Friday, December 21, 2012

Questions About Dressage | Ask the Judge | 12/21/2012

Questions About Dressage

With Amy McElroy


Amy McElroy is a USEF R judge, qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fairlane Farm in Aiken and judges about a dozen dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers' questions about dressage.

Dear Amy,

Could you explain to me what a half turn on the haunches should look like? I am competing at Second Level, but my scores on this movement are significantly lower than my scores on other movements in the test. How can I do better?

                                                                                                        -Getting Fours

Dear Fours,
The turn on the haunches is a difficult movement that is important to perform correctly because it is seen up to the Prix St. Georges level. The movement is performed at the walk and can be used to make a change of direction. When it is properly executed, the horse does not stop, rather his hind legs march in place while his front legs walk around them, swinging in a smooth arc. The movement is a stepping-stone to the walk pirouette, which is seen at the higher levels.

Let’s examine the movement itself, with this description adapted from the United States Dressage Federation “L” program handout.

Purpose: To improve the horse’s obedience to the aids and to improve balance and collection.

Execution: The horse’s forehand moves evenly, quietly and with regular steps around the horse’s inner hind leg, while maintaining the rhythm of the walk. The horse is slightly bent in the direction in which he is turning. In the half turn on the haunches, the horse is not required to replace his inside hind leg in exactly the same spot with each step, but may move slightly forward.

Essence: To maintain the walk and maintain obedience to the aids.

Good qualities (adapted from the FEI guidelines)

  • It is a turn of 180 degrees, executed on two tracks, with a radius equal to the length of the horse, with the forehand moving around the haunches.  
  • The forefeet and the outside hind feet move around the inside hind foot. The inside hind leg describes a very small circle (as small as possible.
  • The horse is slightly bent in the direction it is turning, remaining on the bit with a light contact, turning smoothly around and maintaining the exact sequence and tempo of footfalls of the walk. The poll remains the highest point. 
  • The horse should maintain its forward activity and never move backwards or sideways. 
You are not alone in having trouble with this movement. I often see a variety of errors and mistakes.


Here are some common problems:

  • Bending issues. 1-There is incorrect bend – for instance the horse is bent to the outside. 2-There is not enough bend. 3-The bend is not maintained throughout the move. Correct bend means that your horse is clearly bent in the direction you are turning from start to finish. 
  •  Hind leg issues. 1-The hind leg sticks for one or more steps – in other words, it does not leave the ground, but merely pivots in place. 2-The hind legs step to the outside of the turn. 3-The hind legs become inactive – in other words they are not actively marching. 4-The hind legs take too many steps, or describe a large circle. 5-The hind legs cross over. A horse that is using his hind legs correctly takes three to four active, marching steps.
  •  Energy issues. 1-The horse becomes too sluggish. 2-The horse stops or backs. 3-The horse refuses to turn. 4-The horse is too quick and tense. Your horse should have forward energy and his steps should be clearly defined and purposeful.
  • Connection issues. 1-The horse comes above or behind the bit. 2-The horse tilts his head rather than bending it. 3-The horse is fussy with his mouth – the mouth opens or the tongue comes out. The horse should be confident and reliably on the bit. 
Possible scores:

0: Not performed. The movement is not recognizable; the horse is never walking. The horse is seriously disobedient or displays severe behavior issues.

1: Very bad. Small fragments of the movement are recognizable, but there are major problems or disobediences.

2: Bad. Irregular steps. Totally “stuck” behind. Not accepting the bit at all. Hardly any energy or desire to move. Completely incorrect bend. Severe resistance or disobedience.

3: Fairly bad. Very inaccurate. Stuck for several steps. The walk becomes irregular. The horse is way above or behind the bit. Severe resistance, lacks willingness to turn.

4. Insufficient. Inaccurate placement. The movement resembles a circle. The horse is clearly stuck behind. The walk is not four-beat. The horse is not enough on the bit. There is some resistance. There is no clear bend. There is some loss of control.

5. Marginal. Slightly inaccurate placement. Too big in size. Some loss of rhythm, tension or loss of connection to the bit. Lacks energy or bend. There might be a small resistance.

6. Satisfactory. The transition could be more exact. The movement is slightly large. There is a small problem before or after the turn. There could be more suppleness, or the horse could be steadier to bit, with his poll the highest point. The horse could exhibit more activity or more bend. He could be more on the aids.
7. Fairly good. The movement could be even more accurate. The circle described by the inside hind leg could be a little smaller. There is no obvious resistance and the horse is fairly supple and active, with a correct bend. He is on the aids and on the bit.
8-10. Good to Excellent. The movement is executed at the correct place. It is fluent with a clear rhythm. The horse is supple, active and obedient. The movement is seamless and looks effortless. 

The half turn on the haunches is a great exercise to help horses prepare for collected work. As you advance, it becomes the walk pirouette, and the movement is also performed at the canter in the canter pirouette. It is a difficult movement, but it is one worth working on. When you can perform it correctly, you should feel a great sense of accomplishment, and you will know you are on the way to success in your dressage.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.