How many times are you told to look up? It’s a common fault and yet one of the easiest to cure. There are very few things that are improved by NOT looking where you’re going and a dressage test is definitely not one of them!
A dressage test is made up of a series of movements and transitions. At least that’s how it seems at first glance. Those movements are on the left hand side of the sheet. On the right hand side you’ll see what the judge is looking for – straightness, balance and accuracy. All are affected by where you look.
Everything you do – however small it may seem – has an effect on your horse. If you look down your weight will tip forward over his shoulders. This will unbalance him and mean he’ll find it impossible to sit back on his hocks. If he feels unbalanced he’ll lean on your hands to support himself and he’ll tighten his back to stop himself falling flat on his nose. All this can be avoided if you just look where you’re going.
Looking down is one of those habits that you’ll need to nag at yourself about. Get into the habit of checking every time you pass A, E, C and B. (While you’re at it check to see if your reins are short enough too!) Do it often enough and you’ll find you start to do it naturally. It’s a habit and all habits can be broken.
Accuracy and straightness go hand in hand. The easiest way to get somewhere is to look towards it. In a test the most obvious place is the centre line. It’s the first impression the judge gets of you. Get it straight and there’s no reason you can’t start on an 8 but how can you if you’re not looking towards C?
All turns and circles can be ridden just from the position of your body. Your horse will copy everything you do with your body with his. Turn your hips and shoulders to the right and so will he. You’ll find it so much easier if you look to the right too. And so will he.
There is a big difference between looking towards and staring at. It’s easy to make a huge effort and stare at the judge’s car. The problem with that is you get fixated with it. It’s only when you get to G and realise you have to turn left or right that you snap out of it and swing your head and body in the direction you want to go. Whilst it undoubtedly does wonders for your straightness it’s not great for the fluency.
Looking without fixing on something is harder than it sounds. Practise when you’re driving, hacking out and even walking. Whilst it’s OK to stare at the screen while you’re reading this when you’re moving you need to look through things. Use your whole line of vision and start to see the things at the side not just in front.
In the warm up at a show how you look up can make a big difference. Be careful you don’t look forward and down. It’s easy to tip your head back but still be looking at the floor twenty metres up the track. Open your eyes and look straight ahead so you’re aware of what other riders are doing. Get in their way once and they’ll forgive you. Make a habit of it – especially because you’re not looking where you’re going – and you’ll soon make yourself unpopular. Shows are stressful enough, aren’t they?
Try trotting down the centre line. Look directly at C until you’re lined up and then relax so you take in the things either side and behind it. Look at something in the distance and you’ll ride forward and round the turn at the end. In a test that turn is important. Many riders forget about it, do a fantastic centre line and then lose rhythm on the turn because they haven’t planned it correctly. Try this because it works.
Bad habits always resurface when you’re nervous. Transitions are a classic time – especially to canter. Every time you look down your horse will fall onto his shoulders. In a canter transition it’s most common for riders to look down to the inside to try to encourage their horse to get the correct leg. Don’t! When he canters your horse needs to put out his inside front leg to balance himself – as you would if you were falling to the inside. If your weight is over his inside shoulder he’ll put out his outside front leg. Result? Wrong leg.
If you look up in a transition you’ll sit back on your seat and support your own body weight and make it as easy as possible for your horse to carry his. All movements and transitions are directly affected by his balance – or lack of it. If he’s well balanced in a dressage test the results show up in your collective marks at the end. In some tests these marks are worth as much as the test itself. They’re often forgotten about but they’re often the difference between winning and losing too.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.