No Point Left Behind: 5 Changes to the National Dressage Tests (and How to Ride Them Right)

by Amber Heintzberger /

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his New Year brings with it revamped national dressage tests, co-branded by U.S. Equestrian (USEF) and the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF). The dressage tests are re-written every four years and is when the test-writing committee takes the opportunity to improve on the previous tests, ask new questions of horse and rider, and keep the questions asked in the tests relevant to the progression of the horse’s training.  

While some of the material remains the same, there are a few noteworthy changes (read the ‘fine print’ in the Directives). We asked several dressage professionals to comment on what they think are some of the most significant changes and how to be prepared to ride the new tests, which you can read in their entirety at this link.

Three-Loop Serpentines in Training Level

Need to know: FEI rider and USDF Certified Instructor Reese Koffler-Stanfield of Lexington, Ky., and her student Cassandra Hummert-Johnson, a young professional, talk about three-loop serpentines and how riders can make the most of this new movement in Training Level, Test 3.

“There previously was one loop, MXF. When it was just one loop there was a change of bend but it was pretty slight and people got confused; I like the change because I think the three-loop serpentine is really clear and will help people understand that they need to be able to ride their horses evenly in both directions,” Reese says.

Don’t forget: In the serpentine, riders will need to pay attention to their geometry, making equal loops, and focus on correctly changing the bend and keeping the horse balanced and straight through the changes of direction. Additionally, serpentines test the rider’s spatial awareness, since you have to divide the arena into three equal sections, which you must judge without relying on the placement of the arena letters.

“The geometry is going to be a challenge in the beginning, but I think people are more likely to school a trot serpentine at home – the loop not as much,” Cassandra says. “The serpentine feels a little more natural, while the one-loop serpentine was confusing since it’s more of a change of flexion than bend.”

Pro tips: Reese suggests that riders should start the serpentine like you’re starting a 20-meter circle. “You want the inside leg pushing the horse to the outside rein, using the inside rein for flexion; there’s some coordination involved in changing the aids as you change direction, so that’s something to focus on in your training.”

Photo by Sophie Harris.

Easing Into Second Level

Need to know: Grand prix dressage rider and USDF Gold Medalist Kymmy Pullen of Boyertown, Pa., explains that she is relieved that the new Second Level, Test 1 gets rid of consecutive simple changes of canter lead on a three-loop serpentine because she felt that it was overly demanding of young horses.

Don’t forget: Simple changes of lead through the walk are used in training to prepare the horse for flying changes of lead; they require that the horse have a beginning degree of collection in the canter. If the horse is not prepared for the exercise, they may become tense and resistant and lose the feeling of “throughness”. At First Level there are no simple lead changes, there are only changes of gait.

Pro tips: “At second level you also suddenly have shoulder-in, counter canter, and medium gaits. I think Second Level is one of the hardest levels because it’s a lot of stop and go, which is hard when you’re at that level of training and collection,” Kymmy explains. “If you’re progressing up the levels with a young horse, Second Level would be equivalent to the FEI Five-Year-Old test. You’ve got a horse that typically doesn’t know where its legs are, is just learning collection, and is pretty gangly, and you can work on collection without constantly having to slam on the brakes. The new test lets you ease into it more.”

Challenging ‘Test 3s’

Need to know: Reese points out that the majority of people tend to ride the third test of each level, since they qualify you to compete at the next level. While it is imperative to learn a test inside and out, (nobody wants to lose points for going off course, after all), she mentions that some of the movements have become more involved and will require that riders practice the patterns repeatedly at home until they really become second nature.

While knowing where and when to do the movements in each test is essential, it’s easy to lose points by ignoring the Directives.

Don’t forget: For example, the 2018 First Level, Test 3 test requires you come out of the corner and off the rail facing the judge, leg-yield to the middle of the ring, then leg-yield back to the outside again. That has changed so the leg-yields each direction are no longer back-to-back, and while one faces the judge, the other faces away from the judge. Sound easier? Think again.

Pro tips: “That’s going to be tricky,” Reese says of the series of movements. “In the old First 3 you started in the corner so you could balance, change the bend and go off the rail. Now you have to head toward the judge, get to the centerline in time to rebalance and ride the 10-meter circle in a place people don’t usually ride the 10-meter circle, and it’s going to be a tricky mark to get that spot. If you don’t get to the right spot you’ll have problems with the leg-yield and the circle. Then there’s no chance to reset, you turn around right away and do it in the other direction going away from the judge… It’s a lot of using your aids effectively, otherwise your horse is going to wobble all over the place.”

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Photo by Sophie Harris.

Lengthenings on the Long Side

Need to know: The old Fourth Level 3 test required medium trot on the long side from S-V which is a very short distance, but now the medium trot goes down the whole long side from H-K. From a trainer’s standpoint, USEF ‘S’ Dressage Judge and grand prix rider Jennifer Roth of Tryon, N.C., likes this change.

“That’s the last movement before you come down centerline. It’s not a new movement, but it’s longer, and I think having it on the long side is an interesting principle,” Jennifer says.

Don’t forget: In a trot lengthening the horse pushes himself from behind and through his whole body into longer, suspended strides. He covers as much ground as he can in balance; if you watch a horse lengthening across the diagonal of the arena, he will need fewer strides to get from one end to the other than he does at the working trot. The medium trot requires more engagement and push from the hindquarters, eventually working toward extended trot, which is an even greater degree of engagement and thrust.

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Pro tips: “My instructor would always have us do lengthenings or mediums on the long side because you have the wall to stabilize the straightness and balance of the horse,” Jennifer explains. “In our national tests, lengthenings are almost always across the diagonal. I think that our horses would benefit in the lower levels if more lengthenings were on the wall to give them that support.” 

Pay Attention to the Directives

While knowing where and when to do the movements in each test is essential, it’s easy to lose points by ignoring the Directives, or brief explanations of what the dressage judge looks for that are printed next to each movement on a dressage test. For example, according to Jennifer, there are some changes in the lower-level tests in the Directives concerning bend and balance in the corners.

Also, while some of the tests haven’t changed, the coefficients, or the number by which a score is multiplied to give a movement added emphasis, have. These changes place added emphasis on certain aspects of how the tests are ridden, so how you ride those movements can strongly influence your score. When you learn your test, take the time to read the Directives and notice where the coefficients are. Doing well on those movements is an easy way to earn “bonus” points to improve your score.

As a final note here, always read the Purpose of a test, which is listed at the top of each copy. The Purpose discusses the basics that will be needed to accomplish the exercises in the test. Reading this will help you correctly plan how to prepare your horse and yourself for the level at which you are competing.  Do your homework and you will be ready for whatever is expected of you and your horse when you enter the arena at “A”.

Feature photo by Erin Gilmore.

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Written by Amber Heintzberger

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