The Perfect Salute

All dressage tests finish with a salute on the centre line, and from Elementary level and above there’s a salute at the beginning too.

From a judge’s perspective, a nice salute and a smile leaves a positive, lasting impression on them. So if you finish with a smile and a smart salute the judge will appreciate it, and possibly write more positive comments and be more generous with the collective marks. Their final impression of you is a good one.

Someone told me years ago that you should always smile at the end of a dressage test because if it’s gone well you should show that you’re satisfied with your performance, and if it’s gone wrong then you aren’t berating yourself too much – I guess the phrase “smiling ruefully” springs to mind.

I also like to see horses and ponies getting a pat and neck scratch as a competitor leaves the arena on a long rein. Certainly it’s something I do each time I leave.

Anyway, I thought I’d share with you the tried and tested salute that I learnt as a child. It’s not flashy, being a workmanlike movement, but it means it is as at home in the show ring, dressage arena, or jumping ring.

Emphasis was put, when teaching us the salute, on not rushing it. So we had to count each step to slow us down.

Firstly, ride forwards to halt, as square as possible, but ensure you establish the halt before saluting. There’s nothing worse than a rider saluting as their horse stops. It looks impatient, suggesting you are an impatient rider.

On the count of one, place your whip and reins into one hand. In the show ring you salute with the hand nearest the judge, but in dressage most riders use their dominant hand, or the one without the whip in.

On two, drop your saluting hand down so that it is vertical, just behind your knee.

On three, give a clear nod down of the head. On four, raise the head again, smiling to the judge. Dividing the nod into two counts ensures it’s not a quick bob of the head, that could be missed by a judge blinking.

And on five, bring your hand back up and retake the reins. Then proceed in walk (or trot, or canter if your salute is not the final movement).

I’ve seen a lot of emphatic salutes recently, with great flourishes of the hand, or even naval style salutes. Neither of which appeal to me. But then again I’m a person who likes plain browbands, no frills or ruffles.

I would encourage anyone unsure of how to salute correctly to watch Charlotte Dujardin and other famous dressage riders to see the succinct, crisp, clear way that they salute the judge.

Leg on?

At the very, very basic level of horse riding you learn that legs mean go and hands mean stop. Then this is developed as the rider becomes more balanced and able to give more subtle, refined aids. 

Recently I’ve been emphasising the importance of using the leg in downward transitions to a lot of my clients. This is probably because Matt needs a lot of leg in order to make a balanced transition.

Firstly, let’s look at what happens if you only use your reins to slow down. The horse raises his head, hollows his back, and the hindquarters get left behind. In the halt, they looked “camped out behind”. This poor transition causes the horse to be on the forehand and therefore unable to use the hindquarters effectively.

Now how does using the leg help to improve the downward transition? It’s important to realise here that the leg is working in a slightly different way to when you’re asking for a forwards movement, which tends to be more of a nudge. In a downward transition the legs are long and from the thigh, wrap around the barrel to hug the horse. As the legs close in this way the horse is encouraged to lift their rib cage and engage the abdominals, which in turn lifts the withers, lowers the head and lifts the back to enable the hindquarters to come under. Then the hindquarters are ready to take the weight of the horse and push the horse forward into the next movement.

To apply the closing leg aid you want to keep the leg long and squeeze the thighs and calf slowly, literally as if you are hugging your horse. Once you reach the correct amount of leg, which may be more than you think, you should feel their back lift slightly and the nose drop. The rein contact should be steady to support them and to prevent them rushing forwards or over balancing, but not restricting their head or creating tension in the neck.

Moving on from applying the leg in a downward transition to make the transition more balanced and maintaining impulsion, is riding a square halt.

This is what everyone wants their final centre line to finish with, but it’s easier said than done. At prelim level, the transition is progressive, but as you move up the levels you need to ride a halt transition from trot, medium trot, and canter.

Even if you don’t want to achieve a perfect dressage square halt, having a horse who halts squarely makes schooling a lot easier as they don’t switch off, so you can pick up trot again instantly. When hacking you can ask them to halt while a lorry passes and they’ll remain stationary and “on the aids” so you are more in control and safer. It’s easier to rein back from a square halt, which is useful when you’re opening gates. 

How do you ride a square halt? Begin with progressive transitions, and use the closing leg aid to lift the rib cage into the halt, as we discussed before. Keep an even rein contact, and seat position to ensure they remain straight. The reins half halt, along with the seat, and once the horse stops you just need to wait. Don’t drop the reins, and keep closing the leg. After a minute or two to think, you’ll feel their body weight shift. A leg might creep forwards, or backwards as they straighten themselves. Then you’ll feel each leg take the load equally. The reins are preventing a forward step or a twist of the body.

It may take a moment, but it’s important that the horse remains attentive to you, so don’t let them look around and position your halt where there’s fewer distractions. Once you can feel them standing square they can be rewarded – a pat, a kind word – but they should stand stationary for a couple of seconds. You should feel the improvement as they step up into walk (or trot!) because the hind legs are working properly and the horse is less on the forehand. 

Consistency is the key to getting a square halt, but as the horse begins to learn that this is the only acceptable way to stand, and develop more strength, they will halt squarely quicker and quicker each time.