Dressage For The Non-Horsey Boyfriend Part 9: The Figures

When you start your riding career, one of the first things you will learn in walk and trot are the figures such that you are not just riding around in huge circles through the arena. Only later you will realize that these figures are more than just keeping riders busy. They are used for suppling, for building strength, as a preparation for follow up movements and much more. Even an average horse can be ridden accurately in these figures - a chance for higher scores! And most of the time, riders do not spend enough time on these. Let us have a look on the figures that can occur in a test  according to the FEI Rule Book Dressage (the circle of 20 or 15 meters is not mentioned here but is also very common as full or half circle, often combined with change of lead in canter, lengthening of the reins and such).

ARTICLE 410 THE FIGURES The figures asked in Dressage tests are the voltes, the serpentines and the figures of eight. 
1. Volte 
The volte is a circle of six (6), eight (8) or ten (10) metres in diameter. If larger than ten (10) metres it is a circle.

2. Serpentine 
The serpentine with several loops touching the long side of the arena consists of half circles connected by a straight line. When crossing the centreline, the Horse should be parallel to the short side (a). 
Depending on the size of the half circles, the straight connection varies in length. Serpentines with one (1) loop on the long side of the arena are executed with five (5) metres or ten (10) metres distance from the track (b). 
Serpentines around the centre line are executed between the quarter lines (c). 

3. Figure of eight 
This figure consists of two (2) voltes or circles of equal size as prescribed in the test, joined at the centre of the eight (8). The Athlete should make his Horse straight an instant before changing directions at the centre of the figure

All these movements have in common: they cannot be accurate enough! And the good thing: accuracy does not depend on the quality of your horse. The serpentines as pictured in a are very common also for higher level dressage tests. The critical point is right after the turn where you have to get your horse straight enough just before starting the bending in the other direction. Hafl also had problems with this movement where he was round and supple but a bit behind the leg in the corners just to start rushing and being against my hands on the straight part. With lots of suppling exercises, we are now able to have a steady rhythm and constant contact through this movement.

The voltes are also very tricky! Very often, the first half looks pretty ok while the second one gets pretty awkward - too big, you lose the haunches, the contact... There are many things that can go wrong. And while 10m circles are somewhat easier as you could guess at least where the center line is, 8m circles are really rocket science! The only thing that helps? Practice, practice and pratice. Though it might seem boring but a well ridden circle is the basis for many follow up movements like shoulder in, haunches in or half passes.

Very common are half figures eights where you ride shoulder in on the long side, then ride half a circle left, half a cirle right and then do another shoulder in or haunches in on the other side. Again, hitting the connection point of the two circles and keeping the two the same size is crucial. Often you see riders swinging their horses from one side to the other while it would be correct to have the horse straight before changing direction. Countless times you could see Hafl's haunches swing from left to right and vice versa. Another movement where gaits do not matter but just your ability to ride correctly and consistently.

I once got the comment: incredibly big volte! Well, I guess that says it all. So go on and practice those low hanging fruit movements. Moving up the levels they get more and more important - and they are essential as preparation for movements like shoulder in, haunches in, half pass - and most of the time not only in training, but also in a test.

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