When the word engagement was kept in the impulsion box of the collective marks for the USEF tests at Training and First Level, it wasn’t because those levels required the horse to be “weight-bearing.” Rather, it was a way for a judge to comment on a horse with a very natural uphill balance at that level.
Training and First Level dressage tests do not require engagement; the horse’s balance does not need to be uphill. The balance is required to be level. Is the Training or First Level horse on the forehand? No, he is in a level balance, carrying weight equally on all four legs.
The lengthening at First Level does not need to show an uphill balance, but rather it needs a horse that is strong enough to push with the hind legs a bit more over the ground without becoming irregular or falling on the shoulders. So again, at Training and First Level, the hind legs should push but do not need to carry.
So perhaps you are riding a young overachiever? If your horse does have a natural uphill balance and already shows a talent for some weight bearing on the hind legs, that is okay, too. Judges are trained not to punish you for this. This overachiever might score a “10” on a 20-meter circle, but so could the horse I talked about earlier—the one that is only on a level balance. Do not think that in order to score a “10,” you need to ride an overachiever. This is not true. You only need to meet the requirements described in the purpose of each level, and to fulfill the criteria of the movement.
It’s Not the Movements, It’s the Balance
I think the most misunderstood issue in regard to the levels is that it is not the ability of the horse to perform certain movements that makes him a Third Level or FEI horse. It is the balance in which he can perform those movements. So you can have a horse that understands half-pass, or does a flying change, but if he is not engaged and showing a certain amount of cadence and expression in these movements, the score will not be higher than a “5” or a “6.”
Remember, the balance must be relative to the level. Collection at Second Level will come and go. This is to be expected, as it is early in the horse’s stages of development. As the horse progresses up the levels, however, the balance must be more consistent and better maintained. Without the ability to show this, a judge will not be able to reward your performance with more than a “5.5” or a “6.” Your score will be in the 58 percent range if you cannot show the balance required in the purpose of the test.
About the Author
Janet Foy’s interest in dressage started when she lived in Oxford, England, and she passed several British Horse Society Instructor Exams. She is currently an FEI4* judge, USEF S Dressage Judge, and USEF Sporthorse R Breeding Judge. She has judged at all major shows in the United States, as well as national championships and CDI***/W in Guatemala, England, Colombia, Costa Rica, Barbados, Canada, Poland, Australia, and Mexico, and the FEI World Cup League Finals for the United States, Canada, and Australia. Janet is a former member of the USDF Executive Board and the USA Equestrian Board of Directors, and a current member of the Federation Dressage Committee and the International High Performance Dressage Committee. She is also on the USDF L Faculty and instructs federation judges training programs throughout the United States for dressage and sport horse breeding.