Four top trainers believe that emerging at the head of the pack takes good riding, proper training, ample preparation and brilliance.
Ask most top competitive dressage riders what attracted them to their sport, and “challenge” is a word frequently given in response.
Success in dressage requires not only physical prowess but also a sharp intellect as well. And it’s this intellectual challenge that fascinates so many riders. Ultimately, dressage is a game of numbers. It’s all
about squeezing out points wherever one can, and for that reason, it’s a strategic game.
Hence, a question many riders ask is whether or not there are “tricks” of the trade, so to speak, used by winning riders that gain them extra points.
The answer given by several winning riders is somewhat inconclusive. While they admitted there are some things that riders can do that just might help them notch up their scores, these top riders are quick to note that there’s no real substitute for preparation.
“Ultimately, it’s the quality of the training and the honesty of the throughness that’s important,” said Michelle Gibson. “And, the riding. Judges want to see a correct use of aids and that the horse is on the rider’s aids.”
Gibson, who is based at Diamante Farm in Wellington, Fla., and earned a team bronze medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, has a strong piece of advice for riders at every level of competition—be accurate.
“Accuracy is really, really huge, and yet, you don’t see a lot of it and I don’t know why,” she said.
Accuracy means that circles should look like circles and serpentines like serpentines and movements must occur where they should.
“They should be at the letter, not 3 meters before it or 3 meters after it. Transitions and movements
begin and end where they should,” Gibson said.
Part of Gibson’s theory of in-accuracy is that the horses may be taking control and riders don’t always know their geometry.
“I think one thing that happens is people start thinking about what is going on with their horse and focus on that rather than what they’re doing. Or, the horse knows the test. The biggest example of this is the extended trot. You see a lot of horses come back from the extended trot too early because they know that they’re coming to the end of the diagonal and so they start to back off,” she said. “Geometry problems are, for example, a volte at B that is supposed to be 8 meters. It needs to be centered beginning and ending at B and it needs to be 8 meters, not 9 or 10.”
George Williams agreed with Gibson and expanded on her point. “Straightness, accuracy and going forward in rhythm is important,” he said.
Rhythm, in particular, is important to Williams. “I take a hind leg and count the hind leg so that I know when it’s on the ground,” he said. “This way, I can find the rhythm of the horse and encourage him to go forward.”
With regard to rhythm, Gibson added that it’s important to maintain a steady rhythm through all the movements. “There should be no change in the rhythm within movements or it’s not correct,” she noted.
Thinking forward will also improve movements in a test and gain riders extra points, Williams said.
“For example, for a flying change at X, or anywhere on the centerline, you emphasize the forward movement of the change.
This will help ensure straightness, which is most important when you’re on the centerline because of way the judges see the change.
Don’t charge forward, but think about the forward movement of the change.”
Forwardness is also the key to improving the stretching down found in many tests. “For the stretching down on the circles, you want a pinch more energy, a pinch more forward. Not so much that it’s noticeable to the judge, but enough to focus the horse more in going forward and wanting to stretch down. Think of a slightly more active hind leg,” he explained.
Williams, based at Gypsy Woods Farm in Delaware, Ohio, is the only three-time winner of the Grand Prix freestyle at Dressage At Devon (Pa.). He said thinking forward is also a way to gain more points in lateral movements, particularly the leg yields found at first level.
“The movement is forward as the horse moves sideways. I think of riding the outside shoulder forward to the letter. If you think that way, you keep the freedom in the stride,” he noted.
He also advised riders to develop a strategy for preparation before each movement, a key to improving scores.
“For example, with walk pirouettes, you need to emphasize the self-carriage coming into the pirouette so that you have a true collected walk and true self-carriage. This makes the horse light in the shoulders when you do the turn and prevents the horse from dragging himself around the pirouette,” Williams said. “Also, rhythm is important here as well. I like to feel the rhythm of the hind legs in the turn and use your aids to maintain that rhythm.”
What works for walk pirouettes also applies to walks across the arena, Williams said. “First, show the judge a good walk in self-carriage and then the lightness in the shoulders through the turn. Lightness, self-carriage and impulsion are important; it pulls it all together.”
To help with preparation, make use of what’s available to you in the show ring. One of the best tools are the
“Use them for lateral work and shoulder-in and be sure of proper bending and balance through the corners. Use the corners to prepare the horse for the medium and extended gaits. But when you turn on to the diagonal line, be sure to bring the horse’s shoulders completely around the corner onto the diagonal line, especially the outside shoulder, so that the horse is truly straight before you go forward.”
Jan Ebeling, who is based in Moorpark, Calif., and represented the United States in the 2003 Pan American Games, said that preparation is the key to higher dressage scores, but for him, this involves not only preparation seconds before the test, but months in advance.
“It’s important before going to a horse show that you’ve spent enough time riding the horse. That doesn’t mean riding once a week and the other days your trainer rides. It’s not the greatest idea to go on a three-week summer vacation to Hawaii just before your horse show or to start riding your horse just two weeks before,” Ebeling said. “If you really want to have a successful show, you need to be familiar with everything the horse can do—the body language of your horse, what he does or how he feels before he makes a mistake so that you can read this before it happens and correct it. You need to be ready for what might happen.”
This isn’t to say, Ebeling noted, that one shouldn’t use a trainer or have a trainer ride the horse. Part of a good strategy is having a trainer who can help fix things when they go wrong. But, riders who really want to do well in a dressage test must work at it.
“I’m not very fond of having people just fly in to a show and ride. That might work a few times, but as far as squeezing out extra points in order to win, you won’t, because the set-up isn’t right,” Ebeling said. “All you have to do is look at the top people in the sport, any sport for that matter, whether it’s Anky van Grunsven or Tiger Woods. They’re dong this every day, six days a week—all the time for the entire year. Yes, it’s a bit stressful at times, but in order to achieve excellence, it takes excellent training and that means you have to do it all the time.”
When it comes to actually riding a test, Ebeling goes back to the foundation of all the tests—rhythm and relaxation. As a coach and a rider, he said it’s important to know where to draw the line in pushing either the horse or the rider once at the show grounds.
“I’m certainly pushing my students to go for it. But, mostly, I want to get the rider and horse confident. If I feel that doing something over and over would stress out the rider or the horse, I’m not going there. Stress in a warm-up before a test is not good,” he said.
Ebeling does believe that there are some things that can be fixed during the show season, and he advises riders to take a good look at the comments at the bottom of their tests.
“In those comments, look for the one thing that several judges think is wrong with your test. This is usually something that consistently shows up in the comments. And that one thing is very often the reason for all of the mistakes you make,” he said. “You have to figure out what that one thing is so that during the show season you can read the comments and say, ‘OK, I really have to work on my halts or on straightness or whatever.’ Fix the one thing and you can probably squeeze out an extra point here or there.”
Odds are, the real fix to what-ever shows up as mistakes in the test will require a return to the basics, Ebeling said, but it doesn’t mean you can’t find a short-term fix during the show season that will bring up your scores.
“It takes real work. The test is really a result of your training. There are all these building blocks, and these are not things you can fix quickly. You might be able to change a few things between shows, but if there are problems, it means you really have to work on the basics. And this is not something you can do quickly. You have to do it over a long time.”
When it comes to having that extra something that earns extra points, Robert Dover, who represented the United States in six Olympic Games, is one rider who knows how to do it well. And the word that Dover likes to use is “brilliance.”
Accuracy, rhythm, relaxation, straightness, impulsion, and throughness—all of these basics matter. But beyond that, victory goes to the horse and rider with expression and brilliance.
“All of those basic principles are part of what we work on every day at home. Every corner, every circle, every line from point to point, from movement to movement should be as clean as a person can ride. But then the leap from there is to move into that place called brilliance,” Dover said. And this comes from pushing yourself at home to move beyond what you think you can achieve.
“You have to feel like you could have 200 percent of everything at home, because when you go to a show, generally, most riders and horses lose something,” he said. “But you practice at 200 percent at home. That means, absolutely accurately, absolutely on every mark, then what becomes the norm for you and your horse is achieving excellence every day regardless of whether that is 5 minutes or 45 minutes. As long as
you’re attaining excellence every day at home, then when you go to the show, you’ll still be very good and very good is a 9.”
Like Ebeling, Dover said the schooling at home is vital. If the homework isn’t done, riders will be over-challenged in competition and that destroys confidence. And the key to winning is confidence.
“If I have a rider getting ready to go into a test, whether that be a first level test or a Grand Prix test, what am I going to say to that rider?” asked Dover. “Well, first of all, I’m going to say, ‘Listen, you have
to believe that you are here to show off how fabulous you and your horse are. You’re not here to see if you can just take part.’
“Because of what I hope is very sound, good daily training at home, the rider knows that he is stepping down into that class in which he’s competing as opposed to stepping up into that class,” Dover said. “My theory has always been that you win the test before you come down the centerline. You go around the arena with the knowledge and confidence that you and your horse are there to show how fantastic all of your work over the years has been. And to show all of your efforts to be as perfectly accurate and brilliant within relaxation that you can be.”
Dover believes a confident rider is able to push the boundary between impulsion and running away. Where that edge reveals brilliance, more points are surely gained.
“The rider who takes that chance and rides on that edge and makes it look like he’s comfortable there, is the winner,” he said. “Whereas, the rider who takes no chances and never goes for it, never pushes toward excellence, that rider stays in the middle of the pack.”