Are you heading to your first dressage show? As a coach, I’ve sent many students into their first dressage test and every time I feel like a mother bird kicking her fledgling out of the nest. I prepare my students the best I can, but they often ask for something they can study at home watching Netflix. What can I say? I teach a lot of over-achievers. They probably got beat up a lot in school.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Your First Dressage Test
1. When it’s your turn, the person organizing the warm-up ring, the whip, will call your number that you are on deck. This should not take you by surprise. You or someone in your party should have been keeping track of time. This is even more important if it is a small show and there is no one organizing the warm-up ring. If they are running ahead of schedule, you are allowed to wait for your scheduled time, if not, do not think, “I just have to do a few more transitions,” they’ll wait. You hustle your ass to the ring.
2. Ride around the outside of the ring. It will be helpful to the judge and the scribe to see your number, so ride by the booth, smile and say hello. It will also be helpful to let your horse see that those are just people sitting in the judge’s booth, not horse-eating Yetis.
3. You will now practise whatever you and your horse need to practise. Does he need to be heated up or calmed down? Quick transitions or slow work? It’s the rider’s choice, dictated by the horse’s needs.
4. You will hear a bell or a whistle, signalling that the judge is ready for you to begin. You have 45 seconds to enter the ring. Do not panic. As long as you don’t walk the entire way, you can easily get all the way around the ring in 45 seconds.
5. Make your turn down the centre line. Turn earlier than you think you need to, because most people overshoot. It can be helpful to close your leg and accelerate a little bit after the turn. If you go too slowly, you’re more likely to drift around like a ship without an anchor. And remember, the judge will be directly ahead of you so will see every little bit of drifting, and trust me they brought their glasses.
6. Prepare for your halt at X. At the lower levels, if you can do a smooth halt from trot, go for it. If not, it is better to halt smoothly through a few steps of walk than to slam on the brakes with your horse’s head in the air and skid marks behind you. Your knees should line up squarely between B and E.
7. Take your reins in your left hand and drop your right hand down behind your thigh and salute by nodding your head to the judge. Your horse should stay immobile and round. Practise this, it’s harder than it sounds. A lot of horses use this moment to take a good look around and think about what they are having for lunch. If you have a whip, it should be in your left hand. You don’t want to salute with it.
8. Take your reins back in both hands. Don’t panic and rush, it should look smooth. Proceed briskly up to trot. Hopefully. I have had times where the horse slammed on the brakes and would not proceed down the centre line. They have now convinced themselves that those are actually horse-eating Yetis in the booth and nothing you do will convince them otherwise. You have 30 seconds to get that train back on track or you face elimination. (Cross your fingers and beg the universe that this does not happen to you. I’m not going to lie, it’s embarrassing…and time to remind your horse how much showing costs.)
9. If you’re lucky enough to get all the way down to C, half halt, because the turn at C is a sharp one. Don’t get so close to the end of the ring that your horse is shocked at which way you’re turning. It will look rough and your horse will be unbalanced for the next movement. It’s better to turn too early than too late. (If you think of it, this is a good time to smile at the judge again. My own coach told us we should smile every single time we passed the judge, but personally I think it will make you look like a deranged clown. But, hey, who am I to argue with an Olympian?)
10. Proceed to doing the rest of the movements. It’s helpful to think of riding each one individually instead of a whole pattern. Each movement should be clear and accurate to the letters, with your horse’s nose and your knees as your guide. The horse’s nose should be pointed straight at a letter or your knees should be dictating the movement as you pass the letter. The timing for accuracy depends on each individual horse. Does your horse do transitions exactly when you ask or does he have a more “yeah, yeah when I get to it” attitude? Some require multiple half halts to do a downward transition smoothly and some require a little bit of jazzing up and warning before an upward transition. And remember you are going for accuracy, but not at the expense of smooth, fluid movements. Which leads to the next point…
11. Always remember the foundation principles of dressage. Even rhythm, impulsion and straightness with clear back to front roundness and connection takes precedence over anything else. It is very hard at first to maintain these AND think about shape of figures, accuracy to letters and correct patterns especially when you are in front of a judge, but trust me, it gets easier with practice. Someone once said that you have to go down a thousand centre lines before it gets comfortable. I think it was the Elvis Presley of the dressage world, Kyra Kyrkland who said it. And how much more of an expert can you get than that?
12. You will finish with another centre line. Repeat the process of your opening centre line. Halt. Salut. Give your horse a long rein.
A) If it went well, collapse in tears of joy, because you’re so happy. Pat your horse. Don’t forget to smile at the judge and say thank you.
B) If it was a disaster, collapse in tears of joy, because it’s over. Pat your horse. Don’t forget to smile at the judge, say thank you and slip them $20.