Dressage has become the country’s most popular equestrian discipline. Anyone, regardless of age or experience, can compete. You don’t need to spend a fortune on the latest equine superstar to enjoy it, so why not drag your ‘happy hacker’ out of his field and give it a go?
Whilst a lot has been said on the correct way of riding a test, little is said about actually learning it. This is the most important part of any dressage competition, even if you prefer to have it called. Tests flow a lot better if you know what is coming next.
Most riders will extract the main movements from a test and believe them to be the hardest parts. How often do you hear a test described as “the one with the serpentine in it”? There are many less obvious problem areas that reoccur in most tests. Learn to recognize and work on them and your marks will improve whichever test you do.
When reading the test look for things such as;
- A transition from canter to trot on the diagonal; it is a common problem for the horse to fall into trot, possibly too soon, become unbalanced and therefore rush around the next corner, losing not only the marks for the transition, but the marks in the next section
- A turn up the centre line in the middle of the test; most horses will undoubtedly expect to halt at X or G, here you may lose impulsion and straightness in direct sight of the judge which will certainly do nothing to enhance your mark.
- A free walk to a medium walk; horses tend to anticipate an upwards transition as you take up the contact, possibly jog or resist the contact by lifting their heads which in turn shortens their stride and loses the rhythm.
- Transitions; these must be executed as your body is level with the marker and a metre too early or late will lose you unnecessary marks. Perfecting these takes practice but will improve the overall appearance of your test.
- The most crucial part of any test: your entry up the centre line. This is your best chance to make a good first impression on the judge; done well it could score you an eight- done badly only a five. If you start on an eight and ride a good test, you are likely to score sixes and sevens but start on a five and the same test will be more likely to score you fives and sixes. This could be the difference between not getting placed and winning the class!
Every horse has its strong points; some cobs, for example, can struggle to perform amazing lengthened strides but they usually have a regular and consistent rhythm which will last throughout the test. Warmbloods may have exceptional paces but can spoil a test by losing rhythm and concentration. These differences enable us all to compete on a level playing field. Remember on the day to focus on your strong points, it is after all the total of the marks that really matters not the score in just one box.
Run through the test in your head before you ride it to make sure you really know it; start at various points and continue to the end without error, which is not as easy as it sounds.
Next, imagine how you would want to ride it. Picture yourself riding up the centre line, making a clear and balanced turn at the top with your horse responding beautifully to all your aids. Continue through the whole test in the same way. This should give you a clear goal to aim for.
Finally, imagine yourself actually riding the test. If your horse is inclined to throw his head up or take the incorrect lead in a canter transition, see it in your imaginary run through, and then see yourself correcting it. This is the next best thing to actually riding it and will give you a much clearer idea of what you need to work on when you next ride your horse.
Learning the test in this way should give you more specific things to work on when schooling. Aim to keep your sessions short and to the point. Neither you nor your horse need to be out in the ménage for hours at a time - it can be both exhausting and demoralizing. There is nothing to be gained from trotting endless circles around a ménage with no apparent purpose. Work on transitions and movements from the test but not necessarily at the same markers to keep your horse focused.
Try not to ride through the whole test too often as it could encourage your horse to anticipate. In a lazy horse this will produce a distinct lack of impulsion as he pre-empts a downwards transition and those with a more sprightly outlook on life will undoubtedly produce a beautiful upwards transition three markers before it is due!
Time your schooling sessions at home so you know how long you will need at the show- it is rarely as long as you think. A typical prelim. or novice test requires little more than walk, trot, canter and halt so you do not need to spend hours warming up. Use the warm up at the show to prepare yourself mentally for the test and get your horse to focus on you and not the new surroundings.
Wherever possible try to approach the arena from ten or fifteen metres away to give yourself enough time to get straight before you enter. Remember that anything that occurs before you actually ‘enter at A’ will not count against your mark. If needs be you can halt, get your horse’s attention back, proceed directly into trot and enter which is preferable than entering with a crooked horse or one which is above the bit! If you cannot enter from outside the arena make sure you are riding on your horse’s easier rein when the bell goes so you can make a smooth turn onto the centre line
Most judges are riders themselves and understand that problems do happen. They will not hold it against you if something goes wrong in the arena. Try not to let one mistake spoil the rest of your test, it is only one mark and need not affect the others if you ignore it and ride on.
With all these things in mind remember that it is meant to be fun! Hopefully, with a clearer idea of what you are hoping to achieve, that bit of fun may produce a test worthy of a rosette. Good luck!