Serpentines are useful schooling exercises that also appear in British Dressage tests from Novice level upwards, so it’s important that you know how to ride them correctly and understand their benefit.
Read on to find out more.
What is a serpentine?
A serpentine is basically a series of half circles that form ‘S’ shaped loops across the arena.
Serpentines included in the lower level dressage tests have three or four loops and are usually ridden in trot.
More advanced tests include four-loop serpentines in collected canter with simple changes or flying changes each time you cross the center line.
As a schooling exercise, the serpentine is very versatile. For example, you could ride serpentines in walk, trot or canter with different numbers of loops and include transitions over the center line if you wanted to.
The benefits of riding serpentines
Serpentines are extremely good exercises for suppling your horse around your inside leg and for helping to develop rider coordination and timing.
The changes of direction and bend make this an exercise that is particularly useful for keeping the attention of a horse that is easily distracted or who is inclined to switch off during routine schooling sessions.
If your horse tends to hurry and lose rhythm and balance, riding serpentines can help to steady the tempo and put him back on an even keel.
What the judge is looking for in a good serpentine
When you ride a serpentine in a dressage test, it’s important that you understand what the judge is looking for.
First of all, accuracy is very important. The loops of the serpentine should be of equal size and each should touch the sides of the arena.
The rhythm of the pace should remain consistent throughout the exercise, and the horse should not speed up or slow down as he negotiates each loop.
The horse should continue to work forward over his back to seek the contact, not drop behind the rider’s leg, draw back from the hand or stiffen against the new bend of each loop.
There should be no tilting of the horse’s head or opening of his mouth as he attempts to evade the rider’s request for changes of flexion.
The horse should use his inside hind leg to help maintain his balance as he performs the exercise, and he should show a clear change of bend through each change of direction.
The horse should bend uniformly through his neck and body, traveling clearly on one track only around the loops.
The rider should sit straight, not leaning to one side or twist through the upper body.
Common faults when riding a serpentine
The following common faults will lose you marks in a dressage test:
- loops of different sizes or shapes
- varied tempo or loss of rhythm
- lack of supple bend (quarters out or hind legs crossing as the horse moves around the loops)
- head tilting
- mouth open
- coming off the aids altogether (i.e. above bit and not traveling forwards)
- losses of balance
- rider leaning or twisting
How to ride a serpentine
If you’re not familiar with riding serpentines, it’s a good idea to begin in medium walk before moving on to riding them in working trot. This will give you more thinking time to get your aids coordinated.
Before you even mount up, study the arena plan so that you know exactly where your loops should start and finish.
If you get into the habit of being accurate at home, you’ll do so automatically when you’re out competing.
Begin riding the serpentine in the middle of one short side of the arena (at either A or C).
To create the first loop, ride a half circle, making sure that your horse is bent around your inside leg and is stepping forward into a softly supporting outside rein so that he does not drift out through his shoulder.
Your inside rein should not be used to pull the horse around the half circle, but rather to create a small amount of flexion to the bend.
Keep your outside leg on the horse, slightly behind the girth to control the quarters and to stop them from swinging out.
Straighten your horse across the middle of the school, so that he is parallel to the short side for approximately one horse’s length.
Now, give your horse a half-halt to balance him and reverse your aids to change the bend.
If you’re riding the exercise in trot, don’t forget to change your diagonal.
Ride a second half-circle, and repeat.
Tips when riding a serpentine
Make sure that you don’t ride your loops right into the corners of the arena – they are meant to be half circles, not square corners!
As you ride the exercise, have each element of the Scales of Training in your mind:
You might find that your horse performs the loops really fluently on one rein, but shows resistance on the other. This is to be expected, as horses are generally naturally right or left-hoofed and it can take time to make them supple evenly to both directions.
Serpentines are extremely useful exercises to include routinely in your home schooling sessions, not just in preparation for dressage tests.
Follow the guidelines above and look forward to riding a horse that is truly supple, balanced, and attentive.