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18th Annual
Saratoga Bridges Festival and Dressage
Memorial Day Weekend  May 26-27, 2007
Saratoga Springs, NY

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What is Dressage?                                    Dressage Explained                             Request Dressage Information


The rider dusts off her black boots, buttons her black jacket, straightens her cap and watches as the rider before her guides her horse down the center of the arena, halts and drops her gloved hand in a salute to the judge.

The rider knows that it will be only a minute or two until she hears the signal that tells her she has less than a minute left before she must enter the arena to perform her test. She feels a flutter at the top of her stomach and her palms suddenly feel very warm inside her spotless white gloves. She and her horse have spent many long hours in training to get to this show, and she'll have less than ten minutes in the ring to turn in a perfect performance. What if she forgets a move? What is something startles her horse? What if she, horror of horrors, falls off? She takes a deep breath and tries to relax.

The rider before her exits the arena, and the ring steward nods to her that she may trot her horse around the perimeter of the arena. She remembers to go first to the left so that the judge's assistant, or scribe, can see the number attached to her saddle pad. The scribe will write her name and number on the front page of the scoring sheet, on which all the movements of the test will be individually marked and a score given, as well as explanatory comments from the judge. At the end of the test, the judge will dictate some general comments, which the scribe will also include.

As the rider passes the booth in which the judge and scribe sit, she feels her horse's body tense - he is curious and a bit nervous at the sight of two people sitting inside a dark box. The rider and her horse are performing a Training Level test and they have only been to a few smaller shows, so a lot of this is new to both of them. The rider gives a slight squeeze on the left rein to bring her horse's attention back to her and he drops his head obediently. As she trots down the other long side of the area, she hears the scribe ring the bell, and it is time for her to enter the ring.

She must begin by encouraging her horse to move quietly but with impulsion down an imaginary straight line through the center of the arena. She closes both calves on his sides in a gentle hug and feels him respond with a more energetic trot.

She turns him in a small circle just before the letter A in order to direct him on a straight line, and enters the arena. Time seems to slow down, and her palms have stopped sweating. As she trots down the center line toward the judge, she reminds herself to look straight at the judge's stand. She feels her horse begin to drift off toward the right and she gives a very gentle squeeze on the right rein, imagining that she is holding a delicate baby bird which she would kill with too strong a squeeze. She moves her right leg back slightly and her horse straightens on the center line.

Just before she reaches the center of the arena, she slows the movement of her back, so that she is no longer moving in her horse's rhythm, gently squeezes both reins for just a second, but keeps both calves gently against her horse's sides so that he will halt with his hind legs brought evenly up beneath him. She squeezes just a bit too much with her right leg and feels him swing his body to the left a bit. It's not a perfect halt, and she begins to become nervous again. She drops her right hand in salute to the judge, waits for the judge to nod in response, then collects the reins and prepares to trot off.

She gives her horse another gentle squeeze with her reins to alert him that she will be asking for movement from him, softly lightens her seat bones on the saddle, and inwardly sighs with relief as he picks up a light, swinging trot straight down the rest of the center line toward the judge. Just before the end of the arena, she gives her horse a gentle squeeze on the left rein, and touches his right side with her calf in order to bend him around the turn to the right.

The rest of the test begins to flash past her as she concentrates on making her twenty-meter circles perfectly round, keeping her horse moving forward in an even rhythm at the trot. As she cues him to pick up the canter, she feels him bring his back up under her as he pushes strongly with his hind legs. She feels him begin to drift off the circle to the right, and gives him a gentle squeeze with the left rein - but it wasn't gentle enough and she didn't back it up with a squeeze from her right leg, and he loses his forward motion. Just in time, she squeezes with her leg, and he jumps forward into an even canter again. She and her horse are moving together perfectly, and she feels the joy of the dance well up within her.

As she approaches the middle of the short side of the arena, she breathes deeply, allows herself to sit more heavily into the saddle, and her horse makes a perfectly balanced transition down to the trot. She leaves the rail just as her horse's shoulder touches the letter F, and trots in a diagonal across the arena, where the judge will have a clear view of the rider's seat and hand position. She reminds herself to keep her hands even and her thumbs turned upward.

The rider takes another deep breath, slows her motion and her horse responds by coming down to a walk. She reminds herself to follow his motion by making her elbows elastic and by allowing her back to follow his motion. As she steers him onto another diagonal across the arena, she lets the reins slip through her hands so that he can stretch his head and neck. She reminds herself to keep her calves gently on his sides to encourage him to move freely forward.

As they reach the far end of the arena, she begins to gently pick the reins up, careful to have them reorganized before she reaches the letter marking the end of the diagonal. She brings her horse gently back up to the trot. The test is almost over, but she still needs to try to make a straighter halt before the judge. As she steers her horse along the long side of the arena, she can see her riding instructor standing just outside the fence, watching her intently, but with no expression on her face. They will spend much of the next few lessons analyzing what went right, and what went wrong and fixing the "wrongs."

The rider looks to the center line as she guides her horse through the short turn at the letter A. Her horse flicks his ears back toward her, waiting for her next signal. She is careful to keep light, even contact with her seatbones, calves and hands, and to breathe deeply and evenly. Her horse halts perfectly square, and she feels a smile come to her face as she salutes the judge. She gives her horse an affectionate pat, and leaves the arena at a relaxed walk. Now she can see her instructor smiling at her, and she knows all the work has been worth it.

Watching a dressage test can be mystifying for the uninformed. It helps to know what the judge is looking for, and what the rider is trying to accomplish. Although it looks easy, every test, from Training Level up to Grand Prix, requires a great deal of work and patience from both the rider and the horse. Demonstration riders will help educate spectators during special narrated rides on Saturday and Sunday.

Diane Kennedy is executive director of New York Newspaper Publishers Association.

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Dressage Explained
By Diane Kennedy

The word dressage comes from the French verb dresser - to train. Dressage is the basic schooling of the horse. Basic dressage teaches the horse to understand the aids (the rider's leg, seat and hands) and to become balanced, willing, supple and responsive. As the horse progresses upward through the levels, he is taught movements that require increasing strength, suppleness and obedience.

Dressage principles are based in three concepts - forward, straight and calm. According to "What is Dressage?" by the United States Dressage Federation, "Just as the young gymnast must begin by learning the simple forward roll or to balance on one foot before learning more complex movements, the young horse must first learn to carry itself and its rider in balance on straight lines, through corners and around large circles."

The epitome of equestrian dressage, and the most popular with audiences, is the Grand Prix Freestyle. This competition, scheduled for Sunday, May 29th, attracts some of the world's top competitors, who set their riding routines to music and dance gracefully with their horses.

The Grand Prix dressage test is the most demanding of the sport's progressive levels, open only to the few competitors who successfully master Training Level, Levels One through Four, Prix St. George, Intermediare I and Intermediare II. Each test challenges the horse and rider to progressive development of mental and physical agility and stamina. The pair is asked to maintain a rhythmic cadence while the horse lengthens (extends) and shortens (collects) his stride, bends around increasingly small circles and progresses into movements like the trot in place ("piaffe"), pirouette in the canter and the elevated trot with a pause between each step ("passage"). The team also performs lateral movements at each gait, such as the half-pass, in which the horse moves forward and sideways at the same time. Borrowing a step from ballet, the horse pirouettes, cantering with his front legs while his hind legs remain in place. One of the most amazing movements is the "tempi change," or "flying change of lead," in which the horse appears to skip across the arena.

In the Grand Prix Freestyle (also called the kr), there are 15 compulsory movements the pair must perform. They are: the collected walk, extended walk, collected trot including a half-pass to the right and to the left, extended trot, collected canter including half-pass to the right and to the left, extended canter, flying changes of lead at every second stride, flying change of lead at every stride, canter pirouette to the right, canter pirouette to the left, passage, piaffe and transitions from passage to piaffe and piaffe to passage. The rider can choreograph the test to show the movements in any order, and can include other movements from lower-level tests.

Each rider's performance is evaluated by three judges, who are seated on the side of the arena which is marked with the letters M, C and H, one at the mid-point (C) and one on each end (M and H). Each judge scores the horse and rider on their ability to perform the movements of the test (technical proficiency) and on the selection of music and the way in which the pair presents the performance (artistic impression). The judges' scores are then averaged to obtain a final score for each competitor. In the event of a tie, the rider with the highest technical score wins.

Like any dressage test, each movement is rated by the judges on a scale from zero to ten, with ten being perfect. Judges must double the score for the pirouettes, piaffe and passage. Judges also score the pair for rhythm, energy and elasticity (this score counts three times); harmony between rider and horse (this score counts three times); choreography, use of the arena and inventiveness (this score counts four times); degree of difficulty and well-calculated risks (this score counts four times); and the choice of music and interpretation of the music (this score counts six times).

The ride must last between five-and-a-half and six minutes. Judges deduct two points from the total for artistic impression if a ride fails to fall within the time constraints.

If freestyle competition is beginning to sound difficult and complex, it is.

The rider must first select music which matches the rhythm of the horse's gaits. Many riders do this by obtaining a video tape of their horse's walk, trot and canter, and setting a metronome to measure the beats of the horse's steps at each gait. Music with a rhythm of about 96 beats per minute will match the average's horse's walk and canter, and about 144 beats per minute will match the trot.

The rider, sometimes with help from a professional musician or choreographer, evaluates musical selections to find several pieces which match the horse's rhythm. The rider then selects either one piece with varying tempo and mood, or shorter parts of a number of selections, which will be strung together.

The rider then begins to choreograph the movements to match the tempo and mood of the pieces of music. The transitions between different musical selections or different moods in the same selection offer the horse and rider an opportunity to showcase the different movements, and to emphasize transitions between movements.

Not just any group of songs will do. In general, when a rider strings several pieces of music together, they should share a common theme. A rider could set her freestyle to sections from three or four Broadway show tunes, for instance. Selections should not contain vocals, which are distracting and often reproduce poorly at shows held outdoors or in large arenas. Some top riders hire musicians to write pieces specifically for their horses.

Once the musical selections have been chosen, the rider writes some possible routines on paper, counting the horse's steps with the metronome, estimating the number of steps in each movement compared with the space available in the arena. (Remember, the rider is being scored on how well she uses the arena to present the freestyle.) Once she has arrived at a routine she believes might work, she tries it with her horse. Often, it turns out that some movements or series of movements do not work very well with the music, and either or both must be changed.

When all the needed changes have been made, usually with input from a riding instructor, a trusted friend, or even a professional choreographer, the pair begin the long hours of practice to memorize and perfect the routine, in preparation for the moment when the music begins and the crowd in the grandstands watches a horse and human dance together.



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