Riders work incredibly hard to make it to the upper levels and each athlete moves up at their own unique pace. Some spend years at the introductory and training levels while others skip through the levels much more quickly. It can be hard to determine when to move up, and to cope with the challenges that come with progression, but navigating this important issue is part of the experience of being a competitive dressage rider. Leah Wilkins, renowned international Grand Prix dressage competitor and trainer based in Ontario, Canada, draws upon her impressive reputation to kindly offer guidance for riders who want to know how and when to move up to the next level of competition.

“A rider can expect to move up a level when they have a solid understanding of the objectives of the level they’re currently at,” says Leah. “For example, for USEF first level, the purpose states ‘to confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements at Training Level, has developed the thrust required to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.’” She goes on to say “It’s interesting to note that the purpose of the tests does not speak about the specific movements but the overall way of going of the horse. This is what I look for with my students. I want to see the foundation is there, and I’m much less concerned about their proficiency with the movements than with the overall frame, quality of throughness and rider effectiveness.”

Leah also cautions riders to be on the look out for indications that they may need more experience and training before moving up. “In a test situation, signs of difficulty would include consistent comments regarding these objectives, or the same comment being applied to several movements,” explains Leah. “For example, ‘poll low’ in the comments throughout the test may indicate that the horse/rider combination have yet to establish an uphill connection to the bridle. However, one must take into consideration the possibility that it was on ‘off’ day for the pair so definitely look at consistency over the season. You want to be schooling movements from a level above what you compete at. This allows both you and your horse to confidently execute movements. Competitions are stressful enough on their own; going into the ring worried that you can’t execute a particular movement or section of the test only adds to rider (and therefore horse) stress.”

When a move up occurs but doesn’t necessarily achieve the expected score or result, Leah encourages riders to stay the course. “I see this issue a lot,” she says. “A horse/rider pair go out at a new level and are disappointed at their score because they compare it to the level from the previous season (or show). I also see riders who score lower on a horse than the previous rider of that horse scored. All I can say is you have to give it a chance. You can’t expect to become an expert overnight. Give yourself several shows to get comfortable with each movement and remember that no two days are the same for you or your horse. I always tell my students that the first goal is just to get through the test. Just do it!! If you’ve done your homework and trained properly, then half the battle is just getting from salute to salute.”

To help riders cope with the nervousness associated with a move up, Leah shares the following wisdom, which she applies to her own students: “During the warm up I try to encourage riders to focus on what they can control. Some tend to get caught up in the environment; the flags flapping, dogs barking, etcetera, and it ends up unraveling them.” “If there’s a movement a rider if having particular difficulty with that day I try not to drill it too much,” she explains. “I try to help them find a way to best set it up in the ring and then leave it alone. If they focus only on the negative (ie: ‘I’m not going to get a clean lead change to the right’) they’re wasting valuable time and energy and adding tension to an already tense situation.”

Leah also has some fantastic advice for riders who want to track their progress, with respect to a move up, but lack help from a trainer or coach, “If a rider doesn’t have access to full time training I highly recommend they video themselves. If they have access to a ring with mirrors it really helps to give feedback in the moment the rider is feeling something. I tell all my students ‘ride past the mirror and ask yourself if you look like (your favourite rider). Think about how they sit and how they use their body and look for the same type of posture as you ride past the mirror.’” “I am a huge stickler for basics,” explains Leah. “Sometimes this means I might even pull a rider back down a level or we decide to forego competing altogether until a better foundation is established. To me it doesn’t matter that you can half pass. Can you half pass uphill, in a breathing contact, with good engagement of the hind leg? Also does the rider understand the purpose of the half pass and how to troubleshoot issues like haunches leading and poll low?”

Finally, Leah says to remember to enjoy the ride. “We are there to enjoy the experience and roll with the good and bad. Understand that this is a journey and it may not all come together at once. Try to find a couple of highlights of the test; it doesn’t even need to be an entire section like the trot tour. Something as simple as a square halt, good extended walk, nice canter transition that you can take home with you.”