Breaking Down Beginner Novice and Novice Dressage with Allison Kavey

We are pleased to welcome our newest guest columnist, Allison Kavey of Rivendell Dressage. Allison Kavey is an international grand prix dressage rider with a long-standing affection for teaching. Her eventing clients include professionals, such as Colleen Rutledge, and juniors and amateurs ranging from Beginner Novice and up. We begin our series with Allison at the beginning, by breaking down the fundamental elements of the Beginner Novice and Novice dressage tests.

Annabelle Sprague and Meadowlark competing at the Novice level. Photo by Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

The fact that every single combined test or event begins with dressage must seem brutally unfair to event horses. I have had the pleasure of teaching and riding many of these wonderful athletes, and while they are remarkable for their willingness to diligently participate in “sandbox activities”, they are not subtle in their preference for gravity defiance and galloping. Their riders are often the same! But the reality is that dressage translates directly to the jumping phases, and by paying close mind to each element of your test you can create a more balance horse and rider for the (decidedly more fun) jumping phases. I’ll begin by talking about the Beginner Novice and Novice tests, the questions they ask, how you can best present the exercises for higher dressage scores to lower your overall score, and how they can translate into better success in the run fast-jump high parts of your weekend.

I like to think of events as a prison break. Dressage is the part where you, in full Shawshank mode, carve a long tunnel to freedom using only the spoon you pocketed when you were on kitchen duty. It is the slow, diligent expression of your desire to be free to run and jump.

The Beginner Novice and Novice tests provide you with the tools you need to start digging your tunnel – the spoon and the first crack in the wall. They are remarkably similar to the USDF Training Level tests, in that they repeatedly address your ability to perform the most fundamental aspects of dressage: bend and rhythm in various shapes and across all three gaits. You have two big advantages over those of us in the dressage ring: you do not have to halt on your first centerline (which means you are much more likely to continue all the way down it because your horse will not have been given five seconds while you salute to consider better options), and you compete in the small arena, which forces you to keep your horse very focused on your aids.

Photo by Penny Wilson.

The Centerline

Think of centerline as your very best friend. It should be part of every dressage school you do because it tests your ability to keep your horse straight between your legs and going from her hind legs to the bit without you spreading your hands or pulling on either rein to achieve this feat. Integrate centerlines into every schooling session from the moment you start walking onward. You can use the centerline much like a long diagonal as a means to change direction at walk and trot and it is a perfectly fair exercise to practice rhythm and straightness at the canter.

Make it a goal this year to replace every long wall you planned to ride down with a quarterline, centerline, or diagonal. It will maximize your practice time and get you really good at being straight without the wall crutch. It will also help you remember to keep your rhythm while using your legs to maintain straightness. You will be rewarded with higher scores on your centerlines and diagonals and fewer comments of “wandering” and “losing straightness”.

When you turn onto centerline, remember to use your outside leg and, to a lesser extent, rein to create the turn while keeping your inside leg just behind the girth to prevent the horse from tipping over and provide her with something to bend around. You will notice your horse tends to turn “wide” one way and shallowly the other. For the side the horse prefers to turn wide, think of making an 8-meter rather than 10-meter turn by using more outside leg to yield in as you make the turn. For the side your horse likes to turn too quickly, use more inside leg and think of leg yielding up and out to your outside rein. This will ensure your accuracy.

If you do the exact same preparation for your turn off of centerline, your horse will bend around your inside leg rather than leaning or bulging and you will have an excellent first corner. Once you are on the line, stare straight at the end of the arena at your eye level. If you are anxious about dressage – and who isn’t? – consider setting up an elevated table at the end of your arena and making a scarecrow judge. It only seems stupid until you try it. It is a great way to accomplish two things at once: acclimating your horse to the often-terrifying judge’s box and making yourself practice being really straight on every centerline.

Now I am going to bore you with the obvious: straight, rhythmical centerlines are setting you up for straight, rhythmical approaches to jumps. This is why you should canter them, too.

The 20-meter Circle

20-meter circles at trot and canter are common to both Beginner Novice and Novice tests. They are discipline building taskmasters when done correctly. The principles of rhythm and bend you demonstrated on your turns onto and off of centerline are tested again here, but added to those now is geometry.

The size, shape, and placement of your circle needs to be accurate and consistent to earn the highest marks. For a circle at C or A in a small arena, you need to begin at C/A, not go into the next corner, touch the wall between the H/M or F/K and E/B, touch the centerline at X, touch the next wall between E/B and H/M or K/F, NOT fall into the corner, and conclude at C/A.

I know this sounds like gibberish, but it makes sense if you look at an image of a short dressage arena. For Novice test A, you will take that very same circle and make it into a figure eight to do the inaptly named “two loop serpentine” from C to A. This exercise requires that you ride your first circle at C, then develop your new bend approaching X, and ride your next circle to A. The geometry remains the same.

Now that you know the correct size and the points to ride to on the long walls and centerline, the shape actually becomes less of a challenge. To practice riding 20-meter circles well, you can use ground rails to mark the four places you will need to reach to create four equal arcs. Ride the outside of the rail at C or A, the outside of the rails on the two long walls, and the middle of the rail at X.

Novice Test B tests a different skill: square turns at E and B. This is preparation for when you will see again in the higher level tests. The square turn requires the same outside leg-inside leg balance you developed practicing your centerline with the additional challenge of a quick change of bend over X without losing straightness, thus further assessing your ability to effectively balance your horse between your legs.

Allison Kavey. Photo by Annan Hepner/Phelps Media Group.


Transitions are the bane of many dressage tests, especially in the short arena. They come up quickly, which makes riders tense and that translates into fussy horses. Part of this is because when we are schooling, we usually do transitions when we feel the horse is ready and will do them well. That’s all well and good, but it does not translate into horses who are consistently on the aids.

The Beginner Novice tests are very clear in their directives for transitions. They almost always occur between two letters, which seems like a generous gift because you have all that space to get your horse to walk, trot, or canter. No, you do not. You are expected to perform the transition halfway between the two letters.

The advantage is that you have a bit more time to prepare and, often, a corner to help you do it. The training plan to conquering those transitions is simple: do more of them. Start your ride with walk-halts in which your horse stays straight and round. Do them on centerline. Do them while you practice your 20-meter circles. Do them until the mere tightening of your core muscles and slight push forward of your upper back brings your horse to halt and the release of those core muscles and tucking of your lower back brings her to walk. Walk-halt should not involve rein pressure, and halt-walk should not require that you release the reins or kick.

Hot horses who dislike halting need to practice doing it. Dull horses who like to ignore your leg need to practice obedient takeoffs into the next gait when you take your leg off to ask for it. Practice will make this so. You can then take this exercise to trot-walk-trot and trot-walk-halt-trot transitions, and then trot-canter-trot and trot-canter-trot-walk transitions. Soon you will start noticing how little physical effort is required to half-halt your horse and how annoyingly simple these transitions are. To keep yourself challenged, you can add in half transitions, in which you practice shortening and lengthening the trot and canter. All of this will translate into better pace regulation in your jumping work and a lot less dependence on the reins.

Allison Kavey. Photo by Annan Hepner.

The Free Walk

Free walks on the long rein are always fun, especially when the hapless child designated to run scores comes trotting out from behind the judge’s booth or someone falls off in the stadium ring just when you are at the closest quarterline. But they are very important – they are the only double coefficient that stays in dressage from Training Level through Grand Prix, though they earn the lofty title of extended walk at Second level.

This is an extension of all that transition work you just did. Practice shortening and lengthening your walk while you are working on your walk-halt-walk transitions and integrate shortening and lengthening your frame while you do so. Of course the goal is a walk that lengthens stride and frame symmetrically and a “10” would be awarded for a horse who stretches her neck forward, maintaining her nose ahead of the vertical, and downward at least below her knees as she marches across the diagonal.

Free walks are not pleasant saunters in the sun; your horse must maintain her rhythm with added swing and intention. As you progress across the diagonal, maintain the rhythm with your leg and back but do not shove with your seat as it shortens the stride and can make the walk lateral. As you hit the second quarterline, begin closing your core muscles and shortening the swing of your back and gather up the reins as the shorter stride transitions into a shorter frame. By the time you get to the end letter, you will be back in a working walk with nicely gathered reins and ready for the next exercise. This is a great thing to practice as you warm up and cool down your horse, as well as throughout your regular work sessions.

William Nilsson Fryer and Joel (SWE) tackle the stretchy circle. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The Stretching Trot

Stretching trot circles test the exact same principle as the free walk explained above, though you do not want to demonstrate a significant change in stride length in this exercise. It is, however, a nice place to show off all of the work you have been doing on trot transitions. The goal is to demonstrate that your horse can lengthen her frame and trot with her nose ahead of the vertical and at or below her knees while you maintain some rein connection.

I like to practice this exercise by dividing the circle into quarters. I develop the stretch in the first quarter, show maximum stretch for the second and third quarters, and shorten the stretch in the final quarter so I have my reins back and a happily trotting horse at the end of the circle.

Start by developing that first section. What happens when you close your leg, add your core muscles, and slowly push the neck away? If your horse speeds up, you need more half halts. If her neck goes out but not down, you need to add more lower leg to keep her hind legs marching up through her back. As you confirm your ability to consistently produce one level of stretch, you can then ask for more. Should your horse fall apart, half halt, reorganize, and start again.

Repetition will be required because this is not an easy movement: it tests your ability to balance the horse from side to side and back to front while maintaining a rhythm and bend. The more you practice it throughout your schooling, the easier it will get, and the earlier you can begin practicing this, the better.

If you practice all of these things, I hope you will notice they become easier, more comfortable for you and your horse, and less daunting. They should also translate into your having a more adjustable, turn-able horse in stadium and cross country.

Allison Kavey. Photo by Annan Hepner/Phelps Media Group.

International Grand Prix competitor Allison Kavey founded Rivendell Dressage, Inc. in 2007 with Andrea Woodner. Allison has extensive experience teaching dressage riders from Training Level up to Grand Prix, working on position and basics to improve riders’ harmony with their horses. She also works with eventers through the CCI***** level and hunter/jumper riders looking to improve their position and flatwork. In addition to training and coaching her students, Allison develops and sells young dressage horses of exceptional quality. RDI horses have achieved many national championships and multiple top 20 placings in the USDF national standings since 2007.