The Versatile Serpentine

This dressage figure has gymnastic benefits for horses at all levels.

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The serpentine is introduced at Training Level in competition, but it’s practiced by savvy dressage riders at all levels. Here’s how to ride this deceptively simple figure.

Geometry 101

Training Level Test 3 contains a serpentine of three equal loops the width of the arena in working trot. Sounds easy, right? Actually, lots of riders don’t execute serpentines accurately. Here’s why.

The standard dressage arena is 20 x 60 meters, so each loop of a three-loop serpentine is a 20-meter half-circle. The loops are connected by one horse-length of straightness over the center line.

The arena letters can give riders a false sense of where to place the loops. Looking at the diagram, you’ll notice that the three-loop serpentine does not cross the center line exactly at a letter. If you make the common mistake of crossing the center line at I and L, you’ll actually be making two 18-meter loops and a 24-meter center loop, which will cost you points in the show ring.

Diagram of a serpentine

Another common mistake is riding a diagonal line between loops. The horse’s body is supposed to be parallel to the short side of the arena as he crosses the center line. To do this, you have to bend him correctly for the first loop, straighten him momentarily, and then smoothly bend him in the opposite direction with no interruption in the trot tempo. Not as easy as it sounds!

Hone the Accuracy

Let’s say you’re trotting on the left rein, riding a three-loop serpentine from A to C. As you pass A, cut the corner a bit as you begin the first loop. Touch the rail about halfway between the corner letter (F) and the next letter (P), then look to the point where you want to cross the center line, two meters past L.

Dressage rider at a schooling show

Ride straight as you cross the center line. If you’re in rising trot and choose to change posting diagonals, this is where you’ll do so. Then bend right and ride the middle loop so that you touch the rail at E. Look to your next center line, two meters shy of I.
Show a moment of straightness before you bend left for the third loop, again cutting the corner slightly. After you pass C, ride a true corner.

Serpentine Variations

Up the difficulty by riding four trot loops instead of three, or make it easier by riding shallower loops. A “ribbon candy” figure with continuously curving lines develops suppleness. In the canter, ride three loops with changes of lead over the center line through the trot or, later, through the walk. As dressage horses advance in their training, loops and serpentines are great for schooling the counter-canter and even flying changes of lead. That’s why the serpentine is a staple of dressage training at all levels.


This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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