The Complete Guide to the Levels of Dressage
It can be hard to keep track of all the movements in dressage. Understanding the breakdown of movements within levels will contextualize for your training sessions, and knowing what to expect in future tests will help you form concrete goals and will keep you on the same page as your trainer. It is also important to note the changes in criteria for judging throughout the progression of the levels, so you can be prepared for competitions. We have compiled a complete guide of every new movement and pattern in each dressage level so you can be ready on competition day!
Intro tests are mostly walk and trot. The final test has a small working canter portion. All working trot is rising. This is the basic point of introduction to dressage, so judges are not looking for anything too complicated: balance and steadiness in the hands, seat and tempo, shape of patterns, elastic contact, proper bend, and forward movement.
20 Meter Circles:
The rider will be asked to perform 20-meter circles, which occupy one third the length of a standard dressage arena. Shape and bend around the riders inside leg will be taken into account during scoring.
Riders will perform a halt from the walk and will not be expected to halt from any faster gaits.
Training level is the second of the introductory levels. Many riders skip Intro altogether and jump straight into Training Level when competing; however, riders will be expected to maintain use of the 20-meter circle and the halt. They will also be expected to have developed the basics desired in Intro. Halts, while proceeding after trot segments of the test, may be performed through the walk. Horses should be accepting of contact and maintain their forwardness, rhythm, and suppleness. Maintaining good transitions and the ability to bend the horse around the inside leg will remain important throughout all levels of dressage.
Riders will be asked to perform a free walk, where the reins are lengthened and the horse is expected to maintain straightness and clear rhythm. This is used to illustrate the willingness of the horse to relax and stretch downward and forward uninhibited.
Unlike Intro Level, working canter is present in all three tests at training level.
A serpentine is made up of three twenty-meter half circles. Riders change direction when transitioning between circles.
First Level expands on the previous basics, and riders are expected to have “developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and to maintain a more consistent contact with the bit,” according to the USDF. From First Level on, you are able to perform a musical freestyle if you so choose.
The leg yield is the most elementary of lateral movements. It involves bending the horse around your leg and moving sideways in the opposite direction of the bend. This movement is in the same family as Renvers/haunches-out, Travers/haunches-in, shoulder-in, and half passes, which we will address in higher levels. Here are some helpful lateral exercises at the walk and trot.
In addition to working strides, tests require riders to lengthen the stride of both the canter and the trot, creating more suspension in the gait. These strides are more difficult to sit.
Dressage riders in First Level will be expected to halt from a trot.
Riders will perform a simple loop on the long side of the arena. This is also known as the 10-meter half circle. This is essentially a less complicated version of a serpentine, which involves 3 10-meter half circles.
Circles performed may either take up a third of the arena, 20 meters, or just five meters short at 15 meters. The smaller the circle, the more difficult the movement, so it is important to maintain bend and balance throughout while retaining the geometry.
20-Meter Stretching Circle
Riders will be asked to lengthen their reins and widen their hands and allow the horse to stretch down towards the bit for a 20-meter circle of rising trot.
Second level continues with the basics and thrust from previous levels, and the horse “now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance, and self-carriage is required than at First Level.”
Collected Trot and Canter:
Collected gaits occur when the horse no longer distributes as much weight on his front end, and instead uses his back and core muscles to accept more weight on his hind end. This results in more uphill movement, as specified above. Collected gaits are smaller strided and slower moving and are established by developing the horse’s strength and frame so that he is powering movement from behind.
Trot and Canter Mediums:
A medium is an expansion of the gait larger than a lengthening but smaller than an extension, increasing suspension, ground coverage, and uphill expansion of frame.
Counter canter is cantering in balance on the “incorrect lead.” When cantering to the left, for example the horse will lead with its right front leg rather than it’s left. This movement is performed in serpentine where the lead does not change, creating a point where one half-circle of the serpentine is technically completed on the correct lead. Below is a horse traveling on the right lead as he travels to the right. In the counter canter, he would be on the left lead while traveling to the right instead.
The shoulder-in is a lateral movement where the horse’s shoulder moves away from the rail at 30 degrees while moving away from the inside bend like a leg yield. It is a third track movement, meaning the inside foreleg and outside hind travel on the second track and the inside hind travels on the third. The remaining leg travels on the rail. For a more in-depth explanation of the shoulder-in, read this.
Also known as Haunches-in, this movement involves bending the horse to the inside and pushing the haunches out and away from the rail, so that the shoulder is on the rail and the haunches are at roughly 35 degrees. All four legs are on different arena tracks. The horse should move in the direction of the bend, unlike the leg yield, adding to the movement’s complexity.
Simple Lead Changes:
Simple changes are lead changes resulting from the horse breaking from the canter to the trot briefly before picking up the alternate lead on a change of direction. This is a precursor to the flying change at later levels.
Riders will be expected to back their horses up 3-4 steps at the walk.
Half-Turn on the Haunches:
Riders will also be expected to perform a half turn on the haunches where the hind legs remain in the same point in the arena and the horse’s forelegs move so that the horse changes direction, creating a pivoting motion. The hind legs are expected to remain active to adjust for the change in direction without changing position in the arena.
Building off previous developments, according to the USDF, at third level, “the horse should now demonstrate increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits. Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement. The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage than at Second Level.” Double bridles become optional at this level.
A half pass is another lateral movement. It is similar to a leg yield in that the horse is traveling sideways across the arena; however, the horse will be traveling in the direction of the bend rather than away from the bend, requiring a higher level of suppleness. This movement is performed at both the trot and the canter.
The extended trot and canter are lengthened versions of medium gaits, with further lengthenings of frame and loftier suspension.
Flying Lead Changes:
Riders will be expected to switch their horse’s lead in the canter without breaking to a trot.
This lateral movement is also known as haunches-out. The horse will travel bent around the outside leg and move in the direction of the bend, similar to travers and the half pass. As in travers, the horse travels at a 35-degree angle and moves with all legs on four different tracks.
Halt from Collected Trot:
The halt is modified only in that it occurs from a collected trot.
Walking Half Pirouette:
This movement is used to introduce concepts later used in the canter pirouette. The horse walks its front legs in a half circle, using its hind legs as pivots to change direction.
Rein Back to Trot Transition:
Horses will be expected to trot out of the 4-step rein back.
Release of Reins at Canter:
For 4 to 5 strides over the centerline, riders will lengthen and release the reins to illustrate self-carriage.
The USDF says that the horse at fourth level must show “clear uphill balance and lightness as a result of improved engagement and collection. The movements are performed with greater straightness, energy and cadence than at Third Level.”
Collected gaits now include the walk in addition to trot and canter.
Quarter and Half Canter Pirouettes:
The canter pirouette is an incredibly collected movement whereby the forehand of the horse pivots around the hind legs on a second track. The hind legs will not cross over and should not cover distance. Half pirouettes involve about three or four strides and should not exceed 3 meters in diameter. This movement relies on strength, bend, cadence, and suspension.
10-Meter Half Circle in Counter Canter:
10-Meter Half Circles will be performed in the counter canter. Due to the inversion of the lead leg, this movement is particularly difficult to balance and requires the greater degree of collection at the canter that is expected for 4thlevel tests.
Three and Four-Time Tempi Changes:
Multiple flying lead changes will be performed in a series every third or fourth stride in certain segments of the test.
Prix St. Georges
Prix St. Georges is the first level tested in international show arenas. Double bridles are required from this point forward. Very few new movements are added.
A volte, or circle, of 8 meters will be performed.
Halt from Collected Canter:
Halts will be performed from a collected canter, building on the difficulty of previous tests.
A series of intermediate tests mark increasingly advanced international levels.
Rein Back 5 Steps:
The rein back is modified to be 5 backward steps rather than the 3 or 4 at previous levels.
Zig Zag Half-Pass:
A series of half passes are performed beginning on the centerline. For the Intermediate I test, there will be three total half passes beginning right and moving 5 meters from the centerline in either direction. Flying changes mark the change in direction.
Two Time Tempi Changes:
Riders will perform 7 lead changes occurring every two strides, in addition to five 3 time tempis.
Riders will complete a 360-degree pirouette.
The passage consists of a slow, suspended, and exaggerated trot that is highly collected.
The piaffe is developed from the Passage, only the horse remains trotting nearly in place. In the Intermediate A test, this consists of 7-10 piaffe steps, allowing for half steps 2 meters forward.
One-Time Tempi Changes:
Riders will perform 7 lead changes every one stride.
Half passes in Intermediate B consist of 4 half-passes on either side of center line, the first and last consisting of four strides and the others of 8.
Riders will also perform 9 one-time tempi changes.
The Piaffe segment will consist of 8 to 10 steps, with a margin of one meter forward permitted.
Riders will perform 11 one-time tempi changes
Piaffe will be 12 to 15 steps.
9 two-time Tempi Changes will be performed in addition to 15 One-Time Tempi Changes.
5 Half-Passes will be performed in a zig zag beginning on the centerline. The first and last half-passes will consist of 3 strides, and the others will be 6 strides.
Grand Prix Special
Grand Prix Special is reserved for the top teams at the top level of competition and is performed in arenas such as the Olympics and World Equestrian Games. These tests are incredibly similar to the Grand Prix tests; however, they are structured differently for the purpose of scoring in particular arenas.
Check out these links to download the complete set of the United States Dressage Federation’s tests and the FEI’s upper level international tests. Each test includes the detailed judging criteria broken down by each movement and overall scores.
If you’re confused with the differences between some of the lateral movements we discussed, check out Heels Down Magazine’s helpful article!
We hope you feel prepared for your next lesson and competition!
What level do you compete at? What level do you hope to reach? Let us know what else you’d like to learn about dressage in the comments below!