Using Dressage to Add Purpose Under Saddle


Using Dressage to Add Purpose Under Saddle
by Susan Nelson, 4-Star Senior Parelli Professional, Horse Development Specialist, and recently awarded USDF Bronze Medalist, of 3L Ranch

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The USDF Bronze Rider Medal is an award that recognizes an achievement of riding at First, Second, and Third Level. In order to earn this medal, you must have six scores of 60 percent or higher—two at First, two at Second, and two at Third Level. These must be USDF rated shows with two different judges per level. The next level of achievement is the Silver Rider Medal, which requires two scores 60 percent or higher, two at Fourth Level and two scores at Prix St. George. Finally, the coveted Gold Rider Medal requires four scores of 60 percent or higher—two at Intermediate I/II/A/B and two at Grand Prix.Using Dressage to Add Purpose Under Saddle 3

When I started my journey into Dressage, I had this perception that I had to do a movement perfectly in order to get a score of 10. Therefore, a 10 would correspond to perfect. I really did not understand how a competitor would be happy with 60 percent on a Dressage test. To me, that means that 40 percent of the test was bad, and in school, a 60 percent is a “D.” How on earth can that ever be good? As I have studied Dressage in more depth, I learned that there are words that correlate to each numerical score. Here are the official definitions of each score:





10 — Excellent
9 — Very Good
8 — Good
7 — Fairly Good
6 — Satisfactory
5 — Marginal
4 — Insufficient
3 — Fairly Bad
2 — Bad
1 — Very Bad
0 — Not executed

I learned in dressage that riders are excited to score in the 60s, thrilled to hit the 70s, ecstatic to hit the 80s, and only few in the world hit the 90s. Now that I understand that a 60 percent or a 70 percent does not correspond with a “D” or a “C” grade but rather means Satisfactory and Fairly Good; I now understand how folks can be excited about a 60 percent! In addition to that, understanding that a 10 means executing the movement with excellence and not perfection allowed me to take a huge sigh of relief because I was able to unchain myself from the grips of perfection and strive for Excellence instead, which is very attainable! 1

My Level 4 foundation has been a keystone in preparing myself to train my horse! I bought Fashion as an unstarted 2-and-a-half-year-old and have utilized everything from the Colt Starting Skeleton* to the Levels Program** as his foundation. Even though our main focus is Finesse* (Dressage), he is very accomplished in the other three Savvys: On Line, Liberty, and FreeStyle. This keeps a well balanced horse mentally, emotionally, and physically. The Parelli Program teaches you so much! You learn how to manage your emotions*, to fairly apply pressure, when to feel the slightest try and when to release, when to ask for more to be progressive, how to read your horse, what they need, what they are telling you, and so much more! It has taught me to train while keeping my horse’s dignity and creating an unparalleled relationship with Fashion in and out of the competition arena.

The Levels in Dressage are very progressive; as a matter of fact, they are set up to help the horse develop harmoniously in their training. Each piece leads to the next so that your horse doesn’t feel like they are being trained. Fashion is a Left Brain Extrovert* and really likes to be challenged mentally and physically. The harder the levels are, the more he is engaged, and the more he likes it. If he is mentally engaged, he loves to work; if he is not, he can be a stinker and act like he is dying. Typically, by the Championships of each show season, I am schooling at home above the level I am showing, and at that last show, Fashion excelled with accuracy but I felt him start to say, “Come on Mom, this is boring. I’m ready to move on now!” Which we obviously do once the season is complete. If I were not progressive with asking Fashion for more challenging movements and keeping him mentally and physically in the game, then I would be in trouble!

I would say my biggest challenge on my journey was learning how to sit Fashion’s humongous trot. Once you hit second level, all trot work is ridden in sitting trot. This is a massive learning curve as I have never owned a horse that moves like this in my life. This is a huge work in progress but is improving with every ride! I would say it took me about 6 months of messing with it, building my core strength and finding my balance on him to where I felt that I could go to a show at Second Level. Then, finally, when I decided to go to my first show at Second Level where all trot work was sitting*, I started to freak out about looking like a total fool sitting a medium trot across the diagonal.


Then I asked myself: what is the worst that could happen? I could fall off! So, envisioning the worst and knowing it was pretty much not going to happen, my anxiety dissipated, and we had a great ride! Fashion and I have now competed in Second Level and Third Level, and I have figured out some degree of sitting all his trots—collected, medium, and extended trot—and doing all my lateral movements* as well—shoulder in, haunches in, and half passes! I must be figuring something out because we score 7 to 8.5s on my rider seat and position collective scores, but I want a ten someday. Thank you, never ending self-improvement!

In the big picture, Dressage is made up of straight lines and circles; therefore, the Parelli Patterns of Point to Point* and Bullseye* are a critical piece of Fashion’s foundation. If you have taught your horse to go on a circle and a straight-line FreeStyle and they understand the pattern, then it is that much easier when you pick up the reins to ride with Finesse. Teaching your horse that Phase 1* is the best phase to respond to is critical. They need to believe you will go through your phases fairly if they do not respond. As Pat says, a good Phase 4 will get you a great Phase 1. You take the time to teach it, but in the end, that is what it is really all about—a calm, connected, and responsive* horse! Your horse has to understand what you are requesting from him in order to say “yes” at Phase 1, but the minute that you know he understands, you have to be ready to go to the reinforcement stage or else he will become complacent and dull. In riding with precision, the Porcupine Game* is the critical game for your horse to perform well! It will not look like you are dancing if you are above Phase 1, which is the mere suggestion of what you want your horse to do.


I have several very memorable stories with Fashion at the shows. You just never know what you need your horse to be prepared for at a show (especially showing at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, which I have nicknamed “The Madhouse”). When Fashion was 5-years-old, I had a First Level test where an entire formation of WWII Bombers flew overhead during my test. They were landing at the local airport, and they were so low that you could see the pilots. I was cantering along, and I heard this sound and then felt this vibration. I actually looked up to see what the heck it was and noticed the judge looking up out of her booth, too. Needless to say, Fashion had a bit extra impulsion during that test but managed to keep it all together despite the added energy!

Point to Point pattern has come in handy when I want to do my free walk across the diagonal. One spring, Fashion and I had been practicing Point to Point on the trail going from one patch of grass to the next (I live in the desert, so grass is a high priority when it appears in the spring). At this particular show, they had beautiful fake flowers next to each letter. As I came across the diagonal about two steps into my free walk, I felt Fashion glance up and spot the fake flowers—man oh, man were we walking now! He was going straight for them, so much so, that I had to gather my reins a bit earlier than normal to avoid the ever embarrassing my-horse-grabbed-the-flowers-ride, but he would have if I had let him!

Then there was the organ player at Region 7 Championships last Fall. Part way through my test, this circus-like organ music started playing over the speaker system. Fashion’s ears perked up, and boy, that added a bit extra to all his movements while still remaining a very honest and connected partner.


For Fashion and myself, our short term goals are to starting think about riding a musical freestyle. At Third Level, there are enough interesting movements to have a musical freestyle be fun. I have never done a musical freestyle, and it is a beast of its own to learn, but I am willing to give it a go. Plus, I think Fashion will love it!

My mid-range goal is to take the summer to develop Fashion’s strength and understanding of the movements and really refine them and to work on my seat. I hope to be showing at Fourth Level by the end of the year. My long term goal from here is to head towards Grand Prix with Fashion—all while keeping a smile on his face and mine! In the process, we will obtain our Silver and Gold Rider medals as well. It is hard work to advance through the levels—any levels for that matter—Parelli Levels or Dressage Levels. However, if it is your passion as it is mine, then you find the determination to stick with it and take the time it takes!

Using Dressage to Add Purpose Under Saddle

A young Fashion, destined for greatness.

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Fashion demonstrating his versatility.


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Fashion acting like a partner and maintaining his responsibilities, even bridleless.

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Cross training boosts Fashion’s mental, emotional, and physical fitness.

*If you want to learn more about the following topics that Susan mentioned in this blog and you are already a Savvy Club member, then sign in to find these lessons by going to your Dashboard and then following this pathway:

Parelli Levels Program: Log in to the and access the complete Levels Program from your Dashboard.

Dressage/Finesse: Level 3 Finesse and Level 4 Finesse, all topics and lessons

Managing Emotions: Level 2 On Line Theory: Ten Qualities and Eight Principles

Left Brain Extrovert/Horsenality: Level 3 On Line Theory: Horsenality

Sitting the Trot/Fluidity: Level 2 FreeStyle Riding Skills: Fluidity

Lateral Maneuvers: Level 4 Finesse Lateral Maneuvers: All Lessons

Point to Point: Level 2 FreeStyle Patterns: Point to Point

Bullseye: Level 2 Freestyle Patterns: Bullseye

Phases: Level 2 On Line Tools: Phase 4 Simulation

Calm, Connected, Responsive: Calm, Connected, Responsive Touchstone (Resources > Learning Library > Twelve Touchstones > Calm, Connected, Responsive)

Porcupine Game: Level 1 On Line Porcupine Game #2, all topics and lessons

If you are not a Savvy Club member yet and would like to be a part of the world’s leading horsemanship education community CLICK HERE to sign up!  Need a little more information?  Visit to learn about member benefits and features within the Savvy Club then come back here and use Susan’s link to sign up!

*Want to own this information on DVD?  Use Susan’s shop link to purchase the Parelli Levels Program and/or Colt Starting DVDs.

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Happy trails & dressage tests!