Unlike competitors who transition from Third Level, Test 3, to Fourth Level, Test 1, the younger rider who moves from the F?d?ration Equestre Internationale (FEI) Junior tests to FEI Young Riders dressage is basically going straight from the equivalent of Third Level work to a higher Fourth Level dressage test. All in all, that's a very big step up both in technical difficulty and in the test riding itself. The major difference is that the FEI Junior dressage tests are a bit nicer and more straightforward while the FEI Young Rider dressage tests require a horse to be able to collect more for the level of control needed during the movements, especially the difficult exercises like the tempi changes and half pirouettes. Some riders find that the most difficult part of moving to FEI Young Riders dressage comes from assuming that a horse with high-quality gaits, who scores well in the Juniors, will be able to handle the transition immediately. You cannot assume that a horse that does very well in the Juniors will naturally score well in the Young Riders. As I mentioned earlier, the preparation required to make a successful move to FEI Young Riders dressage is not any different from preparing to move from Third Level to the upper Fourth Level work. It is just more condensed. Whether you are an FEI Junior or adult Third/Fourth Level rider, I have included an explanation of what you need to focus on mastering and common mistakes most people encounter as they prepare to make the move to Young Riders/FEI.
To make this step up as fluent as possible, most of the work needs to be done at home. If your goal as an FEI Junior is to do FEI Young Rider dressage after your Junior career, you want to keep that goal in mind and be working toward it even as you still ride Juniors. Riding exercises that are required in the Young Rider tests, providing you and your horse are ready, will give you a sense of where you stand in terms of reaching your goal. Remember, you will not stay a Junior forever.
Before we break apart the larger movements, I want to talk about the need for more collection, bend and preparation. These three qualities are going to be important throughout your entire test and will prepare you for success in the parts we will be discussing later. One of the first things that make a difference is the need for more collection. This is essential because in the Young Rider tests the exercises come at you quicker. There is less room between them, therefore less room to set your horse up for the next movement. The horse has to be even quicker on the aids, and the rider always wants to think ahead. Here is one thing I see happen a lot in tests: A rider feels a movement went wrong and he thinks about it too long so his mind is not on the next step. That is easier to get away with in the Junior tests since you have more time to get back to business. In the Young Rider tests, if you dwell on the last exercise for even a moment, the next one will already be there.
Not only do you have to be mentally prepared, but your horse also needs you to be thinking about preparing him much more. Take the bend, for example. In the Junior tests all the exercises that ask for the horse to show bend are proceeded by exercises that will set him up for it: The half circle prepares for the shoulder-in or a half pass in that direction. In the Young Rider tests, they either come out of a straight line or require a change of bend shortly before a shoulder-in or a half pass.
In terms of transitions, the Junior test is more progressive. For example, there are no extensions to a tight corner with a halt immediately after. The maximum requirement is an extension to a walk (although some feel this is more difficult depending on the horse).
The biggest difference between the levels is the canter work with the introduction of the half pirouettes and the flying changes (most importantly, the introduction of the tempi changes every three and four strides). The single changes in the Junior tests come after a half pass to the centerline, which is a very good setup since the horse is already pushed away from the leg he changes toward, and the half pass usually will collect him. But the Young Rider test is not so forgiving. Not only do you need more preparation for the flying change, you also need to do multiple changes. When you start training the tempi changes, it is important to understand what makes them more difficult. I expect every horse coming from Juniors to have a clean change. This is essential. The most important question is what the horse does before, during and after that clean change. A lot of horses tend to slow down or speed up. With a single change, the rider can get away with this and still have a clean change. With the tempi changes, the rider will lose control over the canter stride and feel that he or she is not ready for the next change. This is one of the main reasons why people can have problems with tempi changes. Let's go into this a bit further.
Common Mistake 1?Slowing Down: If you horse slows down before a change, it is likely that you will lose impulsion. This mostly happens in the stride just before the change. After four strides and another change, if this happens again, you will lose even more impulsion. By the time you're at your last changes, there is a fair chance that your horse will not change cleanly or is so behind the aids that he will add an extra stride before the next change. Even if your horse is good at making changes and you manage to get all the changes in the right amount of strides, your horse will be behind the leg and on the forehand when he reaches the corner. In the case of the Young Rider individual test, the half pirouette comes after the changes of lead every four strides. If you come out of the tempis with your horse on the forehand and behind your leg, you will be in trouble in the limited amount of time you have to set up for the half pirouette. Again, thinking ahead and preparing are essential for success.
Common Mistake 2?Speeding Up: On the other hand, if your horse speeds up before, during or after the change, he will get longer with every change. It is easy to imagine what will happen in the tempi changes. They will be late behind toward the end of the line, and it will be more and more difficult to place a change every three or four strides as the horse gets longer. Even if all of that doesn't happen, you still have to ride an extended canter after the three-tempi changes in the individual test. Getting back in time to turn at A with a horse that already started the extension too long will be a challenge.
The fix for both of these common mistakes is to make sure the canter stride (in terms of impulsion and speed) stays the same before, during and after the single change before you move on to tempi work. When you start riding multiple changes, continue concentrating on the canter rather than the number of strides between changes. Start with riding the next change only when you feel you have control of the canter and can successfully make another change. It's the lack of control?that causes problems rather than missing the count every three or four strides. Remember, most riders have learned to count to four much earlier than they learned to ride a proper upper-level canter.
Common Mistake 3?Straightness: Another problem with the flying change is the straightness of the horse or rather the lack of it. Most, if not all, horses have a preferred side to bend toward. With flying changes, this easily results in swinging the quarters in or out during or after the change. Eventually, the hindquarters get out too far to make a change possible. This also accounts for the fact that most horses find it more difficult to start the changes on one diagonal than the opposite one (the right diagonal tends to be the more difficult one on which to start the changes). A good way to check this is to ride changes on the inside track on the long side. This gives a better sense of straightness and direction than on a diagonal, where you more easily go left or right of the letter you are riding toward and thus lose track of the straightness of the horse.
Common Mistake 4?Poor Rider Position: As for the position of the rider in riding changes, one could probably elaborate beyond the length of this article. But, it is worth discussing the most frequent mistakes, which are getting in front of the movement and/or exaggerating it. Getting in front of the movement is readily accomplished since it is easier for a horse to change by getting higher in the croup. Then he doesn't have to bend his hind legs in the change. When this happens, the rider is pushed up, forward and out of the saddle. Most people allow that or even stand up in their stirrups to enable the croup to come up in an attempt to follow the horse. By bringing his hind end up, the horse shifts more weight onto his front end, which we obviously don't want for reasons of losing balance and control.
Making too much movement in the changes by swinging your body in the direction of the change is another common fault that is often made. Your movement gets bigger than the actual movement of the horse. So instead of going with the horse's rhythm, we end up against it, unbalancing the horse rather than balancing him.
The fix, in both cases, is to remember that the closer we stay to the horse and the more we stay in the saddle, the more difficult it is for him to bring his hind end up or for our position to become too exaggerated. You will invite the horse to make a nice forward change that is in front of you rather than ending on his front legs. Looking forward, instead of down, and sitting up and staying back will help this.
The pirouettes are introduced in Young Riders. This is quite a big step up from the Junior tests, probably bigger than the tempi changes, in my opinion. Pirouettes require a lot of collection from the horse and take the biggest effort strength-wise, perhaps even more than piaffe or passage. To make a good pirouette, you have to be able to collect and bend your horse. If the canter is too big, the horse will not be able to gather himself up in time to sit and turn. So here, too, you need to focus more on the canter stride than on where you want to ride the pirouette.
One of the most common mistakes made in riding pirouettes is to turn ahead of the horse. Most riders have the idea that they have to help the horse turn, which makes them turn their horses around before they are ready. The result is that the riders get ahead of the movement, unbalancing their horses and making it difficult,?if not impossible, for them to make a pirouette.
It is my experience that if you have collected the horse correctly, the easiest way to get to a pirouette (or the beginning strides of it) is to have the notion that if the horse is balanced enough to do it, you can use your own balance to get him to start. When you have your horse sufficiently collected, put your weight and outside leg slightly more back and put more weight onto your inside seat bone. An easy way to shift the weight is to look over your shoulder in the direction of the turn. The horse will be inclined to stay under the rider's weight, once he is collected enough. When this happens, if you give him one or two strides to gather up even more, you will feel him start to turn underneath you rather than turn to keep up with you. You make the setup and you let your horse find his balance. When he starts to turn, you can relax in the rein and that will make him collect even more. At first, try this exercise at the walk. You will clearly feel the inside hind leg being picked up and put down once the horse starts to turn underneath you.
There are several effective ways of working toward a pirouette: You can start on a circle and spiral in, putting the horse slightly in haunches-in or shoulder-in, depending on his straightness. Or you can ride straight into a corner and make the horse back off the wall to get a quarter pirouette. No matter how you approach it, when you let him make the pirouette by using your weight, he has a better chance of succeeding.
In all movements, our position in the saddle is an essential part of the total balance of our horse and ourselves. The more we realize the influence of how our balance affects the horse, the more effective we can be in our aids. You can only control the movements of the horse successfully when you follow them. If you're not with the movement, you are by definition against it. If you want to make the horse respond to your aids and be obedient, you first have to be in a position where it is possible for him to do so.
Remember that the one who wins the competition is the one who accumulates the most points at the end of the test, not the one with the flashiest extension or half pass. Being able to control the horse's balance and being aware of your own influence to that balance will give you the control needed to ride accurate tests. Earn points by preventing mistakes in accuracy. You should know the strengths of your horse and accept that there will always be some elements where a 5 or a 6 is a very good mark, just as a 7 or an 8 is for the others. Trying to improve an exercise that a horse is not good at during a test will sooner lead to mistakes than improvements.
This article was originally printed in the November 2011 issue of Dressage Today. To gain up-to-the-minute access to all Dressage Today has to offer,?consider subscribing.