How to maximise your dressage marks (even on a hack!)

How to maximise your dressage marks (even on a hack!)

What’s the best way to improve your transitions? What makes a good circle? How should you ride a circle vs. a corner? How can you improve your transitions for better marks? International dressage rider and trainer Charlie Hutton shares practical exercises you can use in the arena and on hacks to score top marks for transitions, circles and corners in your next test.

Whether you’re prepping for a dressage test or want to build your flatwork on the best foundation, these exercises will help you and your horse work towards top marks!

How to ride better transitions

Charlie uses this clear, step-by-step process to help horses and riders achieve balance and self-carriage through all types of transitions. It will also give you a way to measure your rate of improvement and is the same whether you’re doing a downward transition like trot to walk, or a canter transition.

Start by riding transitions within a pace

  1. Ride a large circle in working trot. Assess how your horse is feeling today. Is he or she in front of your leg? If not, close your leg on and ask for more forward energy.
  2. Close your leg on to ask for a more forward trot. When you close your leg on, you’re looking for your horse to respond through their whole body — from their hind legs through their back and into the contact.
  3. Keep your hands light. Make sure you’re not using them for balance.
  4. Repeat. Once your horse reacts with a more forward trot, leave your leg quiet and expect them to carry you in that working trot.

Riding direct transitions

  1. Start riding a 20m circle in working trot. Make sure your horse feels in front of the leg. If not, go back to Step 1.
  2. Ask for some walk-trot transitions. Is your horse carrying him or herself through the transition and thinking forward? If they are lacking activity, go to Step 7.
  3. Try Charlie’s troubleshooting tip. ‘If you feel your horse dropping their back through a transition, give them a tickle with your schooling whip — but nothing else — in that moment to get that ‘in front of the leg’ feeling.’

Watch Charlotte demonstrate this in the video. When she feels Teddy go to ‘fall down’ into walk, she gives a quick tickle to ask him to step up into walk and keep his whole body engaged through the transition.

How to ride the perfect circle

The key to riding a perfect circle is to visualise four points on your circle and ride between them. This concept is the same whether you’re riding a 20, 15, 12 or 10m circle.

  1. Start riding a 20m circle at A. We recommend riding this in walk or trot first.
  2. Visualise four points on your circle to make a diamond shape. In this example, A will be your first point, your second point will be just after K, your third point at X, and your final point just before F. You should only touch the track briefly at those A, K and F points.
  3. Ride between your points. When you get to A, make a clear turn to your point just after K. You can use your outside rein to help turn your horse’s shoulders. Then turn again towards X, and so on.

That’s the perfect way to ride a circle! Watch it here.

Charlie’s top tip: In a dressage test, it’s important to make sure there’s a difference between your ‘circle’ and ‘corner’ lines. When you ride a circle, you should touch the points on your diamond. Riding a corner is different because you want to ride deep into that corner, for example, if you’re going large around the arena (more on corners below).

How do most riders lose marks when riding circles in a dressage test?

Typically, most combinations will ride too deep into the corners of their circle. But they end up riding more of a square. You can maximise your marks by riding between the points of your circle instead, using your outside aids to turn your horse’s shoulder a little and direct them.

How to ride corners in a dressage test

This is a great exercise for teaching your horse to slow down and collect, so you can ride deeper into your corners. Watch the video here.

  1. Go large in working trot. Stay proactive and make sure your horse is going forward. If your horse isn’t listening, go back and try the transition exercises above.
  2. Ride a walk-trot transition in one corner.
  3. Ask for walk just before your next corner then trot after it.

This gets your horse listening and thinking about collection without forcing him deep into the corner. It’s very difficult for horses to keep their balance and rhythm through a deep corner, especially when you first start teaching this.

  1. Repeat in all four corners before you move to Step 5.
  2. Choose one corner and keep your horse trotting through it. Instead of asking for the walk, bring your upper body back and half-halt but stay trotting. You are looking for your horse to ‘wait’ for you.

‘This speed control enables you as a rider to ride deeper into the corner,’ says Charlie. ‘The next step is to maintain the engagement and rhythm with your inside leg.’

  1. In your next corner, don’t consciously slow down. Instead, ride them from your leg by closing your inside leg on and turning them around it. Remember to support them with your outside leg at the same time.

Charlie’s top tip: Remember to balance your horse with both legs and both reins. This will help prevent the hindquarters from drifting to the outside when you ride deep into the corner, which is particularly common with young horses or those working through the lower levels.

‘We go from speed control — conditioning [the horse’s] mindset to collect — to teaching the horse to bend around the leg, and then you ride in your basic working trot with bend and collection.’

Improving your dressage marks on a hack

If you don’t have the use of an arena at home, you can still practise lots of the basic movements you need in a dressage test. The first you can work on is speed control.

How to control the speed of your horse’s walk

  1. Find a safe area and let your horse move forward in walk.
  2. Bring them back to nearly a halt.
  3. Ride forwards again immediately.
  4. Repeat until you get that ‘full body reaction’ that we described in Transitions.
  5. Occasionally throw in a direct transition to keep your horse paying attention.

Can you practice leg yielding on a hack?

Yes! Teaching your horse to move away from your leg (sideways) isn’t just the foundation of lateral work, it can help you navigate hazards safely without losing straightness.

  1. Find a safe place where you can ride in a straight line. You will need about two metres you can move into.
  2. Put your left leg on and ask your horse to move away from it to the right.
  3. Check you’re maintaining a slight bend to the inside.
  4. Move away a couple of strides then ride straight.
  5. Bend your horse the other way and ask them to move away from your opposite leg.

‘This is a great exercise because you don't need a lot of space,’ says Charlie. ‘You can do this just two meters one way, two meters the other way.’

Looking for more ways to improve your dressage marks? Check out our Petplan Area Festivals training videos.