The journey through First Level is an important stepping-stone in the dressage adventure. It gives both horse and rider a grasp of the basic qualities of the Training Scale.
The Purpose of First Level and the Training Scale
The First Level purpose should be understood as it pertains to the Training Scale, which was developed as a guideline for training horses. The steps of the Training Scale are Rhythm, Relaxation, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection. The First Level purpose refers directly to the first four steps of the Training Scale. It integrates the requirements of Training Level—Rhythm, Relaxation and Contact—while adding thrust, or Impulsion, to improve the balance of the horse.
The ideal Training Level horse goes forward in a clear and steady rhythm; he is supple and loose, demonstrating relaxation; and he goes willingly to the contact. When the horse graduates to First Level, he is required to lengthen the stride, which tests and demonstrates Impulsion, the fourth element of the Training Scale. To perform all the movements of First Level well, the rider must be able to integrate and have a feel for each of the first four qualities of the Training Scale. Ten-meter circles, leg yields, lengthenings and counter canter need to be done in such a way that the rhythm, relaxation and connection are improved—thereby improving the horse’s balance and throughness.
All your First Level work will be easier and better balanced if you pay attention to the effectiveness of your half halts, the timing of your aids and your correct riding position. Let’s look at each of these individually.
Half halt. One way to get a feel for the half halt is to ride trot–walk–trot transitions close together. In the downward transition to walk, your horse will become more responsive to your seat and outside rein. At the same time, it will prepare him to go promptly forward in the upward transition. This simple exercise not only improves your horse’s sensitivity to your seat and outside rein but it will also improve his engagement. In the downward transition, you should be able to feel him add more weight to a hind leg. After your transitions are successful, try to half halt instead of doing the transition. Almost transition to walk, but don’t walk. Your half halts can become more subtle by riding with an engaged core and a soft closing of the fingers on the outside rein.
Timing. Better timing of your aids allows your horse to respond without compromising suppleness or impulsion. Timing the aids is a skill honed through feel. To improve timing, the aids should be applied in a moment when the horse is able to respond to the aid. For instance, to time the half halt, the aids should be applied when the horse’s outside hind leg is on the ground. This will encourage the horse to stay balanced on the hind leg for a moment longer. It can be helpful to have eyes on the ground or a mirror when working on timing. Your timing can also be enhanced by a balanced riding position, which allows you to be sensitive to your horse’s body.
Position. The rider should have a soft following hand, a following seat and a leg that is sensitive to the lateral swing of the horse’s belly. A sensitive hand is only possible if the elbows stay elastic. To practice this, the rider can focus on feeling, or “holding hands,” with the horse’s mouth evenly on both sides. In order to keep an even, consistent and soft feel on the horse’s mouth, the elbows must move with the motion of the horse’s head and neck.
Staying in balance with the movement of the horse requires an independent seat. The rider must be able to keep the middle of her sternum balanced over the horse’s center of balance. A sensitive leg is free from gripping with the upper thigh or knee. The calf of the rider should be resting against the horse’s rib cage at all times, similar to how a wet towel would lay across the side of the horse. To create this image, the rider needs to keep the joints in the leg, hip, knee and ankle working like a spring system. One easy exercise is to take the feet out of the stirrups and move the legs alternately with the movement of the horse as though the rider were actually pedaling a bicycle. Once the rider picks the stirrups back up, she can think of this soft feeling in her joints while keeping the calf against the horse.
Improving the Movements
The new elements of First Level include lengthenings, 10-meter circles, leg yields and counter canter. To improve these movements, the rider should analyze her daily training. For instance, when practicing the leg yield, ask yourself: Did my horse rush? Did he stay soft in the connection when I half-halted? Is my horse straight? This question is best answered by performing a small circle to the outside after a few steps of leg yield. If the horse is able to perform the small circle to the outside with ease and softness, it is more likely that he is staying straight and within the circle of aids during the leg yield.
Getting help from the ground is always useful to answer these questions, but another way is to interrupt a movement such as the lengthening with a small circle. This will provide insight into whether the horse is actually waiting for cues from the rider. Planning for the 10-meter circle might include questions such as: Is my horse connected on the outside rein? Might he fall into the circle? The rider can help by varying the size of the circle. Making the circle 2 meters bigger or 2 meters smaller allows her to check in with her horse to be sure he isn’t falling in or out.
Lastly, the rider should question what happens in the counter canter: Is my horse soft in the connection? Is he straight and balanced enough to maintain throughness in the counter canter? Checking the softness and responsiveness of the half halt in the counter canter is useful for these questions. If the horse doesn’t stay soft and engaged into the half halt during the counter canter, he is more than likely unbalanced and stiff.
Exercise: Visualize the Test
At the show, a clear picture of the ideal test will help build a rider’s confidence in herself and her horse. Visualizing a test will also give the rider a clear step-by-step strategy of how she plans to ride each movement during the test. Follow these steps:
1. Know the test.
2. Find a quiet place without the risk of disturbance.
3. Close your eyes and begin to ride your test in your head.
4. Visualize each movement and the preparation for the next movement.
The next adventure in “Journey Through the Levels” embarks toward Second Level and takes a look back at how First Level has prepared the horse and rider.