What do I (and my mare) need to know for lower level dressage? How can I evaluate my foal for dressage?

Training level horse moving in a nice relaxed frame with rhythmQuestion: I’m interested in beginning to do some lower level dressage with my mare. I know there are terms like extended trot, but what are some other major terms that I would need to know? What types of movements would my mare need to be able to do in order to go through lower level and the more advanced levels? I also have a newborn foal who I think would do well at dressage but I’m not sure. How can I tell whether or not the foal will excel at dressage just by watching him play and run in the pasture with his dam?

Answer from April Reeves, Horseman’s U.com: Lower level dressage is called the ‘Training Levels’, and is judged on the basic foundation a horse is trained to. Those basics include:


1. The horse’s muscles are supple, free and strong for the work
2. The horse moves in a steady rhythm
3. The horse accepts contact with the bit
4. The horse must be sound, both in legs, lungs and teeth
5. Basic obedience to halt, walk, trot and canter transitions; horse must desire to move forward; not lazy nor jiggy and nervous
6. Accuracy in achieving your test pattern

Training level movements include (terms):
1. Working trot – a cadenced two-beat trot with freedom of movement and swing of legs. Trot work performed posting
2. Halt – performed without resistance, as square a stance as possible.
3. Working canter – rhythm with three-beat strides of neither short nor long strides. Both leads
4. Free Walk – a four-beat solid, ground-covering walk with relaxation. Horse should lengthen his frame and lower his head and neck. Poll is lower than the withers. Horse should overtrack slightly (where the back hoof imprint is slightly in front of the front hoof imprint)
5. Medium gaits – an increase in impulsion within all the gaits. They are between the working and extended gaits. Horse lengthens stride, lifting and rounding his frame and lowering the head slightly ahead of the vertical. The strides are longer, not faster
6. All gaits have freedom and active regularity of leg movement. Horse pushes equally on all 4 legs
7. Contact – light, supple hands with elastic elbows – no heavy contact
8. Body: rider – quiet, flexible, no wasted motion, no bracing or stiffness of body, even hands
9. Body: horse – supple, both longitudinally and laterally. Head does not need to be high and vertical; instead, head is relaxed and stretched, staying quiet.

Training levels consist of 4 tests/levels, and move slowly into the medium gaits. There are only 20 meter circles.

First Level tests consist of free, working, medium gaits. Leg yielding, lengthening of stride, rising and sitting work, more transitions, half circles, straight lines and halts, lead changes through the trot.

Second Level tests add: collected and shortened gaits, shoulder-in, serpentines, rein-back, simple lead changes, 10 meter circles, counter canter, travers, renvers.

Third Level tests add: extended gaits, turn on the haunches, flying changes, inside rein releases (ober stricken), half pass.

Fourth Level tests add: pirouette, 3 & 4-stride flying changes.

Foals usually show their propensity for dressage much later in life, as many of them need to grow into their legs and frame. Foals with exceptional long legs are often unable to perform flowing gaits until their 4th or 5th year.

There are several things to look for in a foal or any dressage horse:
1. The stifle should be lower than the sheath. A low stifle allows the back leg to freely move up.
2. The neck does not need to be long; instead, it must be set up higher on the shoulder. A short neck in the right place is better than a long neck set lower. You can’t change conformation.
3. The shoulder should be deep and angled to allow forward freedom in the front legs (forward, not up).
4. Legs should be straight and travel straight. Not too high or low movement. Crooked legs that travel straight are ok.
5. Hip angle: the point of the hip to the point of the buttocks to the stifle should make a ‘7’ as opposed to a perfect triangle. A longer femur allows maximum swing under the body.
6. Hocks: look for a bit straighter hock; this requires less effort to close the joint angles and allows better collection.
7. Temperament; solid, a bit ‘hot’ without the emotion, very trainable – a will to work, a ‘spark’ of personality and heart, a soft but fresh eye with character. The foal/horse must look at you as if they are speaking to you.
8. Size; the foal should have some height to compete in the levels you require.

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