Ask any rider what they practice most for a dressage test and they’ll probably tell you medium trot. Ask the same number of judges what they consistently give the lowest scores to and they’ll probably say the same! Why?
You’re probably trying too hard. Think about what you actually want your horse to do. You want him to relax his topline and take longer steps. Take a look at some common methods of asking for medium trot and you’ll see why they have the opposite effect.
The ‘pull and kick’. It’s basically a tight contact to ‘hold’ your horse and lots of leg to ‘kick him through’. Imagine what he must feel. If you suddenly got a pull in the mouth and a kick in the sides would you relax your back? The problem with this one is as he tightens his back against the pressure his strides may seem longer. You may see his toes flicking out in front of him but his back has shortened his strides haven’t lengthened. To a judge it’s a 4.
The ‘aim and fire’. This involves getting your horse round the corner and straightening him up before you kick once with both legs and throw your hand forward. He throws himself dutifully (not beautifully!) forward and within two strides he’s down on his shoulders and daisy cutting across the arena. His strides are longer because he’s running. Another 4.
The ‘scrubber’. After months of schooling without your seat you start scrubbing your hips forward and back because you think it will encourage your horse to lengthen. All it really does is make him hollow away from the uncomfortable feeling he suddenly has on his back. Can you blame him? When he hollows his back his hocks can’t step under his body. He couldn’t lengthen if his life depended on it. A 4.
Finally the ‘shorten and release’. This involves shortening your horse in the corner before the medium like a coiled spring. You turn onto the diagonal and release the pressure. He powers forward, looking for the contact, can’t find it and hits the ground running. Again it’s a 4. What’s worse about this one is you’ve just ruined the box beforehand by screwing him into a ball. You’ve probably got a 4 for tension in that box too!
So what should you do? You need to think of medium as a pace and a movement. A pace should be used for more strides than a quick flash across the school. A movement requires more energy than a working pace and so you need to use your legs every stride not just the first two. Try this -
Ride a 10m circle at M in working trot. At M go large in medium trot and ride one circle at B. Get back to B and go large (still in medium trot). At F bring him back to working trot and circle 10m.
Did you raise your eyebrows at the thought of so much medium trot or because you had to ride a circle too? Many riders avoid circling in medium because it doesn’t come up in a test and also because it means you have to ride every stride and move your body. If you don’t your horse flattens.
Get your trot balanced on the 10m circle. Keep your hands up and together to keep your horse’s shoulders up and together. Use your leg every stride to create energy. Keep your fingers closed around your reins to contain that energy and create impulsion. Look up and sit back to keep his weight on his hocks. Whatever you do don’t pull back!
To ask your horse for medium use your heels every stride. Every time you do he’ll push his hocks further under his body, rounding and stretching his topline. If you don’t ride every stride he won’t make that extra effort. You’ll have a working pace.
To allow your horse to go into medium keep the reins between your thumb and first finger but relax the other three. You’ll feel him push against your hand. Keep the weight even in both reins. Think of an L shape. Lift your hands up an inch and forward a few inches. He’ll follow your hand and lengthen his back and his strides.
When you circle turn your body round in line with the curve. Freezing because you think you’ll spoil things will have the opposite effect. Ride forwards and relax. That is, after all, what you’re expecting him to do!
When you bring your horse back close your fingers around your rein and hold your contact. Squeeze your thigh and knee against his sides (see The Other Way of Stopping) and start to use your calf muscle not your heel. This reduces the energy you’re asking for but keeps him going forward. His hocks won’t stretch as far forward and he’ll come back to a working pace without tightening his back.
The 10m circle at the end is to stop you collapsing in a heap at the end of your medium. Transitions are as important as the paces.
It’s a fine balancing act between leg and hand to achieve transitions between working and medium paces. That is something to practice. The only way to improve is to do more of it. Short, tense bursts are not the answer. Think less about the flicky toes and more about the softness and stretch of your horse’s back. Go large, ride circles and use your medium paces. Think about what you want him to do and make sure you’re doing everything you can to help him. That’s got to be worth more than a 4.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.