Back to Basics: From Novice to Grand Prix

Siobhan Records on Rathmor Caprice

Siobhan Records on Rathmor Caprice

The emphasis on “Back to Basics” was the common thread throughout a captivating seminar given by the renowned German FEI 5* Judge and Trainer, Peter Holler, on Friday 4 October 2013. Hosted by the Gauteng Dressage Committee at the Lipizzaner Hall, the seminar was aimed at riders, judges and trainers of all levels and provided some interesting insights from both a judge’s and trainer’s point of view.

The title of the seminar “Back to Basics” reveals much about the content of the seminar but also discloses the importance placed on the basics at each level. We often find riders who focus on mastering the ‘tricks’ but forget that without good basics in place, the higher level movements can never be perfected.

Siobhan Records, Genevieve Andrews, Karen Keller and Debbie Hunt presented horses of different ages and training levels which provided Peter with good examples to illustrate his principles.


Novice: Perfecting the basics of walk, trot, canter and contact

The seminar kicked off with the presentation of two horses established at Novice level – an elegant bay gelding, Rathmor Caprice, owned and ridden by Siobhan Records and the modern bay mare, Calvero Urban Legend, owned and ridden by Genevieve Andrews. Both horses showed something which Peter stressed to be fundamental at this level: regular paces showing good rhythm. “The regularity of the paces is the most important concern in Novice. If this is not ok then judges will need to make deductions to their scores. Trot is the easiest pace to see if a horse is regular or not.”

In Novice, judges, riders and trainers need to look for the following in trot:

  • good rhythm,
  • willingly forward,
  • steady contact,
  • show bending on a circle,
  • A horse that shows good expression should be awarded those elusive 8’s, 9’s and 10’s.

Peter pointed out that in order to distinguish between a good, expressive trot and a ‘bad’ trot, judges should look for an active hind leg coming through from behind whilst also showing an expressive front leg action.

In canter, the points to look for are:

  • a regular, clear, 3-beat canter,
  • the same quality of canter on both right and left rein,
  • An uphill canter will be awarded the top marks of 8, 9 or 10.

The first thing that should be considered when judging a horse’s canter is the activity from behind. “Riders should always look for a forward, active canter to maintain a clear, 3-beat rhythm. If a rider falls into the trap of collecting a young or novice horse too early, they run the risk of developing a slow hind leg. Both the working and collected canter should still maintain a clear, 3-beat rhythm and not lose any of the activity”.

In walk, judges, riders and trainers should look for:

  • A clear, 4-beat rhythm,
  • Active,
  • Supple and relaxed,
  • Show purpose, scope and overtrack behind as well as stretch in the shoulder in order to achieve the higher marks.

With regards to the contact, Peter confirmed that judges should already start looking for self-carriage at Novice level. Peter explained that it is acceptable at this level for the horse to be a little deep in front but still over the back but it is unacceptable if the horse does not accept the contact and is too weak to bring up the neck.

In an interesting aside to the judges, Peter explained that in the lower levels, judges must use their discretion as to what are suitable mistakes for the level. “In Grand Prix, we ask for perfection but in the lower levels judges must understand that perfection from a Novice horse is very different to perfection from a Grand Prix horse. In Novice, judges should make compromises in order to keep riders motivated”.


Elementary: A little more collection

Siobhan Records on Johan Roodt’s Lebensfroh R (by Lord Loxley out of Moniana C) served as a very good example of the more collected overall picture required at Elementary level. The large-framed mare is a quality horse that was slightly impressed by the audience but was sensitively ridden by Siobhan.

In Elementary, judges, riders and trainers should still look for all the basics established in Novice as well as the following in the paces:


  • More cadence,
  • Longer phase of collection,
  • More freedom in the shoulder as a result of the collection.


  • A little higher level of collection than the Novice horse, however, the emphasis still remains on riding the horse forward from behind.

The horse’s gymnastic development through the dressage levels is also tested with the introduction of shoulder-in in Elementary. Peter advised that judges look for the following when judging this movement:

  • Trot quality does not change,
  • The horse shows some bending around the inside leg.

Classically, the shoulder-in is ridden on 3 tracks; however, Peter noted that the shoulder-in is ridden on 4 tracks in Holland. Some Dutch riders show a bend in the neck but the spine remains straight which allows the horse to maintain its balance and ensures that the big, exciting ‘auction’ trot is maintained in the shoulder-in.

The walk pirouette, which is also introduced at Elementary level, is the highest degree of collection in walk. In the walk pirouette, the horse must still maintain a clear walk rhythm and must not get stuck and swivel on the hind legs. An important note which will help riders in completing walk pirouettes in the ring is to make sure that your walk pirouette starts and finishes on the same line.

For a horse to receive a 6 for the walk pirouette, it must tick the following boxes:

  • Reasonable size,
  • On the bit whilst maintaining suppleness in the neck and flexion to the inside,
  • Maintain a clear rhythm,
  • If the walk pirouette is smaller and more precise, the mark then goes up to a 7 or 8.


Slide1Medium: Transitions, transitions, transitions!

The next horse presented was Karen Keller’s successful South African bred Warmblood gelding, Rathmor Napoleon (by Agrando Winter General out of a Crystal de Rouche mare). Ridden with Karen’s usual quiet professionalism, the gelding was a good example of an engaged, uphill Medium horse.

Judges at Medium level are now looking for the Medium horse to complete all movements with the poll as the highest point. In all three paces, judges are looking for the horse to take more weight behind and elevate the forehand.

Peter gave some added advice to riders whose horses do not move with a naturally big trot: “If a horse does not have a super trot then it is sometimes better not to ride too forward as the trot starts to appear hurried. We are looking for swing instead”.

In the medium or extended trot and canter, both judges and riders should not forget about the transitions from the medium or extended paces back to collected. Not only does the transition mean extra marks but it also sets you up for the next movement.

In medium trot, if the horse depends too much on the leg and does not start covering more ground of its own accord, then the movement can only be awarded a 6. Similarly, if the medium trot fades out around X, then the movement can no longer be scored anything higher than a 5.

The work towards Grand Prix starts with the half pass which is established at Medium level. This movement requires judges to look for:

  • Suppleness,
  • Maintaining a good rhythm,
  • Crossing behind as well as in front,
  • In the canter half-pass the horse must maintain a good 3-beat canter. A horse and rider combination could be marked down to a 5 or even a 4 for 4-beat rhythm in the half-pass. However, if the 4-beat rhythm is only shown in the half pass, then the collective mark for paces will not be affected.

A tip that Peter gave to riders is that riders must be able to ride with their seat: “Riders must always be able to bring their horse back just with their seat. They must also not be scared to sit back and give the horse the chance to do a movement by himself rather than always over-riding the movements”.


Prix St George: Bringing it all together

The final demonstration of the seminar came from Debbie Hunt and her experienced partner Ravel (by Ramirez Furi out of Hallmark Diana) who have campaigned successfully in the Advanced classes for the past year.

Peter gave the audience a small insight into why the Prix St George test asks for certain movements: “The test asks for collecting the canter on the diagonal after a medium or extended canter in order to check for straightness. The collection and the change must all be done on the diagonal in a straight line in order for the movement to be executed correctly”.

Peter also reminded the audience that in all the extended paces, the rhythm does not change but the length of stride increases. The transition back to the collected paces is now strictly marked and should be within 3 strides, especially at Grand Prix.

The flying changes and tempi changes are established in the advanced level. A flying change should be:

  • Straight,
  • Through,
  • Not require too much visible effort from the rider,
  • To get higher marks, the horse must be higher in front with the weight on the hind legs.

In the tempi changes, the rider should be able to complete the movement on the diagonal otherwise this shows a lack of collection in the movement. If one change is late in the tempi changes then the score is no longer a 6 and must go down to a 5 or 4.


The canter half pirouettes are also introduced at this level. The pirouettes are placed in such a way in the Prix St George test that it tests the ability to collect on a straight line. The horse must not jump together behind in half pirouettes as the score won’t be higher than a 6, but judges can be more lenient at Prix St George by allowing the horse one stride together to maintain its balance. The pirouette must also be under control without the horse spinning on the hind legs, and must take between 3 to 4 strides to complete. The horse must remain bent to the inside of the pirouette until the end of the movement.

Peter also went on to discuss the importance of correctly developing muscular strength in the Prix St George horse in preparation for the Grand Prix movements: “If you ask a horse for too much forward movement or for piaffe and passage before they are ready, they can develop wide behind as they are not yet strong enough to maintain this”.


The conclusion of the three hour seminar was that the basics are just as important in Prix St George and Grand Prix as they are in Novice. The insight into how a judge should score at each level was invaluable to riders hoping to impress in the ring and we came away realizing that the homework required to prepare and successfully compete at each level is immense but by concentrating on the basics, you give yourself a fighting chance to progress through the levels easily and successfully.


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