If you’ve just begun riding in Preliminary and you’re feeling intimidated by the seasoned competitors riding around you, consider this: every great dressage horse begins with good foundations in the lower levels. From the first time your horse was saddled and had a rider on his back, the ground work was being established for his life as an athlete.
With this in mind, the basic work that you do in the Prelim classes will set the tone for the rest of your careers together. In fact, if you don’t get it right in these very early stages, it’s unlikely your horse will have the ability to progress to the top classes.
Contrary to what many might think, it is not always the flashy expensive horses who excel in these classes; dressage literally translates to ‘schooling’ and judges will be looking for the horse who shows correct schooling for this level. They want to see a horse and rider happy to be working together – your personal Valegro could be a 15hh Boerperd.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should panic about riding Prelim. The tests are specifically designed to test schooling and abilities without undue pressure on the inexperienced horse (or rider).
There are four Prelim tests – 1, 2, 3 and 4. The horse should be ridden in a snaffle bit and the rider may ride with whip and spurs. Tests include combinations of medium walk, working trot and working canter along with 20m circles, half-20m circles, turns left and right, changes of rein, and halts at the beginning and end of the test (Prelim 1 only has a halt at the end of the test). By Prelim 4, a three loop serpentine is introduced.
Riders will be expected to show that the horse is happy to stretch down when the rein is lengthened at the walk, and then accepts the contact when the rein is taken back again. Transitions give the horse time to adjust, for instance from trot to walk to halt, or from halt to walk to trot. A few strides of lengthened trot may be asked for during changes across the diagonal.
These very simple movements may be harder than you’d expect because it’s at this stage that your horse must start learning to use his body correctly under saddle. Imagine your first few sessions at gym in which you’re learning to understand correct form – without it, your movements will lack rhythm and suppleness, and you will not be building muscle correctly. Paradoxically, until those muscles are developed, these new movements will be quite difficult to get right.
About those marks
A judge will give a horse and rider a score out of ten for each movement. Marks are awarded according to how accurately the movement is ridden (so be aware of those markers!), how responsive the horse is, and whether he shows the correct combination of balance, elasticity and rhythm. You will also be marked on your position, seat and correct use of aids.