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How to Know When to Move up to the Next Level in Dressage

dressage competition level

Through correct and systematic training, you and your horse should naturally progress up through the dressage levels. 

Like most riders, you’re probably keen to advance, but it’s important that you don’t rush your partnership and enter a competition at a level beyond your current capabilities. 

So, how do you gauge when it’s time to move your horse up to the next level in competition?

In this article, we’re going to look at the problems of progressing too quickly and too slowly, give you five steps to deciding if you and your horse are ready for the next level, and finish with five extra tips on competing at the next level up. 

The problem with progressing too quickly

Aside from getting a poor score in a dressage test, pushing your horse beyond his current strength and suppleness capabilities can lead to injury, confusion, tension, and a loss of confidence. These factors can also ruin any positive work you have done so far, setting you back on your dressage journey. 

The problem with progressing too slowly 

Although you could argue that you can never develop a horse too slowly, there are a few minor downsides to taking your time. 

  • Your horse could become bored without any new work to challenge him, resulting in him becoming less attentive and responsive.  
  • You could become obsessed with making everything too perfect, driving yourself insane as you over-analyze every step and movement your horse makes.  
  • Ironically, some horses will perform better at the higher levels than the lower levels. 
  • Challenging work is needed to further improve the basic work, and the lack of more challenging work could be what is preventing you from progressing. 

That being said, more damage is caused by progressing too quickly than too slowly. So, if you are ever unsure, it’s always best to er on the side of caution. 

How to know when to move up to the next level 

Here are five steps that you can take to help you decide if you and your horse are ready for the next level up. 

Step 1 – Analyze your previous test scores.

As a general rule, you and your horse should score consistently over 65% at the level you currently compete at before moving up a level. 

However, although this is a good indicator, it isn’t set in stone, and it does not apply to every horse and rider combination. This is because, at the lower levels, the movements are spaced out with not much going on, making it difficult for you to keep your horse’s attention and prevent him from getting too strung out. Whereas, at the higher levels, the movements come quickly, one after the other, helping to keep your horse’s focus and his hindquarter engagement. Therefore, in some instances, your horse will perform better at a more advanced level than a lower one.

You know your horse best, so you are the best person to decide if the above example applies to you. But remember, you still need to be able to easily perform all the movements required at the next level up; don’t enter your horse into a competition without doing the neccessary work at home just because you think your horse needs a challenge.

Step 2 – Analyze how your horse feels. 

Analyzing how your horse feels is the leading barometer for knowing when to upgrade to the next level.

Ask yourself the following questions: 

1 – Is your horse fitter and stronger?

A correct way of going develops physical and mental strength and coordination.

So, does your horse recover quickly after cantering on the right rein and then the left rein? Can he respond quickly and calmly to your aids without getting his legs in a muddle?

Remember that the higher the test level, the more demanding it is for your horse. 

2 – Are your transitions balanced and seamless?

Your transitions should be prompt off your aids and should happen mainly from your seat, with your horse staying forward into the contact. You should feel more and more of your horse’s balance coming onto his hindquarters, which means that less weight and resistance is loaded onto his shoulders, head, mouth, and, consequently, your hands. 

TIP: Onlookers will let you know about your improvement. Somebody who has not seen your horse work for a month or two should notice significant improvements just after seeing you work through some direct transitions.

Step 3 – Analyze the tests at the next level up. 

Start by reading ALL the tests at the next level to get a good idea of the movements and questions required of your horse.

Try to visualize how you and your horse would perform at the next level and what picture you would present to the judge.

Think about what you would find straightforward and what you would find difficult. (Remember, all the movements sound easy when written on paper!)

Step 4 – Analyze the individual movements

Try individual movements from tests at the next level and analyze how they feel. 

If all feels good, ride a few movements together and, again, analyze how easy it is for you and your horse to go from one movement straight into the next. 

Step 5 – Ride through the test at home 

When you feel the time is right, ride through the entire test calmly at home.

At first, when riding a test at the next level above, movements will seem to come up very quickly, and you may feel as though you have little time to prepare for the next one. This can have a negative knock-on effect throughout your test, with each movement getting progressively worse. If you feel this happening, stop and accept that you have more work to do. 

When you feel you have time between the movements to think of how to prepare and present your horse throughout the test, and not just where to go between the markers, you probably have enough control to try the test competitively.

Extra tips 

Here are five extra tips to help you tackle a test at a more advanced level.  

Tip 1 – Pay attention to the location and placement of movements and transitions

The difficulty of a movement or transition is not only dictated by the movement itself but the location in which it is required. 

For example, a canter transition in a corner is much easier than a canter transition on a straight line. 

Also, the committees who design the tests put transitions, 10-meter circles, halts, and rein-backs in front of the judge at ‘C’ so they can clearly see if your horse is straight and balanced and that the movement is ridden accurately. So, take note of the placement of the movement in relation to the judge’s viewpoint.  

Tip 2 – Note how quickly movements appear

Movements will come up quickly in the test, and you need to know that you have the time to balance and prepare your horse sufficiently. If not, you will make mistakes, and one mistake quickly leads to another.

Tip 3 – Prepare your horse at home and ride the test the same on the day. 

Many riders try a new level without any preparation, and rarely is the presentation good. From the judge’s perspective, it usually looks rough, and more often than not, both horse and rider appear overloaded.

Practice the test at home and, on the day of the competiton, ride the test exactly as you did at home. Your horse must receive the same instructions and aids. This will lead to both of you being more confident, bringing higher marks. 

Tip 4 – Pick the right test for your debut

When you have decided to move up to the next level, be strategic about the test you pick as your first one. 

For example, when competing with British Dressage, all the tests are numbered; the higher the number, the more difficult the test is. Therefore, when moving up a level, try to enter a class where the test number is on the lower end. This will allow you and your horse to ease in gently rather than being thrown in at the deep end with the most complex test that level has to offer.  

Tip 5 – Be prepared for a lower score

Don’t be too disheartened if your first few tests at a new level receive lower marks than you usually get at your current level. Remember that the judge will expect more engagement, uphill carriage, and suppleness as the levels progress, as well as seeing that your horse can perform all the required movements.

Use the judge’s comments to help you in your training at home to further improve and increase your future scores.

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In conclusion

It can be tempting to rush ahead with your horse’s training, especially if you desire to climb the competitive levels. However, it is important for your own confidence, and that of your horse, not to rush things.

Use the steps within this post to help you analyze when it’s the right time to take a step up, and use our tips to help ensure an easy and smooth progression to competing at a higher level.

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