A Dressage Scribe Shares her Learning Experience

Scribing for a dressage judge at a show can be both fun and informative.
Rachel Hanzak and Dakota at a schooling show | Courtesy, Rachel K. Hanzak

I recently had my first experience scribing at a schooling show at Dressage at the Oaks in Hillsborough, North Carolina. True to fellow equestrians’ words, it was fun and informative. As a scribe you cannot watch what is happening during a ride because you are super busy keeping up with the judge’s comments and scores for each movement—and the higher the level, the more there is to write. But even though I could not watch, I was able to pick up on common threads that appeared in the Intro through Fourth Level tests.

I applied these threads to my own training and saw where I am lacking. They are also applicable across disciplines, which is helpful because I do not ride strictly dressage but also hunter/jumper.

1. Stretching out and down during the free walk and allowing stretch in the extended walk

This came up mainly in Intro and Training Level tests. It is the chance for the horse to stretch and take a break from the work. He stretches his neck and nose down and out with a ground-covering walk and the rider has a long rein with a light, elastic contact. I like this as a test to see if the horse is working correctly.

2. More engagement and self-carriage/falling on the forehand

This appeared in nearly every single comment box for First through Fourth Level. The movements are increasingly difficult, requiring more self-carriage. You cannot get away with a horse who is loosely put together and falling on the forehand. The horse should be moving with uphill balance and pushing from behind. Having engagement and self-carriage will make both of your jobs easier and more enjoyable.

3. Geometry and placement of circles and serpentines

The judge’s comments included “circles too small,” “circles too large,” “not a circle,” “not completing the circle” and “placement of the circle according to the test directives.” She insisted that serpentines do not have diagonals. Serpentines are three connecting half circles of equal size. This requires change of bend with about one or two steps of straightness. Diagonals do not show a change of bend and kill any chance of having three equal loops of 20 meters. Basically, pay attention to the shape and detail of schooling figures.

4. Tension

The horse should be relaxed and willing in his body and topline by being on the bit with a swinging back. Relaxation makes doing the movements easier and reduces chances of injury from resistance. The judge commented with “tension in the topline,” “needs more relaxation” and “against the rider’s hand.” Relaxation comes when the horse accepts the contact and enjoys his work. This one is difficult for me because I am tense myself and, therefore, I create tension in the horse.

5. Shoulders/haunches falling in or out in the figures and in the halt

A horse’s shoulders or haunches falling in or out shows unbalance in the horse and/or rider. Being in balance makes the horse’s job easier and keeps his muscles developing evenly, reducing chances of weakness on one side. The falling in or out of balance also shows a lack of suppleness needed in more difficult lateral movements. Balance also improves overall straightness in the horse.

6. Soft elbows

At the end of the day, the judge told me that she gets tired of having to write “soft elbows” in her comments on a number of tests. Soft elbows allow for the rider’s hands to follow the horse’s head and neck movements with an elastic and soft contact. A horse is more likely to relax and not fight against the rider’s hands when her elbows are soft, leading to the relaxed topline and happier horse previously mentioned. This comment stuck with me because I have stiff elbows. They are starting to become softer since this show.

I already had been utilizing some of the skills mentioned in the judge’s comments in my riding, such as the free walk, geometry of figures and paying attention to crookedness. Others I have been struggling with for years—tension in myself and the horse and having soft elbows. Scribing brought them to the forefront of my mind, and as a result, I have increased my focus in these areas. I also started paying more attention to the engagement and self-carriage of the horses I ride and I have been seeing better results in the acceptance of the bit and overall throughness. Scribing was a fantastic learning experience that I look forward to doing again, and I encourage other riders to do the same.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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