North American Western Dressage has always taken its obligation to the horse as its basic and most serious concern. With a desire to help produce a stronger, more obedient, more flexible horse who is likely to stay sounder throughout his lifetime, while being safer and more fun to ride, NAWD Founder Jen Johnson met her first challenge: how to make dressage gymnastics available to Western riders in a supportive, comfortable environment. That led to the development of NAWD.
In a search for the best way to improve herself and her horse, Jen began to understand that a dressage test (whether Western or classical) is a training outline, and the score sheet from each ride, when fairly and consistently filled out by a judge with an educated eye, can used by the rider like shorthand notes from a coach.
Many riders find it difficult to access qualified trainers or instructors to help with their educations. With NAWD’s innovative “entry by video” concept, a rider can easily submit a video to a virtual competition once a month and access the eye of a top quality instructor/judge. When the judge's sheet was returned, test comments can be used to help riders improve themselves and their horses. In order to use this low-cost educational opportunity, riders need to familiarize themselves with the “vocabulary” of dressage: those pesky little numbers from 1 to 10 judge assigns to each movement. To make full use of a test, a rider must know what the numerical scores stand for. They can then go to the written comments for further assistance with how to improve.
Judges are an important and elemental aspect of this new approach to the learning system. To judge for NAWD, you must pass several exams including both written and performance (scoring rides). In NAWD's first judge's seminar (open to silent auditing by riders as well), the topic was the importance of circles and the variables and function of the scoring numbers. Donna Snyder-Smith, director of the NAWD Judges’ Education Program, expressed her desire that NAWD judges be able to show a consistency of scoring: one which, with few exceptions, would place scores within a single digit of each other in any test at any level. It is a challenge being worked on by dressage organizations around the world. The NAWD focus however, is more than just competitive accuracy. It is the support of a system that can be of great use to riders, helping them improve their horses throughout the animals’ lifetimes, whether a ribbon is won or not.
Scores with a Silver Lining
The most difficult numbers to understand in the dressage scoring system are 4 and 5. A score of 4 is called “insufficient”—the word is unclear because an event or action can be insufficient without being definitely “wrong.” I can plan a party, decorate, prepare the food and set the table, but if I only have five glasses for eight guests when it comes time to serve the lemonade, my efforts could be said to be “insufficient.” That doesn't mean I should never throw another party, nor does it mean my guests didn't enjoy themselves, but I did miss an important detail that would have enabled everyone attending to have a more relaxed experience and a better time. It would seem reasonable to ask, “If a 4 is not really a ‘bad’ score, why shouldn't the judges ignore the failure of the horse and rider to comply with the judging directives (test), and give the rider a better mark?” After all, the higher the mark, the better everyone feels (except for the horse), and everyone wants to feel good!
To fully understand the importance of the score of 4 or 4.5, let's take the example of the common, unprepossessing exercise: the circle. Most rider's feel if they can steer their horse from A back to A (or C or B or E), without going too far astray, they have complied reasonably well with the test directive (“A, circle 20 meters,” for instance). But have they? It is fairly simple to steer the average horse by using the bit and reins, yet dressage riders know that to do so is to sentence our horses to a lifetime of carrying themselves with most of their weight on their front end. That does not lend itself to long-term soundness in the horse. That balance, left unchanged, is also adversarial to refined control in the horse. A rider might score anywhere from a 4 to as high as a 6 if they rode a circle in the above described manner. If I asked you what score you would want to receive from the judge, you would probably respond with the highest number. But is that the smartest choice for your horse?
In order for the horse to perform a correctly balanced circle, he must allow the muscles along the outside of his body to stretch (including the back muscles), while the muscles on the inside of the curve become somewhat compressed as the horse creates the “C” shape necessary to execute the exercise. In doing this, the horse is learning to do different things with each side of his body at the same time. The horse's outside legs must reach further, which means he must be free to swing and have enough power to cover the greater distance. The legs on the inside of the circle must flex and lift, allowing the horse's body to maintain the “bend” of the circle and remain level. To do this correctly is an education for the horse in the use of his body.
It is also an extremely important part of the strengthening process—like working out in a gym. When the horse performs a circle correctly, the joints of the horse's inside hind leg must flex more and become stronger. The outside hind leg learns to thrust, while the inside hind leg learns to carry. Are you beginning to see how the simple circle is not so simple after all? Remembering that all of these good things happen to the horse only when the circle is ridden correctly, you might appreciate how getting a 4 under the right circumstances could help you turn your horse into a swan rather than simply an obedient robot. The benefits of the circle listed above are only the tip of the iceberg; correctly performed circles prepare the horse for a great deal more that is to come. If the judge gives you a 6 (satisfactory) or a 5 (sufficient), you are being told that the basic building blocks of your training program are working (or nearly all there). If you continue to ride and train the way you have in the past, your horse will get stronger and more beautiful and will stay sound longer.
You must decide what it is you want from a judge. If your judge gives you a 4.5 score, but says that your horse will improve with more bend in its body or points out your horse got a bit “lazy” on the circle, losing impulsion to avoid really having to step through with his inside hind leg and carry himself, what is that worth to you? What if the judge is lenient and gives you a “generous” score for what they saw, a score that makes you feel better, even if it doesn't change what you and your horse did? You will continue to practice what you think is correct and, as you do, the horse's compensating muscles keep getting stronger and stronger and your horse learns to lean, rather than bend.
Why is the 4 score (insufficient) the ugly ducking of dressage? If you get too many 4s on your test, you aren't likely to get a ribbon, but you will get the opportunity to go home and work on improving the foundation basics of training. When you are done working your horse correctly, not only will you win ribbons, but your horse will have become strong and balanced and a beautiful mover. Thanks to North American Western Dressage, you can now access quality information anywhere in the country at a fraction of the cost of a clinic and without having to travel a great distances.
About North American Western Dressage
North American Western Dressage (NAWD) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating horse enthusiasts about the universal benefits of Western dressage and providing fun, affordable ways to participate in this popular new sport. NAWD offers a variety of programs, as well as virtual coaching and showing opportunities, achievement awards and more. Learn more about NAWD at nawdhorse.org and at facebook.com/WesternDressageNAWD.