I have had an ongoing debate with a friend, who from time to time also takes lessons from me. She has come to dressage by way of other disciplines. I am copying my response to her concern as to why a particular ride that was not very accurate did not have many comments from the judge regarding that. And why she got good scores on a couple of movements, that she thought weren't necessarily all that wonderful. Here is my response:
"Read the top part of your Training level test: "To confirm that the horse's muscles are supple and loose, and that it moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit." It does not say: "To confirm that the horse can be ridden in an accurate pattern and that the rider is completely accurate." It isn't about the pattern, dressage is simply not about the pattern. It's about the quality of the gaits, which are expected to be improved rather than corrupted by correct riding, and the quality of the connection. It's about the horse-making sure the horse goes forward with clear, clean gaits, and accepts the bit. He doesn't even have to be completely ON the bit, just, accepting. Every level beyond Training level, includes that statement above as a prerequisite to the additional requirements of the level. The judges expect to see young horses and beginning riders at Training level, neither of whom can be expected to always hit their marks, so to speak. They deliberately make transitions between markers rather than at markers, until the hardest test, and even then, a judge would MUCH rather see a correctly forward-to-the-connection transition a little bit early or late, than exactly at the mark. They tell us this specifically in the L course. Now if you can do all that, AND get your transitions bang on, that's when you see scores of 68 and higher. And frankly, it DOES take tremendous effort and correct riding by the rider to keep a horse's gaits pure and clear, especially if you have a horse that does not naturally have great gaits, or a horse that has very big gaits. You would be surprised at how many riders make their horses' canters and walks impure, either through tension, or through not letting the horse move out to a steady contact because they are unable, or afraid, to ride their big moving horses forward. Judges are taught to severely penalize impure gaits-that goes to incorrect riding and training. That is why one rider got a very low score, despite a dead accurate ride. She is so tense and fearful, and so severely restricts her horse’s movement that she has even made her horse's trot impure. And I don't mean just going uneven or unlevel in the trot lengthenings either, a common problem due to lack of thoroughness and connection. I mean he ambles instead of trots. He didn't do that two years ago. It's also probably why you got a 4 on one of your walk scores. I had a horse come to me whose walk and canter had both been made completely lateral by the previous trainer. She did not know what to do with his big gaits, so she rode them out of him. Nor did she know how to keep him connected over his topline, and so he'd also go reinlame in the trot lengthenings. I have fixed the canter-but it is much harder to fix the walk once it's ruined-and I still have times where he goes lateral in it. This is a horse that was born with 8 gaits. So you see, gaits absolutely, unequivocably, go to training. His 8 gaits can easily be made 5 gaits. Your horse has a tendency to get lateral in walk and canter, but he naturally has 7 gaits. You didn't have to go out and buy a fancy horse to get 7 gaits. No one does. A 7 means your horse has "fairly good" gaits. 8 is only just "good". Incorrectly ridden, your horse’s gaits can easily become a 5, even a 4. The gaits ARE all about the training-the preservation of the gaits and in fact the IMPROVEMENT of the gaits during the training is the hardest part of this sport. Accuracy: Janet Foy called it the pennies in your pocket, vs. the gaits and the connection, which are the silver dollars and fifty cent pieces. If you halt exactly where you are supposed to, but your horse hits the hand and goes onto the forehand because you slammed on the brakes just to hit your mark, you will, under a correctly trained judge, always get a lower score for that, than a horse that halts a litle bit before or after X, but halts softly onto his haunches and stays connected, balanced, and engaged because the rider took the time needed to seek correctnesss in the transition. Besides, it's really hard to see from C if the rider exactly hit X. We've had this debate before and I know how you feel, but I am telling you, that is not how dressage judges are trained. We are developing lifelong athletes that are expected to reach their peak between the ages of 12 and 18. Our best athletes that go to the Olympics are not even ALLOWED to be there unless they are at least 7 years old. If all dressage trainers worried about was accuracy, they could not keep horses sound that long. Now let's face it, a rider who rides correctly enough to keep the horse going forward to the connection in a clear and steady rhythm, and keeps her horse supple and loose, generally also is able to get her half halts through easily enough that her accuracy happens as a direct result of the correctness of the rest of the work. In other words, it should be a byproduct of correct training, rather than the goal. You don't have to agree with me(and it's not me, but rather the entire classical dressage theory), but this is how we are taught to judge. So, even if you don't agree, at least you now know enough to understand why you might get the scores you get, and why I emphasize the quality of your horse's movement when I teach you. His canter is VERY different when you sit back and keep his hind legs loaded-he gets much more uphill with much more airtime, the difference between a 5 canter, and an 8 canter, and that right there is an example of how the riding directly affects the gaits. That is why you got a 9 on that canter circle-you must have not only been accurate, but you must have kept your weight back over his haunches and showed a balanced, uphill, active canter with plenty of suspension. Congratulations! Good job."