Turn left here. Canter circle there. Halt for five seconds. Then trot in a straight line out of the halt.
If you've never ridden tests (or patterns - I'll use the word "test" for simplicity here) before, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. You gotta do what you gotta do when you're told to do it! There's no built-in sensitivity to your horse's need to trot before canter. Your squiggly "straight" line might become a lot more apparent when it's supposed to be off the rail down center line. Or you might become more aware of your horse's lean-through-the-corner-and-fall-off-the-rail just before you need to set up for a lengthen at trot.
When we ride on our own, or even in a lesson, we tend to ride according to our needs (both the rider and the horse). We take time developing our transitions, riding half a circle or even more to increase impulsion, half-halt the balance to allow better rounding through the horse's body, maybe increase impulsion a little more, then finally proceed with the transition.
To be sure, this is the way to improve our skills. Learning takes time, and developing accurate aids and responses from the horse takes practice. There are occasions when there simply is no other way, and rushing yourself or your horse results in stress and tension and maybe even worse.
However, there is something to be said about putting yourself through tests or patterns. If you rarely ride a pattern, you might initially be surprised how difficult it can be to ride according to specifications. But it is very much worth the effort.
There's a reason why it's called a "test" in dressage! You are basically testing your skills against a structured, step-by-step progression of development. Think of it as a performance. Can you do what is required at a given level?
There are so many side-benefits to practicing a test. Even while you are working on one part, so many other things have to fall together to make the test flow. Check them out below!
1. Focus on specifics
When you work on particular movements, you realize how much goes into each skill. For example, a lengthen at canter down the rail may look like the horse just took larger, bounding strides. But give it a try and you'll notice that developing the lengthen through the body takes more than just energy.
The tempo needs to be maintained while the impulsion is increased. Keeping the line straight looks a lot easier than it feels, especially if your horse has a tendency to lean on a shoulder!
2. Become more consistent
When you ride movement to movement, you become more aware of the lurches and stop-starts that happen during each figure. Have you ever noticed your horse lose energy going into a corner? Or maybe he shortens his stride length as he steps into the beginning of a circle. Test riding will help you notice inconsistencies and give you reason to work on them.
3. Accurate transitions
In dressage tests, you ride movements letter to letter. It happens in other disciplines too, where the patterns indicate exactly where a gait or figure begins and ends. When you are not used to being accurate, you let the horse take those few extra strides before or after a given point. Working on specific placements of transitions makes you and your horse sharper and more in tune with each other.
4. Well ridden figures
Once you know the test, you also learn the exact dimensions of a figure. Let's take a loop, for example. The loop starts at the letter after the corner, goes to X and then back to the final letter before the next corner. Following set figures gives you and your horse a reason to develop specific abilities, such as changing bends, stepping deeper underneath the body, maintaining rhythm and tempo, and so much more.
5. Count strides
When you stick to what you are required to do in a test, you will learn a lot about your horse. One thing you might notice is the stride length your horse may have for each particular movement. You might realize, for example, that your horse takes 4 strides from the last letter into the corner. This information will help you in the timing of your half-halts and bends into and out of each corner.
6. Improve your aids
You'll have to get better at your aids in order to improve in the test. So as you practice, you'll find what you need to adjust - maybe an outside leg here, an inside weighted seat there - in order to fulfill the requirements of the test.
7. Develop bend and straightness
These two wonderful concepts are easy to forget or become lazy about in general. When you aren't carefully placing movements according to a sequence, you tend to let the horse go a bit straighter (or even counterbent), or a little less straight. Haunches to the inside, anyone?
8. Be more comfortable during stress
There is no doubt that having to do particular movements in particular places adds a stress element to both the horse and rider. Once in a while, it is good to work within that stress level to develop the ability to continue to perform even under less than perfect conditions. It will get better with practice
9. Learn new skills
Do you ever get caught in a rut of doing the same thing over and over again? Use the tests to remind you of new movements you may have forgotten about or never attempted. The dressage tests, in particular, are leveled in a way that you can work from one test to the next, as they increase in difficulty. This way, you never stagnate at one point for very long.
10. Think ahead
When you ride movement to movement, something wonderful happens pretty much on its own. Even while you are performing one figure, you need to know what is coming next so you can set up for it. Thinking ahead while riding is an excellent way to develop a flow to your riding that you can't achieve when you do one thing at a time.
11. Look where you're going
Do you tend to look down when you ride? You won't have that opportunity when you need to plan where you are going in the test! You must look to the letters, to the perimeters of the ring, and to the placement of the figures, so eyes come up naturally.
If you dedicate some time to practicing tests on a regular basis, you will notice that both you and your horse improve in your ability to meet the predetermined goals of each test. As you become more familiar, you can start to work on new skills that challenge you to grow and develop - both horse and rider.
Do you regularly include test or pattern riding in your routine? How has it helped you and your horse? Post in the comments below.
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