When it comes to riding a polished dressage test, preparation is the key to success.  So I want give you some competition tips to help you have the best experience possible.

Before I get started with the actual tests, I want to just talk in general about riding dressage tests because there’s a lot of things that they all have in common.

The first thing is that you need to know your test. I mean REALLY know it. Even though from Training Level through 4th level, you can have some read your test out loud, it’s still important that you really know your test. This is critical so your test doesn’t look like a bunch of movements strung together.

That way you can use the reader if you occasionally blank out. But for the most part, you won’t even be listening to the reader because you’ll be paying attention to
your horse.

So you want to be able to do the dressage test on autopilot, so that you can reserve all of your focus for riding your horse. You want to be riding your horse not
concentrating on what comes next in the pattern.

To help you do this, start memorizing your test early on.

I have 3 different ways that I memorize tests. They include:

1. Visualization-I know that it takes approximately 21 days to develop a habit. So I start visualizing my dressage test every day at least 3 weeks before a show. I sit in an easy chair or lie down on my bed, close my eyes, and take 3 really deep breaths.

You want to do diaphragmatic breathing, so as you inhale, feel like your stomach is getting fat. That means you’re taking air way down into the bottom of your lungs. As you exhale, feel yourself sinking into the chair or bed.

Visualizing your dressage test is going to help you do two things. First, it’s going to help you memorize your test. Secondly, when you visualize the perfect ride, you program your subconscious mind to ride correctly. That’s because when you do “perfect practice” in your mind’s eye, your muscles will fire in the correct way.

As you visualize, go through your dressage test stride for stride. Fill in as much detail as you can.

What are you wearing? What does your horse look like? What does the arena look like? What color is your jacket? What color are your gloves?

Fill in as many details as you can AND include your senses. Hear the rhythm of the footfalls. Feel the contact with your horse’s mouth. See your horse’s head and neck out in front of you. Smell the fly spray. Also, add emotion to your mental movies.
Experience yourself feeling calm, relaxed, poised and the harmony of being at one with your horse.

2. Do your test on foot.
Another thing I do walk and trot, and canter the parts of the dressage test at home in my living room as if I were riding them.

Just mark off a rectangular  area and trot down the center line, do your halts, trot off, plan where you’re going to turn, walk where you’re supposed to walk, canter where you’re supposed to canter. So you actually have a chance to physically practice.

3. Know your dressage test “forwards and backwards”.
The third way that I memorize a test is to learn it the way it’s written from the first entry to the final salute. But then, to know that I “own” that test, I pick any movement and ask myself what comes after it.

And here’s the real thing that tells the story, I ask myself, “And what movement comes before this movement?”

So I might say, “What comes before the left canter depart?” or “What comes
before the free walk?” or “What comes after the trot lengthening?”

When you can pick any point within the dressage test and you can answer those two questions, you really own that test. Also, if you do happen to blank out in the
middle of the test, you’ll be able to remember where you are very easily.

Now let’s talk about the movements that all of the dressage tests have in common.

First, they all have an entry. You have to get into the arena. So I’m going to start while you’re going around the arena.

What you do as you go around the arena really depends on your horse. I find it helpful to just walk around the arena with tense horses. I know that things look
different to a horse from the left side and the right side. So, I’ll walk by the judge’s
stand then I’ll turn around and walk by so the horse can see the judge’s stand from
the other eye.

And then, I’ll actually turn and face the judge’s stand, halt, and pat my horse. I know that my horse is going to see two weird people in the judge’s booth when we
come down the centerline. I want him to have already seen them and know that he
doesn’t have to be worried.

For the horse that tends to be a little behind the leg, you might decide to do some rising trot lengthenings outside the arena. That way you can make sure that your horse is in front of the leg and that you really get his motor going.

Or let’s say you have a horse that is spooky or to tends to get a little on the forehand. Do a little shoulder-in when you’re still outside the arena.

The next thing that you have to think about is whether you’re going to enter
from the right rein or from the left rein? If your horse is fairly straight, enter from
the direction you’ll be turning at C. That will trigger your memory if you blank out
and forget which way to turn at C.

So, if I’m going to be turning right at C, I normally enter from the right rein. I enter from the left rein if I’m going to be turning left at C.

However, let’s say I have a horse that’s really hollow to the left (meaning he likes to bend his neck and carry his hind quarters to the left then); I’ll enter from the right. That’s because he’ll be straighter, and I don’t want the judge’s first impression to be that my horse is crooked.

Now, as you come down that centerline, look up, and make eye contact with the judge. This is part of showmanship. No matter how you’re really feeling, look confident, put a smile on your face, and come down that centerline like you own that arena.

Now, let’s talk about the halt. The way you approach the halt is different depending on the level of the test. If you’re doing a Training Level or Intro test, you can walk into your halt. You can also take a step or two of walk out of the halt into the trot.

From First Level and above, there are no walk steps. If you enter in the trot, go directly to the halt from the trot and then back to the trot after your salute. If you’re doing one of the higher level tests and you’re entering into the canter, go directly from canter to the halt.

Once you’re in the halt, you need to salute. The most common way to salute is to take all the reins in your left hand. Drop your right arm loosely behind your thigh. Nod your head keeping eye contact with the judge. Don’t make this big extravagant bow. You want to acknowledge the judge, but you want it to look crisp
and efficient.

A man can actually salute in the same way. He can take the reins in one hand, drop his hand loosely behind one thigh, and nod his head. Or he can take his hat off, put it behind his thigh, and nod his head. If you do take your hat off, make sure the top of the hat (not the inside of the hat) faces the judge.

Take your time in the halt so you can really show that your horse is on the aids. However, if he starts to move, go ahead and pick up the trot. You’ll get a better mark for a halt that’s too quick as compared to letting your horse move forward and then trying to halt again.

If you feel like your horse drops behind your leg in the halt, “breathe” your legs to help him react more quickly to your driving aids. To “breathe” your legs, take them ever so slightly off his sides. Bring them back an inch or two, and then place them on his sides lightly again.

As you finish your centerline, keep your horse straight. Pretend you’re going to lengthen toward the judge so you ride him between the channel of your legs and

Then warn him that he’s going either left or right by asking for flexion at the poll when you’re a couple of strides before C.

Okay, you’re in the arena. No matter what level you’re doing, you have to ride corners. The general rule for riding corners is that you don’t have to go any deeper into the corners than the smallest circle done at each level.

So, the smallest circle you’re asked to do for First Level is a 10-meter circle. That means you need to get into the corner to the depth of one quarter of a 10-meter circle.

At Training Level, the smallest circle you’re required to do is a 20-meter circle. So you really don’t have to get into the corners any deeper than the arc of a 20-meter circle.

But if you can show a difference between the line that you follow when you’re going into a corner and the line that you follow when you’re on your 20-meter circle, you show the judge that you’re a savvy rider.

If that’s pretty simple for him, try to show a 3-meter difference between the line you’d follow if you were going into a corner and the line you’d follow if you were on a 20-meter circle. That shows a real clear difference between getting into the corner and being on a circle.

Your rule of thumb is to ride into the corner as deep as your horse can manage. That is, he can keep the same rhythm, tempo, balance and quality of his gait.

The next things that all the tests have in common are diagonal lines. Here’s what I’d suggest. First, ride deep into the corner before you turn onto the diagonal. Then look at a point about a half-meter before the final letter on the long side. Aim
for that spot when you go across the diagonal. By looking a little bit before the letter, you’ll have more time to really balance your horse for the next corner.

Another thing that all the tests have in common is that you have transitions from gait to gait. And with the more advanced tests, you also have transitions within the gait.

First, let’s look at transitions from gait to gait. Always prepare for those transitions with half halts. However, the particular version of the half halt you give depends on the way your horse feels prior to the transition. This is because a transition can be no better than the stride just before the transition.

If your horse is well schooled, obedient, and is solidly on the bit, you can give what I call “Preparatory Half Halts”. That’s a momentary closure of seat, leg and hand–Take/give, take/give, take/give.

Direct those half halts to the inside hind leg. Give the half halts when the inside hind leg is on the ground just before it’s ready to push off. You need to time these half halts when the inside hind leg is on the ground because that’s really the only time you can influence a hind leg. Once it’s in the air, it’s already committed to its flight.

Your goal is to engage the inside hind leg prior to the transition. Give three Preparatory Half Halts prior to the down transition. Let’s say, for example, that you want to go from trot to walk. When you feel the inside hind leg on the ground,
say something like, “Engage, engage, engage, walk”. Or you can say, “Now, now, now, walk”.

So you might ask me at this point, “Well how do I know when a hind leg is on the ground?” When a particular hind leg is on the ground, your horse’s hip will feel higher. You’ll feel your inside seat bone either being pushed up or being pushed forward.

When I’m getting ready to do a downward transition, I tune into my seatbones. I feel which of my seat bones is being pushed up in the air or forward.

So I get into the timing of the inside hind leg being on the ground. Then, 3 strides before the letter, I give my half halts. I’ll say, “Now, now, now, walk,” or if I’m cantering, and I want to trot, I’ll say, “Now, now, now, trot.”

It’s pretty easy to feel the inside hind leg in the walk and in the trot. In the canter, feel the moment when your seat is deepest in the saddle. It’s also the moment when your horse’s mane flips up. So you can coordinate what you see with what you feel.

That’s how I prepare for transitions so that I ride a very accurate dressage test. I know how much ground my horse covers with each stride. So, when I’m 3 strides away from where I’ll be doing a down transition, I give my 3 Preparatory Half Halts–a momentary closure of seat, leg and hand directed to the inside hind leg being on the ground.

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