In the August issue we examined the lower dressage levels; this time, four world-class judges offer advice for getting top marks in prix St. Georges, intermediate 1/2, and grand prix tests.

The Inside Track

FEI 4* judge Gabriel Armando of Ringoes, NJ, has judged international competitions in 20 countries, including the NAJYRC, World Dressage Challenge, two Pan American Games, and many World Cup qualifiers. He says, “I like to see a rider truly prepared before executing a movement.” A judge who continues to compete at the FEI level, Gabriel says, “In order to improve one’s scores, one must not only strive to master every exercise of the test, but to improve one’s mastery of the connection and the half-halt, and delve deeper into improving one’s technique and feel.”

Cesar Torrente of Colombia, international FEI 4* dressage judge and FEI competitor, was twice on his country’s gold medal team in the Central American Games. Cesar reminds us that judges reach a score for any individual movement through the following methodology: basics + criteria ± modifiers = score. Basics are rhythm; relaxation; contact; impulsion; straightness and bend when required; and collection, lightness of the forehand and self-carriage. Criteria are the requirements of each movement. Modifiers include size, accuracy, geometry, and corners. Note that they are plus or minus, so can improve or lower your score.

Lorraine MacDonald, Equestrian Canada senior dressage judge and retired FEI 4* judge, adds, “We want to see harmony, teamwork—the happy, well-trained athlete,” which for her includes “No front-to-back riding! Your horse needs to work over the back, swing and step well under, chew the bit, and self-carry.”

Lee Tubman, FEI 4* judge, was a member of Team Canada at the 2012 and 2013 Wellington Nations Cup CDIO 3*, as well as being the Canadian National Grand Prix champion. Lee says, “You must evolve to the point where you have correct posture and aid delivery and ride mistake-free.” He notes that this process of correcting the rider first “should be the normal training standard.” He asks, “In essence, how correct are your basics? This is the answer to the question of how to achieve a higher score in your test.”

At the FEI level, “The development of the horse with the rider’s respect, awareness and knowledge for the training scale will be evident to a good judge,” says FEI 4* judge Gabriel Armando. “It is what dressage is all about; just getting through the movements is not what this sport is about. The rider must always strive to hone his skills in order to reveal his capable and subtle communication to the horse. The horse in turn will display the energetic hindquarters and elastic connection over its back to the bit. Correct practice will prepare horse and rider better; repeating an exercise poorly will not.”

Perfecting the Prix St. Georges

“Prix St. Georges is my favourite test to judge,” says Lorraine MacDonald. All of the prix St. Georges movements are symmetrical, and one movement flows into the other, so “collection and balance are essential.”

For the entry, Lorraine says to “Ride a straight line with energy and clear transitions in and out of the three-second halt. This is the only time you have eye contact with the judge. Wait until your horse fully halts and then do a military salute, hand straight down, fingers closed with the back of your hand to the judge.” Gabriel adds that the halt at centerline should have “a smooth transition in, and an energetic transition out.”

This level has a lot of elements already shown in third and fourth levels, notes Gabriel. “But now with a higher degree of collection and suppleness. To impress your judge, you should show a clear difference between medium and extended trot as well as the transitions involved.”

Lorraine stresses that the horse needs to have the ability to adjust his frame so that he can lengthen for extensions and then collect with the nose in front of the vertical and the poll the highest point. “Ride into the corner to prepare the correct bend for the shoulder-in,” she says. “The hind legs stay parallel to the track and the shoulders move in to create a three-track movement. She adds, “Too often, I see quarters swinging out, and the horse slowing tempo and losing self-carriage. Know your geometry and be aware of how your horse feels – don’t just ride the movement!”

Lorraine advises, “Finish the volte, do one stride of shoulder-in with a lot of bend, and focus on G. Think forward and sideways with the shoulders leading. The half-pass has the most bend – lead with the shoulders, control the angle on four tracks, and of course maintain energy and self-carriage. Do not do an abrupt tight turn at C; use the corner to set up for the extended trot. Then start the extension at the letter (not the quarter line) and maintain the impulsion to the end. Take time to collect from behind and forward into an expressive uphill flying change at the letter on the diagonal (not through the corner). Be sure to show a difference between medium and extended paces.”

For the canter tour, Gabriel adds, “A straight and uphill transition to canter will help the horse to stay up in preparation for the half-passes. Think bending around the inside leg/seat bone and not sideways. Remember to straighten up your horse before the change even if, when training, it will take more steps than desired. The same considerations for the trot half-passes are required here.”

Gabriel notes, “The pirouettes should not have counter-flexion, steps out, side steps, loss of rhythm and/or connection. Rhythm, engagement, arched neck for the collected walk, and a consistent full stretch, with purpose and overstep, keeping contact in the extended walk, will assure a good mark at this part of the test. The walk is easily ruined with tension, so pay careful attention to this important gait.”

Improving the Intermediate 1 & 2

“Even if it is similar to PSG,” says Gabriel, “the shoulder-in is on centerline, which needs a higher degree of control of the straightness of the horse. It also has the rein-back. To improve this mark, ride a square, under, and straight halt, together with a diagonal-paired rein-back with a smooth transition.”

“Make sure that your rhythm is clear,” says Cesar Torrente, “because otherwise your scores cannot be high.” For the pirouettes, says Gabriel, “Keeping the horse’s canter strides under control before, during, and after the exercise will give the rider extra points.” He adds, “Remember to start small and then continue. In the changes, keeping them straight, symmetrically on the diagonal, with energy, and covering ground will give the rider a higher mark.”

“The judges will always be looking for a rider who has a good connection with horse’s mouth,” says Cesar, “and this can only occur if the rider also has good contact with the seat and legs.” The FEI judging guidelines state: “A horse going with an open mouth should be dealt with by deducting 1 or 2 marks each time it is observed depending on severity … Issues with the tongue are further evidence that the horse is avoiding the contact.”

Another focus for the judges will be on whether the horse has the impulsion, increased energy, and thrust required for this level. Cesar says, “If you feel that that you are accomplishing every movement, but the scores are low and the judge keeps on saying ‘not enough engagement for the level,’ you have to check if your horse’s balance and engagement corresponds to the level at which you are showing.” He adds, “The horse’s back must also be supple and the horse must be willing to carry himself forward, not simply go fast. If your horse does not meet these very important criteria during one movement or through the test, the scores cannot be higher either, and you have to go back to basics and fix it.”

Cesar reminds us, “It’s our duty to work on straightness, meaning that the hind feet have to follow the hoofprints of the front feet when traveling in a straight line or on the circle/curve.” He says, “For every single movement, the judge will be paying attention to this, and if the horse is not straight or properly bending, the judge will lower the mark depending on the severity of this lack of straightness or bend. Obviously ‘straightness’ is very important, because otherwise the horse will never be able to come under with his hind legs with true engagement.” Cesar refers us to the FEI Dressage Rules, which state that the aim of the collection of the horse, among many factors, is to ‘lower and engage its hindquarters for the benefit of the lightness and mobility of its forehand.’

“For the intermediate 1 test,” says Cesar, “I will always be looking if the horse has engagement. If the hind legs can’t step forward under the horse’s body, the marks can’t be higher.”

The intermediate 2 test “is a necessary step up into the GP goal when horses are not 100 per cent confirmed in the big tour,” says Gabriel. “In this test, the exercises come fast after each other. The demands of the hind end and collection are greater than in PSG/intermediate due to the introduction of piaffe, passage, and one-tempi changes. In the walk, for example, we like to see a smooth transition from passage to extended walk.”

Gilding the Grand Prix

For Lee Tubman, success at the grand prix level “comes from how well you have understood and implemented the training scale.” He says, “When I am judging you, I am comparing you to the training scale at any given moment. In a simpler way, the marks are awarded for the quality of the gait and throughness, and lastly the execution of the movement.”

Lee emphasizes training that is gymnastic and has elasticity. He says, “Half-halts contain a contraction moment followed by a softening or relaxing moment [which you can also reverse]. In the phase of softening you allow the musculature of the horse to temporarily stretch, creating an elastic moment, and equally important, a psychological moment whereby the horse always thinks it can go forward.

“Many riders do not like to do this because they are worried the horse will go off the bit or lose its throughness. They end up holding on for too long and then the horse becomes stiff in the back, doesn’t push forward from behind, and has a short neck.”

“The content of a grand prix test is very physically demanding for the horse and you require fast timing and coordination from the rider,” concludes Lee. “If we look at grand prix in a different way, we could ask ‘are you an expert at the training scale and riding half-halts?’ If you can ride mistake-free in your position, delivery of aids, and half-halt, and the horse then executes the movement in self-carriage with very little effort, you should receive a score of 8 and above. That is an 80% test!”