Dressage competitors at all levels often throw marks away by riding poor centre lines. As a dressage judge, I find this extremely frustrating as marks are just being thrown away unnecessarily. I get so fed up with continually commenting; “left/right of centre”, “crooked” or “wandering” and being placed in a position where I have to give a 5 or a 6 when the mark could have been much higher. So why does the centre line go so wrong and how can you put it right?
Practice makes perfect
This is true of all dressage movements but especially so of centre lines and halts. If you are continually penalised for over or under-shooting the centre line, clearly you need to make your turn more accurate!
Make sure that you plan ahead and look where you are going; not down at your hands or in the mirror at the side of the arena. Your focus should be on ‘C’ then your body language will give your horse a hint as to what’s coming next; i.e. a turn toward that marker. Very often it’s easier to keep a horse straight if you turn from his stiffer side as he is less likely to curl.
The rein you enter from will also depend upon the arena in which you are competing. For instance, if there’s a crowd of people at one side and you think your horse might spook, obviously you will enter from the other rein. Some people find it useful to enter from the same rein as the turn at ‘C’ so that they can prepare well in advance for the first proper movement of the test.
If a halt at the beginning of the test is required, practice your halt at ‘X’ and see which rein achieves the most balanced, straightest halt.
Mistakes and solutions
Horses that wander on the centre line and don’t stay straight are frustrating. There are a number of reasons for this;
1. The horse is not working forward and therefore wobbles instead of remaining forward and connected down both reins. Make sure that you don’t have the handbrake on and that you are riding forward in an active working trot or collected canter.
2. Make sure you are sitting straight and not slipping to one side causing your horse to drift across to compensate. If you have mirrors in your practice arena, use them to check yourself for straightness.
3. If your horse anticipates the halt, practice riding halts at different places on the centre line rather than always at ‘X’ or ‘G’. Make riding square, balanced halts part of your regular schooling regime and perform them at various places around the arena, not always on the centre line.
4. Get into the habit of using your eyes to check where the markers are rather than turning your head. Sometimes, this can make your shoulders turn slightly, followed by your hips which can make your horse drift.
5. If your horse is young or inclined to be spooky at the judge’s car or box, you may have to sacrifice a few marks by turning early at ‘C’. Don’t worry too much about this as you can always make them up later in the test and it’s better to get a 6 for turning a little early than a 2 for a huge leap sideways right in front of the judge!
6. Make sure you don’t over-correct any drifting by using too much correction with the leg as this can cause the horse to swing across the other way. Make sure your reins are short enough, maintain an even contact and ride forward equally from both legs into both reins.
7. Sometimes young horses can be a little whip-shy and this can cause them to drift away from your whip. If your horse is like this, think about dropping your whip before you enter the arena. You shouldn’t need it to keep your horse going forward anyway!
Poor centre lines not only lose marks at the beginning and the end of a test but sometimes they are included within it too. If your centre lines are poorly ridden, this will also be reflected in the collective marks at the end of your test. Taking the time to get this movement right can improve your scores by 10 marks or even more, so the extra practice is worth the effort.