For Western dressage riders, the collection asked for at Second Level (Level 2) could prove to be a stumbling block. Historically, “collection” in Western horse gaits has been interpreted as a slowing of the horse through a reduction of energy or “impulsion.” While it will take a horse that is collected a bit longer to cover a measured distance than it would a horse who was moving in working jog, the difference is accomplished by a redirection of the energy, NOT reducing energy. This is not a secret, but it is where traditional dressage and Western dressage tend to divide.
Western traditionalists could point out that the Western horse has always been a working animal: work often required traveling vast distances, which meant riders spent a lot of hours in the saddle. It would only make sense that, if given a choice, a rider would prefer a horse whose movement was comfortable to sit on. One way to reduce the “bounce” in a horse's back is to decrease the amount of suspension in the horse's stride. The second way is to reduce impulsion (energy). This is what is commonly seen today in the Western dressage horse: reduced energy and slowed movement offer as “collection.” While reducing impulsion and suspension may make a horse easier to sit, it does not provide the basic education and physical strengthening the horse needs to produce correct Western dressage collection.
What a judge is looking for in collection is a show of contained energy (impulsion). The horse's hind feet step well under its body, resulting in the “lightening” (raising) of the horse's forehand. What most Western dressage riders are demonstrating with their horses is not a horse with a lightened forehand, but rather a horse that carries most of its weight on its forehand: the opposite of what is being called for in a collected gait. This can, at best, be given a 5 and should be given a 4 (insufficient) because no matter how slowly the horse is traveling, it is NOT demonstrating collection.
Collection can also makes a horse easier to sit, but the training process needed to achieve traditional collection needs impulsion. When impulsion is compressed, it produces power and suspension. To complete the “collection” process, the rider then uses her seat and/or weight aids, asking the horse to shift its weight to the rear legs so the hind legs carry more weight than they would if the horse were moving in a “working” (or extended) gait. To do this, the horse flexes all of the joints on the hind limbs equally (the desired goal) without a reduction of energy. This enables two things: 1) the horse can step under its body more easily and 2) it can then “lift” and “carry” its forehand as it moves forward over the ground. The front end being elevated makes a horse easier to maneuver and tends to extend soundness over the horse's lifetime. If the horse's back remains relaxed, the impulsion and suspension present in traditional collection are absorbed through the horse’s joints and a relaxed, swinging back. So for a good score in collection, the judge must see: engagement (lowering) of the horse's hind quarters through a flexing of the joints of the hind legs, a raising of the forehand, a hind foot stride that is well engaged under the horse's mass, a relaxed back, a supple poll and jaw, and a clear, steady, energetic tempo.
One question remains: If the horse in collection has not reduced its energy, why does it seem to be moving slower? It takes longer for a collected horse to cover a measured distance than a horse in working jog because the “shape” (movement of the legs) changes, going from “reaching” in the working jog (even more so in the extended jog) to an upward, rounded expression of its leg when in a collected frame. It is this additional upward articulation or movement that uses that “extra” energy (or impulsion), resulting in a “slowing” of the horse over the ground.
Another aspect riders need to consider in order to produce good/correct collection is that a rider's legs ask for power or forward thrust, but that power does NOT automatically translated into speed! What does that mean exactly? It means that when you apply your legs evenly on both sides of your horse at the girth, you should be signaling your horse for more power. Power can be used to produce speed, but the leg aid should not automatically elicit speed. Why? Because power has more than one expression, and there are two additional aids, either or both of which should come into play in order to tell the horse when the increased power your leg asked for, is to be expressed as speed. What if the rider's legs “rev” the horse's engine, but the rider's seat and/or weight (torso position) do NOT tell the horse to increase its speed? If the horse obeys, he will increase his impulsion (thrust against the ground) and translate that impulsion into slightly higher, rounder steps. A compressed body with more power, rounder frame, lighter, more articulated and elegant steps, hindquarters lowered, hind feet stepping well under the body—now you have WESTERN DRESSAGE COLLECTION!
How do you ride a second level test? You start by making all of your lower level test figures very correct. You convince your horse to trust your hands/rein/bit connection because your seat is deep and quiet unless you chose to use it to deliver an aid. You use the lateral work known as shoulder-in (a requirement in a second level test) to strengthen and supple the joints in both your horse's hind legs. You repeat and refine your requests so that your horse learns to respond instantly while staying relaxed to your forward driving aids. You do the same with your “breaking” aids: your weight and your seat (yes, your seat can be used to both send forward AND apply the breaks). As your horse gets stronger, better able to bend and balance on each of the circle sizes—20m, 15m and 10m—his hind legs will get stronger and stronger (trail work is a good addition both for mind and body to help strengthen a horse). Working on downward transitions teaches your horse to “wait:” to lift and hold its body and carrying more of its weight on its haunches. As this happens, you work back and forth between “waiting” (sitting) and driving forward (working gaits and extended gaits). You only work four to six steps at a time before you transition again. Slowly, your horse will be able to carry himself with his back raised and his hind feet under him. He will also begin to wait for you to tell him what to do with the power you asked for. Then, when you ask for more power, you can also direct your horse to shape that power into height of stride, keeping his back up and body in a round, ball-like shape with his poll the highest point and his jaw and neck relaxed. You will be riding a truly collected horse.
Tips for Riding the Second Level Tests
Second level calls for a number of “new” exercises/movements. Remembering that every movement in tests at forth level and below are “training” exercises, designed to improve the horse's balance, suppleness, obedience and movement will help you with nerves. If you have been working the individual exercises at home, your horse will at least remember the sequence of aids and know how you want him to respond. The collected gaits are not something you pull out of a hat, but if your homework has been done, neither are they anything to fear. If you want to impress the judges, work on smooth transitions from the regular gait to collected to extensions. “Smooth” and “prompt” are your watchwords, but if your horse does not show collection or extensions, it will be hard to earn scores higher than a 5.
Shoulder-in is a strengthening exercise and should be used frequently during training. One way to check your horse's level of response is to ride a shoulder-in for a few strides down centerline (or quarterline), then ask immediately for a few (perhaps four) strides of extended jog moving immediately onto the diagonal line on which your horse's head, neck and shoulders are already pointed. After four strides (good or bad), give a strong half halt and immediately transition back into the shoulder-in on a line parallel to the long side. Repeat this exercise often until your horse is “waiting” for your request to change both direction and the expression of his power. That “waiting” horse is also an attentive horse. As you ride back to the rail after your half circles, arriving at S or R, apply a clear half halt in the last stride before your horse's shoulder arrives on the track (while his body is still pointed at the long side); the horse will gather himself and sit more (when obeying your aid) so as you turn him onto the track, you just move his already lightened shoulders one step to the inside of the track, putting your inside leg on to aid the bend in the rib cage which must happen in order for the horse to conform its body to the shoulder-in figure. This, by the way, makes the inside hind leg of the horse work harder, strengthening and supplying that leg.
Corners before a lengthening across on a diagonal can also be ridden in a shallow shoulder-in position, known as shoulder-fore. This helps load your horse's inside hind leg as does the bend, which is being created by the arc of the corner; as you leave the corner proceeding on the long side, you will immediately move your horse's shoulder to the diagonal line, asking for increased impulsion through the turn, and as your horse straightens to the diagonal line, your seat will ask for the power which has been stored in the horse's hind end to be expressed as a strong forward thrust. To obey, your horse will lengthen the reach (air time) of its front legs and must be allowed to lengthen the overall frame of its neck and body as well. The last is the trickiest part for a rider: not only must your seat and balance be prepared to follow your horse's move powerful movement, but you are entering a very delicate balancing act (especially in the beginning). Horses tend to “fall forward” into the longer stride rather than holding themselves upright and pushing and reaching all the way through with their hind legs. This can mean they lean (lose their balance) into the rein and the rider's hands become “heavy,” and they ending up running on the forehand with their hind legs training behind them.
The transitions to lope in Level 2 Test 1 are set up to help the rider assist the horse to sit just before departing into collected canter; horse and rider are asked to perform a turn on the haunches just before departing into lope. In addition, the figure is a 10-meter circle which means the smaller size of the circle the horse is being asked to execute will help persuade the horse to stay “seated” on its haunches, the desirable position for a collected canter. This is then followed by the lengthened lope on the 20-meter circle. Here, your practice on immediate/prompt response and departures in practice will pay off. While you do want to show a smooth change of stride length from collected to lengthened, judges are more favorably impressed when you can create this change within the first quarter of the 20-meter circle and not by simply increasing speed so your horse loses its balance, falls onto its forehand and must reach out a greater distance with its front legs to prevent itself from landing in a heap on its nose.
While the free walk is called for in lower tests, it is often misunderstood by riders; as you climb the ladder of accomplishment, judges require more precision. The “free” walk is not just a casual/relaxed walk on a loose rein. The free walk is a walk that shows a pronounced level of energy (should look to the judge like the horse is headed to the barn to get dinner or “moving with intent.” The horse should stretch its nose and neck out and forward, lengthen its entire frame, step well forward under its body with its hind feet, so much so that the hind hoof should (at least) land in the track of the departing fore foot on the same side or, even better, reach beyond that front foot track! That’s where the term “over track” comes from. While the horse should be relaxed while accomplishing all of this, the walk must show a pronounced forward energy if you want a score higher than a 6. This, like all other movements in the test, takes practice. If a rider “hurries” the horse before the horse is relaxed and stretched, the horse is liable to break gait and jog. Even one or two steps of jog will immediately drop your score to a 4.
The back, which is called for in movement #27, needs to be square and also “energetic.” Rider's need to pay particular attention to the exact placement of their legs on their horse's sides; it is a common error of equitation to have your legs a little misaligned in placement or to use a little more pressure on one leg than the other. This will cause your horse to back crookedly. Of course, if your horse's hindquarters begin to drift off the straight line, you must act with one leg to correct the drift, but many times that “drift” is actually caused by the rider giving unbalanced pressure without even knowing they are doing so. Besides straightness, the other aspect of the back which will result in a good score is the energy with which the horse performs the movement. If the horse's movement lacks energy, its legs will “shuffle” backward, often one at a time. Instead, they should lift and step backward in diagonal pairs to get marks above a 6.
No matter what test you are riding, the entry and final ride down centerline is both the first and last impression the judge has of your ride. Before beginning either of those parts of your test, be sure you are seated in a laterally balanced position (if not your weight will tend to encourage your horse to drift in the same direction you are weighted toward), that your legs are in the same place on each side of the horse, and that you can and do use your legs equally unless you intend to do otherwise. Sitting tall and looking straight up center line at the judge will help keep your horse straight as will impulsion (forward energy). Salute with confidence and style (men) or grace (women) and make sure you have a positive image of the overall ride in your mind as you proceed forward from your halt at X or G. Good luck all!
Donna Snyder-Smith is the Director of Judge's Education for North American Western Dressage. Visit nawdhorse.org to learn more and get involved.
North American Western Dressage (NAWD) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating horse enthusiasts about the universal benefits of Western dressage and providing fun, affordable ways to participate in this popular new sport. NAWD offers a variety of programs—Six Feet on the Ground groundwork tests, traditional Western Dressage, Western Dressage Trail and Ranch Horse Western Dressage, and Pre-Intro Western Dressage for even the youngest exhibitors—as well as virtual coaching and showing opportunities, achievement awards and more. Learn more about NAWD at nawdhorse.org and at facebook.com/WesternDressageNAWD.