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The Dressage Guide

This article has appeared previously in Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest issue, please click here.


Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro topped the scores on day two of the dressage in Rio - Photo Credit Eric Knoll
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro in Rio, 2016.

© Eric Knoll
Dressage is a sport that is as complex as you want to make it. On the other hand it is simplistic, elegant, artistic, but disciplined. As with any discipline the word evokes a logical and ordered process. Dressage is no exception and competitors choose to put themselves and their equine partners in front of a panel of judges to be assessed against a set of standards that have marks attached. Unfortunately it is rare to find combinations that gain the highest marks according to what is required by the definition of the guidelines. This doesn't mean that the judges and the judging criteria bend and weave, but always remain loyal to the meanings and definitions of each appropriate mark.
For the outsider looking in at the sport, it is important to understand what the judges are looking for and where the horses gain and loose marks. Firstly, there is a set pattern that each competitor has to ride. This pattern is divided into a number of individual exercises -  the degree of difficulty depends on the grade of test and as the horses become better trained the tests ask for more complex movements - and then each of these exercises is given an individual mark out of ten in 0.5 increments. The highest percentage is the winner. There can be over 30 individual movements in a test that need 30 individual marks.
This scale of marks from Zero to Ten have a set meaning:
0 not executed
1 very bad
2 bad
3 fairly bad
4 insufficient
5 sufficient
6 satisfactory
7 fairly good
8 good
9 very good
10 excellent 
There are 0.5 marks between each whole mark that are now used at the judge's discretion and are handy marks as sometimes a judge may think a positive strong clear 7, but not quite an 8 and sometimes a not quite 7, but better than a 6 and so a 7.5 and a 6.5 respectively.
A 10 is excellent, but not perfect and then judges will start coming back in their marks depending on what they don't like. There is a shape and balanced look between the horse and rider that is an image in a judge's mind for a 10. Then at each individual exercise there are specific requirements that the horse must show in the way it holds a position and the expression and grace and elegance and above all, the ease with which the movement is performed. This is the intricate part to the judging that takes years of learning and experience to be able to sum up, in a moment, (as each movement may only take perhaps 10 seconds) and then a mark needs to be placed next to the appropriate movement on the judging sheet as well as a comment that either gives a reason why the mark was low or a comment as to what would make the mark better. It is no easy task and there is no time for deliberation and thinking. Judges have to assess in an instant and it's very much a feeling from looking at the overall picture that will gain the mark. Judges perhaps have a picture in their mind of the horse for the 10 for each movement and are able to put what they see in perspective with that excellent mental image and derive a mark from that.
It can be likened to gymnastics or skating or diving or any of the myriad of sports that are judged subjectively and of course, there is always a degree of artistic impression that is individual to each judge. In Dressage there are up to seven judges placed around the 60x20 meter arena and the horse and rider are assessed at every angle in all movements and with all scores counting. Of course, it's easy to understand that judges may give different marks depending on whether the judge is in front, side on or behind for each movement.
As a spectator it is not so hard to assess a Dressage performance. If you have an eye for symmetry, balance and harmony then you could reasonably be able to assess a Dressage test. As with any sport, it is important to know the rules but in Dressage, it is not only the rules that are of the utmost importance, but to know the basic gaits of the horse in walk, trot and canter. It is the embellishment of these gaits through correct training that will gain the highest points. 
Horses are born with a natural ability to have beautiful paces and balance and of course the better the starting product the better the chance of success, but the horse must also have an appreciable trainability and attitude towards its work. A weightlifter's stature will not lend itself to being a brilliant gymnast. It doesn't mean that a big weightlifter could not be a gymnast, but it is for sure that he will not be as competitive as a svelte, athletic, willowy type if they both had the same technical training. All the same, the weightlifter with a great attitude and flair for doing the sport and who is well trained in the movements required could easily be more competitive than the great willowy natural type, who has not such a great attitude and is not well practiced and trained and shows flaws in technique.
It is easy to simply compare the Dressage horse to the human gymnast. We can all sit in front of the television and watch the gymnastics at the Olympics and get a good feel for who we think is good and not so good. So, it will be with Dressage and it's simply a feeling that you soon learn to look for. It is the ease and the balance, the overall appearance and style of the individual and the attitude and expression that draws us to a good performance. Of course as an amateur watcher we won't know the technicalities, but without doubt we will certainly know who the better ones are. It's all about the overall look. A good commentator will soon put watchers in the correct mindset to look for the most important things and thus be able to make a better assessment.
To judge as an official there are many courses that need to be attended and there are written exams and many practical periods required.
As a commentator, I can tell you that the most important things to look for that will enable you to make a better assessment of a good or bad performance, while realising the finer points that put the icing on the cake, only come from many years of training and practice. Of course most good judges have ridden the movements and competed at the level they judge and so they realise the feeling that the look would give. They also know preparations and the cues that produce top performances and they also see flaws in training and ways riders can trick up movements. 
The most important look is that which is termed 'uphill'. Then there is that amazing feeling of absolute power that is contained energy with the rider sitting in perfect balance and  unconstrained control that is totally at ease and full of confidence.
A good Dressage horse will leave you with an impressive and proud feeling in that the neck will be arched and raised and the horse's ears at the highest points. The front legs will be elevated and elastic and be thrown well out in front of the horse, with the shoulders free and not heavy. The balance will be that the horse's front is high and proud and what really is important, is that to produce this raised and free front of the horse, the horse's hind legs must be well under the horse to take the weight. It's like a boat with the bow high and not nose diving.
A good way to look at this and realise this balance is to imagine that when you look at the horse from the side he is half filled with water. You can see through him and as the horse moves, the front of the horse is higher than the rear and the water is more to the back end. Now, keep this visual and as the horse and rider perform their routine this balance must not alter. When the horse increases speed forward or back or makes a transition from one pace to another, the water must not start to slop about and especially not run forwards and load the forehand or shoulders. Liken it to a boat and you need to keep the bow constantly up and so you need to keep the crew on the stern of the boat to do this. This weight and balance over the hind end is how you keep the uphill feeling. It is this uphill feeling that enables the horse to look like he is dancing easily. The terms associated with this feeling are, engagement, impulsion, sitting and this increased engagement and sitting is produced through thorough and careful training and is done through the rider's aids - seat in the saddle, legs against the horse's sides and of course pressure and release of the contact to the horse's mouth through the reins.
Of course it is not just the horse that must be in balance, but also the rider who should sit in a balanced way and the aids or signals he gives to the horse should be pretty well unnoticeable. An easy visual to ascertain this is to imagine a line through the rider's ear, shoulder, hip and heel and this line should be at right angles to the ground. The rider should be at one with the horse and his balance and body should follow every move. He should not be obvious, but blend into the picture and make it look as if the horse is absolutely carrying the rider effortlessly and not the rider carrying the horse.
Now you are ready to judge and rather than think of the figure to put to a movement think of the comment. That was fairly good....7.
That was bad.....2. That was ok, so satisfactory....6 and then, if you can't decide between the whole numbers go up or down by 0.5 of a mark.
It's a wonderful sport, so now at your next event, go and find the appropriate copy of the judges' sheet and watch and mark. Or, simply sit back and enjoy the beauty and athleticism to be found in any Dressage performance. 








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