Participating in your first dressage test is a big event and everyone wants to do their best.  You are a fortunate rider if you do your first test on a school master but not everyone has that opportunity.  Just being ready to compete is a big step but if your horse is new to competition he will likely be more nervous than normal. The following are suggestions to help you prepare for your big day.

Know Arena Geometry

Know where all the letters are

Have your riders make up a helpful poem for memorizing letters for both the small and the standard dressage arena.

Dressage beginner


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Know Your Test

This might seem obvious but you’d be surprised at how many people go to their dressage tests relying on someone else remembering the test for them. They figure they will have a reader who will keep them on track.

Don’t be dependent on a reader

Memorize your dressage test, both of them if you’re riding 2 tests. If your caller gets mixed up or rushes ahead and you get confused, you will lose points even if it’s not your fault.

This is not to say you shouldn’t have a reader. Just know your test inside and out.

Know the rules.

Learn the rules so that you won’t accidentally break them. No one else can be responsible for this. Don’t go to all the work of getting ready  to compete only to fail because you didn’t know how to play the game. Give yourself and your horse the very best chance to succeed.

Did I mention practice?

Practice your test until it’s automatic, then under pressure you won’t forget.

Practice Parts of Your Test

Take your test apart and practice the individual movements

  • Practice your halt at x
  • Practice your salute
  • Then practice your halt and salute at x.
  • Practice 20 meter circles ALL OVER THE PLACE. Use cones (or flour) to lay out 20 meters in a field or just practice in different parts of the arena. You don’t always have to practice in the same spot.
    • Remember: Circles are round like CHEERIOS. They don’t look like something the little Red Hen laid for your breakfast.
  • Practice transitions; upward and downward.
  • Practice riding in a straight line. Pick a target
  • Work on your riding, especially things like sitting straight
  • Practice breathing (Holding your breath creates tension. Passing out in a dressage test will get you eliminated)

Practice Your Dressage Test Without the Horse

  1. You can practice on foot in the dressage arena when it’s not in use.
  2. Practice in pairs and let someone be the horse and the other be the rider. Let them hold a rope for reins and you walk behind. And remember no talking or body noises (clucking etc.) in dressage!
  3. Practice at home. Write the letters on file cards and lay a miniature arena out in the back yard or the living room and practice your test.
  4. Print off blank dressage test diagrams and draw your test, or draw them. Putting in the letters will help your memory.

Learn everything you can about your dressage test so it becomes second nature to you so you can arrive at the show and:

Kick Nerves to the Curb

  • Being nervous isn’t going to make you ride better. It will only make you and your horse tense. Nerves are the enemy of good riding and you don’t have to bother with them because you’ve practiced. You’re ready. Don’t make your horse think there is something to worry about.
  • Focus on your riding partner (the horse) and consider building his confidence.
  • Remember you are competing because you love to ride. Nobody’s forcing you to be here. Enjoy what you’re doing.
  • Listen for the judge, too. When you go into the ring, tune out the world around you and enjoy.

And if Something Goes Wrong

  • If something goes wrong while you’re on test, let it go and continue on onion your test. Don’t let one mistake ruin your whole ride. The show must go on!
  • Listen for the judge’s instructions.
  • Ride the best you can on that day. Some times horses don’t feel like doing dressage and sometimes riders just can’t make their circle right. Do the best you can for that day and be happy with the result. You’re just starting out and have a great future ahead of you. You’ve taken a giant baby step by competing.

A Couple Other Things

Have the best possible turn out that you can. A beginner doesn’t have to spend tons of money on turnout but neat and clean goes a long way toward making your best impression.  It also helps you to feel your roll as a showman. Make your horse’s coat sparkle. Have his mane pulled and tail brushed out. Clean his hooves. Have your tack super clean. Clean your pad and your bit. Make your hair and clothing neat and tidy and make sure you have everything in good repair.

Eat Correctly.  There’s nothing worse for an athlete’s diet (you are an athlete) than sugary snacks, donuts, candy bars and sugary drinks. Plan to take quality food to the show with you so you don’t make your blood sugar spike or your stomach nauseous. It’s all part of being serious about what you do.

AND I’m not going to tell you to smile but put yourself in the judges box for a minute. Can you imagine judging 40 riders with frowns or an unpleasant demeanor? Not only would you get tired of seeing people who are miserable, you might thing they were angry or scared or tense. Don’t think of the judge as “Judge and Jury.” Think of the judge as someone who will evaluate your rides this day and give you a professional impression of how you’re doing, what you can improve and what you’ve done well.

And did I mention?

Know the rules, know the rules, know the rules!

And enjoy your wonderful sport and art.

For your inspiration, I’ve included one of my favorite musical freestyles at the end of this. Enjoy!

Have a great first dressage test.

Barbara Ellin Fox

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