What's New in the 2015 Dressage Tests

Kristi Wysocki, a member of the USEF test-writing subcommittee, explains the reasoning behind the changes in the 2015 dressage tests.

The objective of updating the USEF Training Level through Fourth Level tests is to improve the experience for the horse, rider and judge. | © Susan J. Stickle

If you’re competing in dressage this year, take time to familiarize yourself with the significant changes in the 2015 U.S. Equestrian Federation tests, from Training Level through Fourth Level. The USEF test-writing subcommittee updates these tests every four years. For this year’s revisions, the subcommittee included judges, international riders and a world-class veterinarian. The objective for each evolution of tests is to improve the experience for the horse, rider and judge. In the beginning of the revision process, which takes approximately two years to complete, the committee compiles all of the input it has received regarding the current tests from judges and riders from all over the country. With this input in mind, we then evaluate each test and each level to determine changes that should be made.

In the process, we make modifications to address problems such as movements that aren’t fluid from one to the next, movements that are placed where it is difficult for judges to see and evaluate, and movements that are shown for too short a distance to give fair evaluation. We also believe it is important that the flow of each test be logical for the horses while maintaining the standard of difficulty required at that level. Sometimes, after a test is in use for a period of time, it becomes apparent that some movements or placement of movements may not be the best from a training perspective. For example, they may require a skill that a horse hasn’t developed yet at that particular level. We address these issues during the revision process. We also add a few new movements to make the tests more fun and interesting.

In Second Level Test 1 we added simple changes (shown in blue) in the three-loop canter serpentine each time the horse crosses the centerline. Then we moved the three-loop canter serpentine maintaing the lead to Second Level Test 3.

Some of this year’s general edits addressed the test purpose, directives and collective marks to better explain to riders and judges exactly what is expected in the performance. A modification we made to all of the 2015 tests was in the purpose, located at the top of every test. It now includes the phrase, “to confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics.” We thought it was important to include this to remind riders to always use basics in their training, no matter what their level is.

Logical Progression Of Difficulty
During the recent round of revisions, we first examined each test closely to see how well it fit into a grid we constructed to track the degree of difficulty moving up from test to test and level to level. Our committee thought it extremely important that the degree of difficulty within a level and between the levels follow a logical progression. We did not want Test 2 in one level to have more difficult movements than Test 3, for example. Developing this grid made it quite easy to identify areas where this progression of difficulty could be improved.

In the new tests, the distances for the lengthened and medium trot and canter movements were reduced where we first ask for them. | © Susan J. Stickle

This process made it clear that Training Level Test 1 was a bit more difficult than Training Level Test 2. The horse was required to pick up the canter in the middle of the ring, without the help of the rail. He then had to carry the canter through a half-circle. Many green horses found this transition difficult, and inexperienced riders often got confused, going off course during the half-circles. So we moved the canter transitions to the first quarter of the circle and removed the canter half-circles altogether. The trot stretch circle also seemed too difficult for this test, so we removed it as well. We revised the test to keep it as simple as possible to give both the green horse and green rider a short but comfortable introduction to the dressage ring.

In another example, we considered the two back-to-back 10-meter trot circles in 2011 First Level Test 3 quite difficult for this level. The leg-yields are now performed back to back without these circles in between them. It will be important for the rider to focus on straightening and rebalancing the horse prior to starting the second leg-yield. Otherwise, it will be quite crooked coming immediately after the first leg-yield.

We also shortened the required distances for the lengthened and medium trot and canter movements where we first ask for them. We thought the greener horses and/or riders would have more success if the distances for these movements were reduced. With the shorter distances, it should be easier for the horse to keep a more uphill balance and steady tempo. For the trot lengthenings, the 2015 First Level Tests 1 and 2 ask for approximately two-thirds of a diagonal, rather than the entire diagonal. The canter lengthenings are less than half of the long side in First Level 1 and approximately two-thirds of the long side in First Level 2. First Level Test 3 requires a full diagonal of trot lengthening, but the canter lengthening remains a partial long side. In the new Second Level Tests 1 and 2, the medium trot and canter are also approximately two-thirds of the diagonal or long side. By Second Level Test 3, though, we expect horses to be more balanced in the trot and canter mediums; they must perform a full diagonal or long side of the movement.

Another example where we addressed the progression of difficulty was in the Second Level canter work. We considered the three-loop canter serpentine maintaining the same lead in the 2011 Second Level Test 1 too difficult for the first test of the level. So we modified it by adding simple changes each time the horse crossed the centerline. Then we moved the serpentine maintaining the lead to Second Level Test 3.

In keeping with our ideal progression of difficulty through the levels, another major change we made removed the renvers from Second Level Test 3 and placed it in Third Level Test 2. Although the renvers and travers are the same movement performed with opposite directions of bend, the renvers is more difficult to execute. 

Better Visibility For Judges
There were a few movements that our committee thought were either performed for too short a distance or in a place where it was quite difficult for the judge to see well enough to give fair evaluations. One of these movements, which was in multiple Training and First Level tests, includes the trot stretch circle at C, for example, followed by a transition to medium walk between C and H and then immediately going into free walk across the diagonal. Riders might not ask for the walk transition until close to H. This was perfectly legal, but they would have only one or two strides of medium walk before turning onto the diagonal in the free walk. This made it difficult for the judge to give a fair evaluation of the medium walk. The new tests all require medium walk to be shown for a longer distance. In reality, this modification also should make all three movements more balanced, as many riders tended to rush through the movements when they were performed so close together in the previous tests.

In Third Level Test 3, the horse finishes the canter half-pass at X (as before), proceeds straight on the centerline to I and then does a 10-meter half-circle back to the long side, followed by a diagonal. The flying change is asked for on the diagonal line.

In contrast, First Level Test 2 seemed to have too much distance between movements. We modified this test to try to reduce the distance where nothing was happening and create a more fluid transition from one movement to another. These modifications also reduced the overall time for this test by about 45 seconds.

Another movement that was difficult for the judge at C to see was the flying change on the centerline in Third Level Test 3. We also thought that this was a bit challenging for a Third Level horse who is just learning the flying changes. The horse now finishes the canter half-pass at X (as before), proceeds straight on the centerline to I and then does a 10-meter half-circle back to the long side, followed by a diagonal. The flying change is asked for on the diagonal line. Having now judged this test a few times, I find it a much more fluid and balanced sequence for the Third Level horse.

With the same goal in mind, we placed all turns on the haunches and walk pirouettes on the M–G–H line for the 2015 tests. This was to provide the best perspective for evaluation and a smooth line for preparation. In the previous tests, some turns on the haunches and pirouettes were executed coming out of corners, making it difficult to see and promoting crooked positioning.

Another major change to the 2015 tests removed the renvers from Second Level Test 3 and placed it in Third Level Test 2. | © Susan J. Stickle

Fourth Level Adjustments
The Fourth Level tests underwent the most significant changes. The development of the working canter pirouette in Test 2 now involves executing a turn from one diagonal line (e.g., H–X) to the other diagonal line (X–M). This method of schooling pirouettes with greener horses has been a classic tool historically. We thought it was a good way to introduce the canter pirouette within the tests as well.

Fourth Level Test 3 trot work no longer has changes of direction in the middle of the lateral work. The right lateral work is all done sequentially, followed by the left lateral work. From a training perspective, we thought this was a more logical progression for the horse. Within the trot work, the rider is now also asked to perform a Schaukel. This is a combination of two rein backs with forward walk steps in between. It should be executed with fluent transitions (no halt between the rein backs) and the required number of steps. This movement is an excellent test of submission and clear communication between horse and rider.

A fun addition to Fourth Level Test 3 is the canter half-circles. These include a 10-meter half-circle from the rail to the centerline immediately followed by a 10-meter counter-canter half-circle back to the opposite rail. Well-balanced horses who are on the aids perform this sequence with ease and balance. Horses not ready for this level quickly show the hole in their training when asked to execute this movement.

The other major change within Fourth Level is the return of the three tempis (flying changes every third stride), with a more progressive buildup to their introduction. Fourth Level Test 1 now requires three flying changes on the diagonal with no specific count for the number of strides you can make between them. These flying changes were in the 2011 Fourth Level Test 2. The 2015 Fourth Level Test 2 requires three sequential four tempis. Fourth Level Test 3 now requires both four tempis and three tempis, as in some previous editions. This test is the preparation and warm-up for the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) Prix St. Georges. So, the committee thought it was important that all of the elements of the Prix St. Georges be included, although at a lesser degree of difficulty.

In Fourth Level Test 3, a 10-meter half-circle from the rail to the centerline (from R to I) is immediately followed by a 10-meter counter-canter half-circle back to the opposite rail (from I to S). The horse then performs a flying change at E before repeating the 10-meter half-circle from V to L and the 10-meter counter-canter half-circle from L to P. Another flying change occurs at F.

We also clarified and standardized the directives, which describe the requirements for each movement. Regularity and quality of gaits are emphasized strongly throughout all of the tests. We modified the progression of requirements within the directives themselves to be clearer and more relative to the requirements of each level. For example, at the lower levels, the entry directive includes “regularity and quality of trot; willing, calm transitions; straight, attentive halt; immobile (min. 3 seconds).” At the upper levels, the entry directive requires “engagement, self-carriage [or collection, depending on the level] and quality of gaits; well-defined transitions; straight, attentive halt; immobile (min. 3 seconds).” It should be noted that, although the three-second minimum has been added to the first and final halt directives for all the tests, this requirement has been in the USEF rules for some time.

Another example of the progression within the directives is the shoulder-in. At Second Level, the shoulder-in directive asks for “angle, bend and balance; engagement and quality of trot.” The Third Level shoulder-in directive requires “angle, bend and balance; engagement and self-carriage.” The Fourth Level shoulder-in directive states, “angle, bend and balance; engagement and collection.” This makes the progression of requirements for the same movement at each level much clearer to the rider.

Collective Marks
We made some major changes to the collective marks, the scores given for general aspects of the performance, which appear at the ends of the tests. We reduced the rider categories from three marks to two. The three rider categories in the previous round of tests—Harmony, Rider Position and Seat, and Rider Correct and Effective Use of Aids—heavily weighted the importance of the collective marks on the overall test score, particularly at the lower levels where there might be only 13 to 16 movements in a test. Removing Harmony better balances the collective marks’ influence on the overall score. The word “harmony” has been placed back under the Submission category. This was done to reduce the time judges spent making marks and to allow more time to make constructive comments instead. The rider categories, Rider Position and Seat and Rider Correct and Effective Use of the Aids, both now include clear directives.

The 2015 Fourth Level Test 3 now requires both four tempis and three tempis to include all of the elements of the Prix St. Georges, although at a lesser degree of difficulty. | © Susan J. Stickle

The major discussion we had regarding the collective marks was about the Submission category. Many dictionaries list the first definition of “submission” as “yielding to a higher power.” This is not, nor has it ever been, the intention of this term as used in dressage. The original French definition for this word is closer to “willingness to cooperate.” The committee added the term “willing cooperation” as the first directive of Submission to better clarify the goal of this category. The entire Submission directive reads, “Willing cooperation, harmony, attention and confidence, acceptance of bit and aids, straightness, lightness of forehand and ease of movements.” This obviously shows that yielding to a higher power is not the intention of this collective mark.

The ultimate goal of the 2015 revisions was to provide tests that would help develop the horse’s training in a logical method via the Training Scale. The foundation of basics was a focus throughout the process. If your training is correct, progression through these tests will be systematic and fun for both you and your horse.

A native Coloradan, Kristi Wysocki owns and runs Somewhere Farms and Eagle’s Wing Equine Therapy and Rehab Center with her husband, Steven, in Elbert, Colorado. Kristi worked as a metallurgical engineer for 15 years prior to returning her focus to riding and training dressage horses. She is an FEI three-star dressage judge and FEI four-star para-dressage judge and technical delegate, as well as a USEF ‘S’ dressage and ‘R’ dressage sport-horse judge. A USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist, she has competed several horses to the FEI levels, winning many regional and local championships through Grand Prix. She has also successfully competed in the CDI arena with multiple horses. Her students have competed successfully through Grand Prix. Kristi has judged the USDF National Championships and many USDF regional championships and breeder series finals, including Dressage at Devon, NEDA, CDS–Region 7, Lamplight–Region 2 and the new Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida. She serves as the USDF Sport Horse Committee chair and is a member of the USDF Sport Horse Seminar faculty, the USEF Dressage Committee, the USEF Para-equestrian Technical Committee and the 2012 U.S. Para-dressage Selection Committee.

The shoulder-in represents an example of the progression of difficulty within the directives. | © Susan J. Stickle

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