Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fifteen Minutes with a Dressage Judge

"Would you like to play a game?"

This is what the judge asked me after my second test.  To say that I did not know how to react would be an understatement.  I decided to answer safely,

"That depends upon the game, I guess."  I smiled hoping that I was going to like what she said next and silently questioned my decision to once again subject myself to judgment.

You see, I have learned to take what judges say with a grain of salt, especially when I am riding Harley.  One time I had a judge tell me that I should ride my horse like I was carrying a cinder block and I had to lift the cinder block up in each stride.  Seriously?  I do not want to ride that way.  Another judge told me that my horse was too fast (which was true) and then the very next judge told me that my horse was too slow (That was at the next show and was also true, but talk about frustrating!).  I also had a judge compliment my saddle up and down, only to learn a few short weeks later that that same saddle did not fit Harley (or me) and was seriously compromising our balance, communication, and comfort.  That saddle has been sold, by the way!  I have never had a judge speak to me in an outright mean-spirited or punitive manner, but I have sensed condescension in the past.  The judge that made me feel like a loser with a capital "L" never really said anything nasty, it was the way she gave her comments.  Thankfully, my husband was able to do some emotional triage and help me to a place where I could find some usefulness in the experience.

With my permission, the judge walked up to us and greeted my horse.  Harley was his usual curious, social self, pricking his ears at her and sniffing her sweater.  She told me that at First Level, there are a couple things that she wants to see from the horse and rider.  The ten meter figure-eights are in the First Level tests for a reason.  Those movements allow her to see if the rider has been taught how to balance her horse through small turns and a change of direction.  She said that if those movements are ridden the way they were intended to be ridden, the figure-eight looks like butter.

Let me back up for a moment.

The tip that she was about to give us was not the first piece advice we had received from her.  After our first test, she told me that she wanted to see the horse go with a higher poll.  I was actually pretty surprised to hear her say this.  I thought that First Level required the horse to be on the bit in a level frame and that "thrust" was the new quality of focus with the idea that those were two crucial pieces of the puzzle that would lead to collection at Second Level.  I had this in mind when I rode for the judge, trying to do my best to show that Harley could produce lots of pushing power even if he did not have huge, lofty gaits.  I also purposefully, allowed him to drop a little in front during the lengthenings by giving my hands forward (and apparently dislodging my seat).  Before the dressage show, I read a Jane Savoie article that explained the difference between lengthened gaits and medium gaits.  Lengthened gaits, which are requested at First Level only, ask the horse to increase his stride length, but do not require an uphill carriage.  Ms. Savoie even wrote that the rider may feel more in the hand as the balance goes forward for the lengthening, whereas the medium gaits should still possess a sense of collection allowing the horse to remain light in the hand as he increases his stride length.  Both movements should not be accompanied by an increase in tempo.  However, in practice I find this to be very, very difficult to accomplish.

So what was the judge's tip about raising the poll and maintaining balance in the lengthenings? 

I must control "space and time". 

In case you have not read my profile, I am a science teacher.  Oh dear.  She is telling me to defy physics.  Dressage is way more difficult than I ever imagined.  Dressage is physically impossible!

After she got past my nervous laughter, she told me that she knew exactly what I needed to do differently and that these were things that she "knew I could do".  First of all, I needed to project through my chest more.  She demonstrated by assuming a dressage rider position from the ground.  She did not say the my position was horrible or wrong, but that she wanted me to ride more like a proud rider.  If I projected more from my chest, my horse would do the same.  I also needed to keep my seat in contact with the saddle as I projected, so that I was "creating a space" for my horse to fill in front of me.  She used a beach ball analogy.  She wanted me to roll the bottom of the beach fall forward and rest it against my chest without leaning back.  (She was not telling me anything that I had not heard before, but let's face it.  I do not have regular lessons, so I am not receiving regular coaching.  Self video review has its limitations!)  Next, she told me to keep my seat in contact with the saddle more and to tuck my seatbones under my body.  This would help Harley keep his hindlegs underneath his center of gravity.  The horse was my mirror.  (Oops.  I was assuming the hunter position from my first years of riding.  No matter how many "belly-button" rides I do, that will always be a positional error that I must battle.) 

She gave me space.  So how do I control time, Madam Judge?

She told me to count.  She said that hunter/jumpers count to a fence, dressage riders should count for a lengthening.  Now that was some new information for me.  Dressage is a ballet, with a slow tempo and steady rhythm.  She told me to count before and after the lengthening and during the lengthening she wanted me to stand a little taller and sit a little stronger giving a squeeze with both legs.  She wanted me to control the tempo (time) with my body and create space by opening my chest.  At all costs, do not think "fast" or "strong".  Instead think "tall" and "slow".  Then she told me to go out there and competitively "beat myself" in the next test.  Her advice was dually noted and I thanked her wholeheartedly. 

I found the judge's advice about lengthenings to be profoundly helpful.  I felt a noticeable difference in Harley in the next test.  The diagonal felt like it took a lot longer and although I did not feel a huge difference in stride length, it did feel like we were taller and the downward transition to working trot or canter was easier.  Lengthenings are probably the weakest area in my education.  My original instructor did not really teach me how to lengthen, because both horses pretty much just did it already.  I pushed a little with my seat or squeezed a little more with my legs and they just went, especially the warmblood/TB mare.  I had to purposefully ride the canter lengthening at half-steam or she would end up in the next county.  It was not like we were scoring 8 and 9's, but I did receive a score of "7" with the words "conservative" written next to the movement.  I preferred "7 and still in the ring" to "8 and disqualified".  She was a strong mare.

A canter lengthening from First Level test 1.  This is arguably Harley's favorite dressage movement!

A canter lengthening from First Level test 3.  There is a noticeable difference in my position and Harley's balance.  He looks a little flat compared to the first test, but we were also getting tired and his canter left was very crooked in this test.  Maybe this is how he should look?  I am not sure and there are so many variables!
A trot lengthening from First Level test 1.  I am quite happy with the way this looks, despite the suggested improvements.
I can see that my chest has come forward and that I am giving the reins forward a lot.  Got to love Harley's reach though!

Trot lengthening from First Level test 3.  Look Mom!  I am creating space and time!

Like in the test 3 canter lengthenings, I can see improvements in our balance here even if the reach is not as impressive.  I suppose that balance should predispose reach, which may improve as we practice a more correct lengthening technique.

Oh and one more thing, before I move on.  She told me that I am too straight in the saddle.  Me?  Not crooked?  Thank you, thank you!  I have permission to turn my upper body in the corners and turns.  As my teacher says, rotation, rotation, rotation, but she usually has me rotating to the outside, so that I do not collapse to the inside.  I will be careful not to over do it, but, praise the stars, I am straight in the saddle!

Okay, okay.  Back to our post-show one-on-one time and buttery figure-eights.

The judge asked me to ride a ten meter circle around her and began with a question.

"Do you know what I mean when I ask you to connect your outside arm to your body?"

Okay, this sounds like my teacher.  She is a Connected Riding instructor so I hear that word a lot.  I tried to demonstrate what I thought she meant, but I must not have succeeded, because she repeated her question.  She wanted my answer in words.

"Bend my outside elbow and pull my elbow back to my side."  I felt like this was right out of the dressage rider handbook.  I do not like it when students give me verbatin definitions.  My students do that when they do not want to be wrong.  Now, I was doing the same and she was equally unsatisfied with my bland answer.

"No.  I do not want you to do anything different with your elbow or the reins.  I want you to glue your outside arm to your side."

I kept Harley walking, but I turned to look at her.  What did you say?  She had my attention.

She told me to imagine that I had a tack store catalog with a $500 gift certificate sandwiched in the pages.  I had to hold the catalog and the money in between my outside upper arm and my ribcage.  She asked me to demonstrate how I would hold such a treasure.  I immediately clamped my arm to my side.

"Bingo.  Now continue walking on the circle, allow your inside rein and arm to be soft, but keep your outside arm very connected to your body.  You should feel this connection down to your outside seat bone."

I did.  Harley moved around the little circle with a lovely bend, light energetic steps, and a higher poll.  I used my legs to encourage him to continue stepping from behind, but otherwise he was totally "on parole".

Teacher, teacher.  I get it now!  I felt like my students.

Before moving into trot, she asked me to do a little experiment.  She told me to slightly press my weight into my inside stirrup and seat bone.  Harley's inside shoulder immediately shifted to the inside and he halted.  I think that she was surprised that he actually stopped.  She expected him to lose the bend, but I do not think she knew that this was going to be a wall for him.  My teacher finds this quality of Harley to be very amusing for instructional purposes and tells me that he does not "cut me many breaks" because of it.  The importance of weighting the outside stirrup in turns, in the canter transitions, even in half-pass is something that I have begun to preach when given the opportunity.  Now, she was really speaking my language.

After repositioning ourselves, she told me not to change a thing and ask Harley to trot.  This was tough.  I was so used to letting go too much.  Harley was used to popping off the contact and getting wiggly to avoid stepping through.  I just wrote about this a few posts ago.  When Harley is all connected and impulsive, he is amazing, but getting him there is challenging for two reasons: dressage is challenging by design and I do not want to hurt, upset, anger, frighten, or otherwise piss off my horse.  I love him and I want him to love me, even when carrots are not in the picture.

With some persistence and a few forceful taps with my legs, Harley pushed into trot.  I definitely had to remain active with my legs, but I was rewarded with this lovely, little, light trot.  Harley's neck was softly arched with a higher elevation than before, but he did not feel tight or restricted.  In fact, he had room to move his nose forward and I could feel him chew the bit.  The judge instructed me to correct him only with my legs if he tightened or tried to break gait.  She did not want me to use my reins to ask him to soften.  She told me that if I had the energy moving solidly from behind that it did not matter what his head and neck were doing, they would be in the right place.  She warned that the horse can switch very quickly from back to front to front to back.  She observed this in our lengthenings.  She said that one of our best moments in our second test was the canter lengthening (There is my answer for the earlier photo!), but my horse switched to front-back in the downward transition.  I must pay special attention to this and keep my legs active even in downward transitions.

She was nodding her head in approval before we finished our first circle.  This was the trot that she wanted to see for First Level.  All that I had to do to complete a nice figure-eight was to smoothly pass the catalog from one arm to the other, giving Harley a clear outside boundary and a connection to my seat in the new direction.  I told her that I could feel the difference.  And you know what?  It was not that hard to do.  Except for the lack of a whip to help my tired legs, riding Harley in this way actually felt easier.  He was softly in the bridle and light in front, and I could feel his hind legs lifting us up from behind the saddle.  The tempo was SLOW.  This was a relief to me.  I think that I was suffering from big-mover-envy.  I was actively trying to push Harley into a bigger stride for most of the test, hoping to squeeze out an extra inch.  This compromised our balance, our harmony, my position, and our overall performance.  This judge gave us permission to adopt a slower tempo without feeling inadequate.  This is not the first time that I have been told to "slow down", but it is the first time that someone showed me what a correct, slow trot should look and feel like in dressage.

Thank you for this wonderful, educational opportunity Madam Judge!  My goal in this post is to be your mirror, and reflect your kind gesture to a Sunday afternoon competitor whom you had never met before.

If you return to our area for an open dressage clinic, Harley and I will be there with an imaginary catalog tucked under my arm and with bells on!

Madam Judge engaged us in conversation as soon as we finished our salute.

The scribe was also very encouraging and personable.  It was my pleasure to ride and speak with both of them.


  1. This is a great post. I'm going to bookmark it and come back and read it again and again. So much of it is so helpful and I want to try all the tips. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Now that's a great judge - what an empowering and educational experience - all very good stuff. I'm a big fan of weighting the outside stirrup . . .

  3. Awesome! I am just trying to spread the love and the free information. Going to this show turned out to be a great idea. :)

  4. Kate- How many times are riders taught the exact opposite? I know that I was. As I ride with more experienced trainers (on occasion) I find that the outside stirrup arises again and again as the place to support and anchor the horse so that he can lift the inside. I thought this was a mistake when I first heard it, but have since seen the light!

  5. Val - I feel lucky that I've never run into a cranky judge. How discouraging that would have been for me. For everyone I suppose.

    It's funny that you mentioned several things that just happened, or were said, to me. I think we hear what we're ready to hear. Or at least I know that's true for me.

    I just got permission to ride in a neighbor's dressage court and as we were discussing this and that, she also brought up the idea of counting. That is something that I haven't run across yet. In the conversation we had, it was to maintain accuracy, but still ... interesting.

    The other thing that I really liked was the catalog idea. JL, my trainer, is CONSTANTLY after me to bend my elbows and keep them close to my body. When I do that, I ride from my torso and shoulder blades and not from my hands. This is especially helpful in turns, as the judge pointed out. JL has me really focus on keeping the outside elbow bent so that I can slow the outside shoulder and make the turn.

    Finally, at my lesson this past Wednesday, my trainer had me working on lengthening. She stresses balance first, something that you were discussing. Neither of my horses can lengthen if they're not balanced. As we worked during the lesson, she would encourage me to lengthen when the horse felt balanced. I lengthened by squeezing my legs, but I didn't let him speed up. JL used a great analogy. We have a large mountain climb on Highway 5 as we head south to Los Angeles. It's known as the Grapevine. It's quite a steep climb and an equally steep descent on the return home. If my horse is speeding up, JL had me think of how I would slow down coming down the Grapevine. If my horse is slowing down too much, I was to imagine giving more gas to climb the Grapevine. I don't want to go faster per se, but I don't want to run out of control or stall.

    I really enjoyed this post and am glad that you had such a great experience!

  6. Great post. Thanks for all of the info sharing. So nice that this judge was so knowledgable and willing to share her knowledge.

  7. To echo Annette- thanks for sharing! Wow, what a great judge. I hope she does do a clinic in your area, it sounds like it would be a great opportunity.

    Thanks for once again sharing the importance of weighting the outside stirrup. Coriander will just about fall over if I weight the inside stirrup turning left. In the past I've wondered why he starting a reining spin before realizing what I was doing more than once. Someday that lesson will sink in ;)

  8. Karen- My teacher is also always reminding me to keep my elbows bent, especially my outside elbow. I have never heard of clamping my elbow against my side though. I cannot wait until she returns to my area so that I can share the lesson with her and experience her take on the whole thing. I am sure that she will have lots to say, as she is a judge and a very opinionated trainer. Aren't they all?

    The Grapevine analogy with the ascent and descent is a good one. I could imagine and "feel" how that would make sense as I read your comment. I will have to think of that the next time that I practice lengthenings, which will be the next time I ride!

    Carol- You are most welcome and thank you. My Mom thinks that Harley brings this out in people. She insists that he touches people with his spirit and personality. ;)

  9. smaz- I feel that I am always relearning things in riding, but my horse seems to get them very quickly. Like the cute little trot that he showed the judge after she fixed his rider! I love having a horse like that, though. Sounds like Coriander is the same way. :)

  10. Oh, Carol- Did you see the free forelock!!?

  11. I tend to have an outside elbow that likes to float around - I think the magazine image will help with my own riding. Thank you for sharing! That judge sounds amazing - I would definitely clinic with her if she was in my area!

  12. Hi Val, what a great post - I always picture your moves as if it was me and Murphy because the two boys are so alike! Your post was brilliantly worded and so clear to understand - I can't wait to get on Murf and hold that catalogue tight!

  13. Katie- It is uncanny how important the outside elbow is for rider stability and the balance of the horse-rider team. I am sure that this is something that I personally will always have to think about it, along with my tendency to assume the hunter position with my seat. If she clinics in our area, you can be sure that I will share the experience with you!

    EquiNatural- Murphy is Harley's UK cousin! Thank you for the compliments. I hope that you and Murf have fun!

  14. This is fabulous helpful information! I'm going to try the magazine thing next time I ride. I have a tendency to do a bit of chicken wings, especially when I am pushing for more trot!

  15. Cool, Mona. Go for it!

    My position does all sorts of weird things when I trying to get "more" of something, as can be seen by my dislodged seat and pinching heels. Eek!


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