Dressage is full of patterns. At the least, we use test patterns for competition. Some instructors use patterns almost exclusively, while others use them sparingly. Yet many riders do not use them for a variety of reasons.
The Old Masters have used patterns for centuries. Some patterns date back to the 13th century. There are many advantages to using patterns. One, it gives the rider something to do to keep the ride interesting. It is easy to get sucked into riding around the edge of the arena or on a large circle with little diversity. Patterns break up that monotony. Patterns also give a learning test for each of the movements. While a horse and rider may be able to ride a movement, such as shoulder-in, riding it within a pattern is a test to ensure it is solid as well as testing where the weaknesses may be.
Yet patterns not only draw out the weaknesses but also give riders a chance to strengthen those weaknesses. If the horse falls out the shoulder in a movement, a pattern with a lot of turns can help to strengthen the weaknesses without trying to “micromanage” the horse in an attempt to fix it. This is probably the main reason for patterns. Patterns can set up the horse for using its body correctly, rather than the rider trying to put it together themselves. As the late Karl Mikolka used to say, “Let the gymnastic work the horse.” It takes a lot of pressure off the rider, and the pattern has a way of explaining things to the horse the rider simply cannot.
Patterns also help with nervous, distractable, or excitable horses and riders. It gives them something to think about besides what is scary, distracting, or exciting. They work equally well for horses as well as riders. I’ve had riders that were absolutely terrified of what might happen (usually riders who had been in a bad accident), and after working through a pattern (or two…), they relaxed and had a good ride. Certain patterns help horses that are scared as well, and this is the subject of an ebook that we are currently working on.
What Makes a Pattern?
Usually when we think of patterns, we think of geometric patterns we ride at different gaits. However, that is just the beginning of the world of patterns. Patterns can be much more subtle. Some patterns can just be transitions every so many strides. Some can be patterns of aids. This is a form of patterns I use frequently even in competitions, as it helps both my horse and myself calm our nerves as well as plug into positive muscle memory. These patterns can be varied widely, from a small pattern within six strides to a longer-lasting pattern over 9 rotations around the arena. Some can be extremely complicated, others very simple.
How to Make the Most of Them
There are certain things that will help set riders up for success in patterns. First, and I think the most important thing, is not to overthink the pattern. I’ve encountered many riders who overthink in the patterns. “Ok, heels down, shoulders back, now circle, suck in my stomach… oh my gosh, where am I? Oh no, get the horse round, more forward… I’m so lost and this pattern is making it worse!” It is so much simpler to just to focus on the pattern. The horse feels all that mental tension, and it negates the value of the pattern. Instead of thinking of your seat and whether the horse is round or forward enough, just focus on the pattern. If you let the gymnastic work the horse, you’ll find that you don’t have to work so hard at all those other things. They start to become muscle memory from the patterns. It feels good for horse and rider to have good biomechanics because it makes things easier, not harder. So, let the patterns do their magic and don’t try to tweak them.
The other challenge I notice people having is a lack of understanding of their space or basic geometric figures. This is the subject of yet another ebook, which we hope to turn into an online course in the near future. Something riders can do is really learn their arena. Start by memorizing the spacing between letters. Most arenas nowadays are 20x40m or 20x60m. The letters have specific spacings in those arenas. However, if your arena is not a standard size, learn its dimensions. Many patterns take place in a square or rectangle, though some also are confined to a circle (hence you can use them in a round pen!). The standard arena is not an ancient dimension; riding arenas of the past were of various shapes and sizes. Most were squares or rectangles, some as small as 8x8m! As a rule of thumb, rectangles are the best arena shape for patterns, and it is easier to make patterns in arenas that have a width to length ratio of 1:1, 1:2, and 1:3 (for example, 20x20m, 20x40m, and 20x60m, or 12x12m, 12x24m, 12x36m). If your arena is an odd size, you can always delineate your arena with cones. Learn basic figures, like circles and squares, and use markers or cones to help you visualize them and make them more accurate (check out our previous post: “Mastering the Basics: The Circle” to learn how to improve your circles).
Speaking of cones, cones are your friends! If you have a hard time visualizing the pattern, mark specific points with cones. I love using cones of all kinds of colors; I still use a set I got on sale at Menard’s over a decade ago. I love to use colors to represent different parts of the pattern. I also put cones up on the wall to help riders visualize their distances. Once you learn your letter spacing, you’ll realize that 20m circles don’t fit neatly with the letters (look at the test diagrams on the USDF website if you don’t believe me!). Cones help riders visualize how patterns fit within and around the letters. Some like to use large cones, as they are harder to knock over, but I like smaller cones because they are easier to knock over and therefore a better test of accuracy.
There are many good sources of patterns. The competition patterns are a good starting point; you don’t have to ride the whole test to benefit from the patterns within. Remember, “tests” are not just tests; they are educational tools. There are also many good books. I like both volumes of Eleanor Russell’s “Gymnastic Exercises.” Major Lindgren also wrote an excellent book of patterns. There are others, like 101 Arena Exercises or 101 Dressage Exercises. Karl Mikolka’s website also has many excellent patterns available for purchase, and the proceeds from those sales go to his widow. Many historical training books, like Gueriniere’s “School of Horsemanship,” have excellent patterns. Charles Harris’s “Notebooks from the Spanish Riding School” also has excellent patterns. There are many other excellent resources, but these are an excellent start.