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Into Elementary – It’s not what Sherlock had in mind! ~ Brigitte Billings

If you’ve been stuck in Novice for a decade, you might be inclined to ask why they call it Elementary when it seems so hard to graduate to this level. It’s possibly because unless you’ve established the basics in Novice, the Elementary tests may seem filled with intimidating new work. But the truth is all of these movements have their foundations in your earliest training. Your horse’s strength, balance and response to your aids should result in a simple transition to this more demanding work.

 Up a notch

One of the first things you’ll notice is that things start to move a bit faster – where you may have had a full length of arena to lengthen a canter, now you’ll be expected to execute two or three movements in the same space. This will characterise your rise through the grades – each new level puts greater emphasis on the degree of communication and response to the aids; it’s the ultimate test of how well you and your horse can ‘speak’ to each other.

Interestingly, even if you reach the highest levels of dressage, it will still be the basics that underpin the most advanced movements. And if you don’t believe this, watch a Grand Prix test and see how much attention is paid to a simple rein-back.

The tests

As in Novice, there are seven Elementary tests – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 with a Freestyle and you now have the option of using a snaffle or a simple double bridle. Whip and spurs if required. Note, it is only from Elementary that rules dictate use of a dressage saddle, so you may have been performing quite happily in a GP until now. You’ll probably appreciate it, since now you’ll be riding your tests in sitting trot!

Again, judges will be paying attention to your horse’s rhythm, straightness and balance, along with cadence, elasticity, suppleness and engagement. While your horse’s self-carriage was tested in the ‘stretchy’ trot in Novice, in Elementary you’ll test it by giving the rein on a 20m circle in the canter.

The work you introduced in Novice will now be developed further. The subtle counter canter you rode on the curve through X will now be ridden on a 20m circle followed by a simple change of leg, testing your horse’s suppleness and obedience to the canter aid. You’ll also start to ride 10m canter half circles – the next step in your journey to the canter pirouette and a true test of your horse’s strength and balance. You’ll help him in his understanding of the concept when you start working on the turn on the haunches, which, along with the rein-back will develop his ability to collect and activate his hind leg. This will be useful as you start to ride collected gaits.

 Can your horse cope?

If you’re serious about keeping your equine athlete happy and working well – and let’s face it who isn’t – you’ll have noticed that it’s not enough to simply practice your flatwork every day. Your horse may benefit from cross-training to help build fitness and develop muscle power – hacking out, hill work and pole work can all help. Dressage may seem sedate but it actually requires incredible levels of strength and stamina.

Also, depending on your horse’s age and conformation, you may need to enlist the help of various specialists to keep him strong and sound. Farriers, vets, physios and other equine body workers can all play a role as you begin to learn that successful competing sometimes requires a team effort. As you become more finely attuned to how your horse’s body moves, you’ll realise that there are times that he could be performing more happily. Consider your own discomfort if you were attempting lateral work with a pinched nerve or misaligned spine – sometimes just the discomfort of simple muscle strain can cause resistance. Definitely a good reason to call in an expert, and even learn some maintenance skills yourself. Yet another way to bond!

Ready to upgrade?

You will advance through the grades by accumulating points at shows. From Novice to Elementary Medium, points are accumulated in the following way:

55% to 59% – 1 point

60% to 64% – 2 points

65% to 69% – 3 points

70% to 74% – 4 points

75% and above – 5 points

Your horse will be required to attain a minimum of 10 points and a maximum of 100 points to move up – this means that you can spend a little longer in a grade if you’d like more time to establish your work at that level.

 Next month we’ll look at the Elementary-Medium classes.

Want to try it out? Recreational membership is free! Visit for contact information.



Trying Out Novice, a taste of great things to come ~ Brigitte Billings

The nice thing about Novice is that it really is a level for any horse. Dressage often gets a bad rap as being elitist and purely for the ‘money set’, but a well-schooled crossbreed has just as much chance of doing well in a Novice test as an imported Warmblood.

In fact, many dressage experts believe that any horse can easily compete right through Elementary. This means that simply by caring for your horse and being committed to your schooling, you can enjoy years of dressage with a horse of any age or budget. Better yet, an imperfect horse will most likely benefit greatly from the strength and flexibility that this training will give him.

Prelim prep

If your Prelim foundations have been well established, the transition to Novice should be fairly smooth. While your horse will continue to be challenged by the athletic requirements of each test, if you’ve started him correctly, his body should be able to adapt to the demands with minimal stress.

Again, consider how you would embark on a training programme yourself. You wouldn’t walk into a gym and immediately lift the heaviest weight in the rack, or set the treadmill to the fastest or toughest level; instead you’d build up strength and stamina gradually, while maintaining correct form. The same applies to your equine athlete.

 The Tests

There are seven Novice tests – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and a Freestyle, which is dressage ridden to music. As in Prelim, the horse should be ridden in a snaffle bit and the rider may ride with whip and spurs. The movements introduced to your horse in Prelim will now require more accuracy. Gait changes are more pronounced and should be accurately ridden at the marker. A lengthened canter is introduced, which will show that you are able to ask for a burst of impulsion and then a return to a working canter within the space of two markers – quite a challenge if your horse is not on the aids, but it’s an excellent way to teach you to use your seat rather than your hands to control speed.

Judges will also be paying more attention to your horse’s rhythm, straightness and balance, which will be tested in movements such as the ten-metre half circle in trot and the 15-metre canter circle. Don’t overlook the importance of the ‘stretchy trot circle’, in which you allow your horse to take the rein and stretch down on a 20-metre circle. It allows the judge to see that your horse is working comfortably over his back and is happy to reach forward to the contact – fundamental aspects of good schooling.

By the time you reach Test 6, you’ll be doing the rein-back, counter-canter and lateral work in the form of the leg yield. While this may sound daunting, all of these are natural progressions of your basic schooling and your horse should adjust to them with minimal resistance. For example, consider that a horse working in balance will not need to ‘lean in’ on a canter circle, so should be comfortable working on either lead. Also, if your horse is responding correctly to the leg aid, stepping away will be a simple response to leg pressure, resulting in a leg yield.

Ringcraft Learning some basic ‘ringcraft’ can help you achieve better scores. Prepare your horse for transitions by getting him balanced, don’t cut corners (you’ll quickly realise that corners are your friends) and be accurate on your markers. Your instructor can provide tips on turning your ‘5’ into a ‘6’ – or even a ‘7’, just by paying attention to the little details.

Of course, many of these things are easier said than done, because in a lot of instances you will be learning at the same time as your horse. But this is the beauty of dressage – it’s an endless journey of discovery which ultimately strengthens your relationship.

Next month we’ll look at the Elementary classes, where the pressure starts to mount.

Want to try it out? Recreational membership is free! Visit for contact information.