Hilda Gurney: The Dressage Horse at Fourth Level

Train your horse to the highest national level
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Fourth Level is the highest national level of dressage tests. A horse at this level has developed a higher degree of impulsion, uphill balance and self-carriage. New demands on the horse require that he:

1. Enter at canter and halt. 

2. Do counter changes in half pass. 

3. Perform very collected canter. 

4. Do working pirouettes; half halts need to be executed reliably in order for the horse to prepare for and take the weight behind in the canter pirouettes.

 5. Perform multiple flying changes. 

6. Develop the muscle strength to have and show increased power in both collected and extended gaits.

Enter at canter and halt. At Fourth Level, you must enter the arena in a straight, balanced canter. As a judge, I want to see the halt immobile with the horse remaining on the bit and perfectly square during the salute. The forward transition into the trot needs to be direct without any walk steps. You want to show a balanced, energetic, impulsive collected trot. 

When I judge Fourth Level I see many crooked canters as the horse comes down the centerline. The beginning of the test is the first impression I get as a judge of the horse and rider, and a crooked entry does not give a good impression.

At home, I train the canter entry by schooling my horses on the rail to help him become straight. I use a mirror at the end of the centerline to help me see if my horse is straight. I school the half halts, training my horse to engage and collect his canter for a few strides, until he is almost cantering in place, before asking him to halt. It’s also important to practice putting the reins in one hand for the salute, making sure that the horse keeps his attention on me and doesn’t come off the bit during the salute. 

When my horse performs straight, balanced halts fairly consistently, I school them on the centerline with the transitions to collected trot. It is important to practice on both leads, although I usually plan to enter the show arena on my horse’s straightest, most balanced canter lead. However, for the final halt, the test designates the lead, so the horse needs to perform the halt correctly on both leads.

At a show, while warming up for my test, I like to have a coach watch me practice straight centerlines. 

Credit: Illustration by Sandy Rabinowitz The half pass on the left is incorrect; the half pass on the right shows the correct straightness between bends.

Credit: Illustration by Sandy Rabinowitz The half pass on the left is incorrect; the half pass on the right shows the correct straightness between bends.

Counter changes in half pass. Doing these at both trot and canter involves changing the horse’s body bend and positioning as he makes the transition from the half pass in one direction to the half pass in the other direction. A correct half pass is performed with the horse’s shoulders very slightly leading in a shoulder-fore position. However, unless the horse is realigned during the transition from one half pass to another, his haunches will lead his forehand when he is first asked to half pass in the new direction (see illustration above left). To prevent this fault from occurring, the horse needs to be repositioned in the new shoulderfore position before the second half pass is performed (above right). 

To do this, I straighten the horse for a stride or two before bending and repositioning him around my inside leg with his shoulders slightly leading in the direction of the new half pass. 

Fourth Level, Test 1, asks for a very collected canter during a 20- meter circle at C. “Half halt” could be another name for this very collected canter because the horse engages his haunches while shortening the required five to six strides. His topline becomes more rounded and his haunches more active during this exercise. When released to move forward from the very collected canter, the horse should move willingly forward in self-carriage.

Credit: Illustrations by Sandy Rabinowitz A correct working half pirouette left three meters in diameter

Credit: Illustrations by Sandy Rabinowitz A correct working half pirouette left three meters in diameter

This is also an important exercise for preparing for canter pirouettes. I school my horses to hold the very collected canter on straight lines in the shoulderfore position (not from a haunches-in position). If the haunches lead into a pirouette, the horse may have difficulty turning his shoulders around his haunches, resulting in the pirouette becoming too large or labored. 

Working pirouettes (180 degrees). The horse’s hind legs should describe a half-circle of approximately three meters (10 feet). The reason working pirouettes are asked for at Fourth Level instead of the smaller pirouettes asked for at the higher levels of competition is to allow the horse to develop strength, balance and the ability to stay on the rider’s aids before the demands of the smaller FEI pirouettes are made. 

The working pirouette allows the horse to move more forward than he will be allowed to do later on during higher-level pirouettes. This forward movement allows the rider to keep him moving into the contact, maintaining separation and activity of the horse’s hind legs as well as better elevation of his forehand. 

The larger working pirouette also assists the rider in controlling the speed of the horse’s turning rate. Some horses avoid carrying their weight on their hind legs by spinning too quickly around with their forehand. A larger working pirouette gives the rider the opportunity to move the horse more forward onto the bit, controlling this tendency to spin. This is how I school a working pirouette:

1. I first establish a half halt in a shoulder-fore position. 

2. Keeping the horse at canter and in front of my inside leg and seat aids, I slowly turn his shoulders by shifting both of my hands and my shoulders slightly toward the direction of the pirouette (but not crossing the withers). The first turning stride should be only slightly sideways. Making the first stride too much sideways may cause the horse to lose balance and spin. 

3. My inside leg and seat bone keep the horse moving into the contact while my outside leg behind the girth controls his haunches, encouraging his hind legs to describe a 3-meter half circle. The larger size of the working pirouette puts less stress on the horse, allowing for easier control of his haunches. If I feel the horse pushing his haunches against my outside leg aids, I may walk and immediately perform a walk pirouette, making sure he responds to my controlling outside leg. Another effective correction for this disobedience is to canter forward out of the pirouette in either a half pass or travers position. 

4. When I feel my horse respond to my outside leg aids, I lighten the aids as a reward before resuming schooling the pirouettes. Here are the aids:

To prepare for a transition to a working canter pirouette, I ride collected canter on straight lines in the shoulder-fore position.

To prepare for a transition to a working canter pirouette, I ride collected canter on straight lines in the shoulder-fore position.

• Because the horse’s center of gravity shifts back toward his haunches during a pirouette and the rider has to stay in balance over his center of gravity, I need to shift my upper body farther back (without leaning back) and feel as if my inside leg and seat bones become attached to my horse’s inside hind leg. 

• I keep my seat supple and try to flex my inside seat bone forward in rhythm with my horse’s inside hind leg. 

• My shoulders must stay parallel with the ground, aligned with the horse’s shoulders. If I lean sideways with my upper body, I disturb his balance. Remember that the tempo of the canter should remain the same before, during and after the working pirouette. It should not get quicker. The rider’s shoulders must stay aligned with the horse’s shoulders into the turn. 

• To make the transition out of the pirouette back into the forward canter, I slow the degree of turning with my rein aids as I ask the horse to move more forward from my inside driving aids. 

Next month I’ll discuss multiple flying changes and counter changes in half pass in canter.

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

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