As I looked around the show grounds it was clear that I wasn’t in Virginia anymore. In fact, I was in Kircheimbolandon, Germany, in the midst of a two-month werkstudent opportunity with top German trainer Uta Gräf.
We pulled into a large, grassy field to park our Volkswagon, squeezing it in next to a dozen other Volkswagons all hitched to Böckmann trailers just like ours. All of the competitors trailer in the day of the horse show; no overnight stabling is available at local horse shows in Germany. One big indoor ring was filled to the brim with big, beautiful warmbloods (and a few ponies), with riders taking advantage of the only opportunity to warm up at the show. Unlike in the U.S., in Germany there is no opportunity to school in the competition ring before a show. So these riders were taking full advantage of their warm-up.
I settled in to observe a few tests before my grooming duties began. As I enjoyed my cappuccino ringside, I realized that the tests themselves also had disparities from what I was used to in the U.S.
It isn’t just how the shows are run or that the tests are different—there are different systems of levels in Europe according to each country. A comparative chart showing the differences in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom can help illustrate the different systems. Each level has similar requirements to those of the U.S. There are, however, differences in the breakdown of the tests, how many tests are in each level and even the size of the arena for certain levels.
If we take a closer look at the German and UK systems for instance, the first difference we see is the size of the show ring. Many of the tests have been designed for the short arena, 20 by 40 meters. The short arena in the U.S. is used only at the Introductory Level. Once a rider in the U.S. begins to compete at Training Level, the size of the dressage arena moves to 20 by 60 meters. In Germany, the tests for levels E and A, most of the L tests and more than half of the M tests are in the smaller arena. Similarly, in the UK, the smaller arena is utilized throughout the levels up to Advanced Medium.
If we take a look at the chart, we see that the UK, the Netherlands and Germany all break down their levels further than the U.S. Although the U.S. has three varied tests that increase in difficulty within a level, we do not have a level within a level. Each subset of levels in the European systems has its own set of tests. For the German L* Level, for instance, there are eight different tests to compete in. For L** Level there are only two individual tests. The * represents the sublevel within a certain level in the German system. These subdivisions encourage an intense comprehension of each level.
The breakdown of the levels differs between countries, though certain movements and requirements remain the same. Training Level, however, is relatively similar among these countries. It tests the basics at walk, trot and canter with comparable movements. The contrasts in each country’s competitive system increase as the levels move up.
For example, in Germany before a rider can move from E Level to A Level, she must successfully complete an exam called the Reitabzeichen. This E Level exam tests the rider in both jumping and dressage. A rider must score at least 60 percent to pass. This exam coincides with the German philosophy that promotes the development of an all-around rider. Hence, most horse shows have both jumping and dressage competition.
In order to advance a level, some countries like Germany require either more difficult testing or success in the competitive arena. Success in the European show ring is no small feat. Most tests have at least 30 competitors. For the Dutch and UK programs there is a point system. In order to move up a level in the Netherlands a rider must earn at least 10 points. To earn one point, a rider must have at least a 60 percent, for two points, a score above 65 percent and for three points, a score above 70 percent. Alternatively, a rider can also lose points. If a rider scores below 50 percent she will lose a point. As the score gets lower, the number of points lost increases. If a rider loses 10 points, she is forced back to a lower level. The U.S. system is much more lenient. There is no rule in place that enforces a competitive team to earn its way into a higher level.
Let’s compare the tests at First Level for the U.S. and A Level in Germany. For Level A*, lengthenings in the trot and canter and 10-meter circles are consistent with what’s required in First Level in the U.S. However, in Germany a walk-to- canter transition, a simple serpentine and Überstreichen (giving with one rein) are additional movements at the A* Level. The German system then has A** Level, which adds leg yield (also consistent with U.S. requirements at First Level), rein back, 10-meter half circles and lengthening of the reins in the canter. This methodical progression of A Level is a comprehensive test of the horse and rider. Additionally, by testing a walk-to-canter depart, Überstreichen and lengthening of the reins in the canter, the German system requires not only a higher level of collection but a certain amount of self-carriage in the horse. This makes the gap between A Level and L Level a smaller leap.
As we compare tests among the countries, one unifying theme in Europe is that the level of collection required in the lower levels is slightly higher than in the U.S. For instance, in L Level for Germany, Advanced Medium for the UK and Level Z for the Netherlands, the 8-meter circle has already been introduced. It isn’t until Prix St. Georges that the 8-meter circle appears in competition in the U.S. Half-pass, which is introduced in L** Level in Germany, a serpentine with flying changes in the UK at Advanced Medium and the half canter pirouette in Level ZZ for the Netherlands are more examples of the European systems testing for more collection. Although a higher level of collection is more imposing, it could be argued that it is better preparation for the demands of the upper levels. Once a rider begins to compete in Prix St. Georges or higher, whether it be in the U.S. or Europe, the same FEI rules apply to everyone.
Every country has a slightly different competitive system with its own individual rules. This brief overview is meant to provide some insight into how the U.S. compares to a few of the countries that could be considered the dressage powers of Europe.