future performance. A rider with a bouncing seat is hard to watch for any judge. In First Level, all lengthening of stride at the trot may be ridden at the posting trot and beginning Dec. 2010, all First Level tests will offer the option to rise or sit.

Turn-on-the-forehand: Before teaching leg yield, I start with turn-on-the-forehand from the ground. Even though it isn’t asked for in dressage tests, it is an important tool to reinforce to the horse that he must move his haunches away from my active leg.

1. Holding the reins just behind the bit, I press my finger or the tip of my whip against his side behind the girth.

2. As soon as he moves away from the pressure, release and praise him. You want the horse’s hind end to move in a circle around his forehand by placing his outside hind leg in front and over his inside hind leg. Allowing the horse to move slightly forward while executing the turn-on-the-forehand will help him. Practice in both directions.

Gurney works with Custer leg yielding from the quarterline to the track. (Elaine Olsen) 

Gurney works with Custer leg yielding from the quarterline to the track. (Elaine Olsen) 

Leg yield: I introduce leg yield under saddle by turning onto the quarterline then leg-yielding to the track—posting or sitting. The horse should be almost parallel to the rail with his shoulders only slightly leading. My weight is basically centered on the horse since leg yield isn’t a bending movement, although I will slightly weight my stirrup more on the inside of the horse’s slight bend. First, I make sure my horse is straight on the quarterline with a slight bend away from the direction of movement, keeping his shoulders in line with his body. Then, I bring my inside leg back and ask him to leg yield to the rail. He must wait for my aids to go sideways or straight ahead. If he starts to rush, I immediately send him straight ahead to reestablish the longitudinal connection with the bit.

Alternating a few strides of leg yield with a few strides of a straight and forward trot is a good way to teach the horse to listen to your aids. If he evades by bending too much at the base of his neck and falling on his outside shoulder, I use a firm outside rein and keep his haunches parallel with his shoulders.

When the horse understands leg yielding toward the rail, I ask for it moving away from the rail:

1. Trotting down the long side, I slightly counter-flex my horse.

2. I bring my active (outside) leg back to ask him to move forward and sideways off the rail.

3. My reins control the horse’s shoulders to keep them in alignment with the haunches. I shift both my hands to the inside (the direction we are moving) to bring his shoulders off the rail. I keep his shoulders parallel to the rail either by moving both my hands in the direction of movement (to increase the horse’s sideways movement) or away from the direction of movement (to slow down the sideways movement).

Because leg yielding doesn’t require collection, I frequently use it as a warm-up exercise for my higher-level horses. Whenever a horse doesn’t move away from my leg, I nudge more strongly until he responds. Sometimes a light tap with the whip just behind my active leg is necessary to reinforce the leg aid. I also go back to the turn-on-the-forehand to correct my horse whenever he is too slow in responding to my active leg in lateral movements.

Transitions and half halts: First Level also requires horses to move directly into and out of the halt from trot. These direct transitions require improved balance and response from the horse, which requires the finesse of a half halt.

The half halt is a balancing act between the rider’s driving and restraining aids. First, I ride straight along the rail. (Later, I’ll use quarter and centerlines). I check my horse slightly with the reins, while asking him to stay active behind with my leg and seat aids. This shortens his step for a few strides. I am steadying him with my rein aids, swinging my hips in slightly shorter, but not quicker, strokes, while my leg aids maintain the activity of the hind legs by sliding slightly back. This keeps the activity without driving him too much into my hand. Then, I relax slightly with my aids to resume an active working trot.

Half halts are the key to an uphill balance and active haunches as well as freedom of the shoulders. Schooling the horse to understand and perform half halts is one of our important training goals. Half halts assist the horse in improving his transitions between gaits as well as within a gait.

This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Dressage Today magazine.

Hilda Gurney is an FEI “I” judge. A two-time Olympian, she won a bronze medal in 1976 riding her Thoroughbred, Keen. A respected judge and clinician, she was inducted into the U.S. Dressage Federation Hall of Fame in 2007. She breeds horses, trains and teaches at her Keenridge Farm in Moorpark, California.