Riding Dressage Tests:
Some Hints and Tips
Many riders find memorising dressage tests difficult and sometimes even
impossible.   It may comfort you to know that even the most experienced
competitors go "off course" at times, usually after a disobedience on the
horse's part, or a distraction outside of the competition arena.
The following tips for memorising tests come from several sources,
including Jennie Loriston-Clarke, Hilda Gurney, and Jane Savoie.
Each have vast experience in the dressage competition arena.
- Practice the tests on foot.   (Jennie says she does this in
her house, cantering the canter movements, and so on.)
- Ride the tests in your mind, preferably somewhere quiet, such
as in bed before you fall asleep.   Imagine the tests in exactly
the normal tempo and movement of your horse.   Don't do the test in
less than 4 or 5 minutes.   Feel the movements in your mind.
Lightly twitch your muscles as you apply the aids.   Check for any
tension in your thoughts and in your muscles, and identify the sources
of this tension.   Work to remove the tension and improve the use
of your aids.
This method of training, called Psychocybernetics, is a way
for the rider to help train her muscles, brain, and nerve cells to
ride without actually being on a horse.   Believe me, it works!
(Read "That Winning Feeling!"by Jane
Savoie, if you'ld like to learn more about psychocybernetics.)
- Try to ride a couple great tests first (aim for the 80's or 90's).
- Next, allow for poor transitions and work out how to react and
get back on track.
- Imagine your horse spooking in various situations and how you will
handle each occurance.
- Imagine lots of outside distractions and a huge audience!
- Finish with a good, happy test, something within your horse's
- Try memorising tests in chunks instead of by movement number.
Only the judge needs to know where each movement starts
- Once you get more experienced, learn the start and end points
of each movement.   Then, if you are blowing movement 14, for
example, you'll know exactly how much time and arena space you have
to correct the situation in order to aim for an 8 on movement 15.
- Give movements useful nicknames.   For example:
- One loop 5 metres in from the track   ==>
- Half circle right 10 M diameter, half circle left 10 M
diameter   ==>   "Little S"
- Half circle right 20 M diameter, half circle left 20 M
diameter   ==>   "Big S"
- 1/2 circle left 15 M diameter, returning to track between
B and F   ==>   "Teardrop"
- HBK - Free walk on long rein   ==>   "V Walk"
- Each test has a "personality", its own signature and identity.
When memorising tests, finding a few key points will help you remember
the tests long term.   For example, using PRE-2002 British Dressage
- Prelim 4   ==>   "1 trot diagonal, 2 walks"
- Prelim 6   ==>   "3 centerlines, and busy
- Prelim 10   ==>   "Teardrop test"
- Prelim 14   ==>   "Avoids E (until near the end)" or "Soft S
/ Big S test"
- Prelim 18   ==>   "Forever trotting"
- Figure out if the test is symmetric or asymmetric.   Does the first
half ride like the 2nd half?
- Note where the trot circles are and where the canter circles are.
You'll notice a basic pattern here.
- Think in terms of "away from the judge", "towards the judge",
"far from the judge", and "near the judge".
Don't Throw Away Valuable Points
Judges look for the basic way of going of the horse; quality of the paces.
However, beyond that, there are a lot of points that can be gained by
- Learn the geometry of the arena and put it to good use:
- 20 metre circles should be round, not square nor diamond.   Circles
should only touch the long and short sides for one stride, two at
- Use the corners to balance and collect the horse.   Don't cut off
the corners nor run through them.
- 3 loop serpentines, side to side, in a 40 metre arena should
consist of three 13.3 metre loops.   Most riders end up with two
large loops and one small loop.   Judges can see this easily and
will mark down for poor geometry.
- Have someone command (read) the test for you if you are overly
nervous.   However, be forewarned that if you can not hear the
commander due to weather conditions or background music (which
can sometimes include vocals!), or if the reader misreads the
test, the judge expects you to know the test and will mark you
accordingly if you go off course.
- If you're going to carry a whip, use it when the horse needs it.
Too often, judges see when the horse could use a bit of encouragement
with the whip, but the rider is too nervous to actually use it.
Riders can earn points in the Collective Marks, under "Rider", for
proper use of the whip.
- Don't wear spurs unless you know how to use them properly and have
good control over your lower legs.   Again, a potential "7" or "8"
"Rider Score" can get dropped to a "6" or less for improper, or
worse yet, unintentional use of the spurs.
- Rise in the trot at Preliminary and Novice levels, unless you are
great at sitting the trot and still allow your horse to move with
freedom.   Judges rarely comment on score sheets when sitting work
is done badly enough to interfere with the horse's movement, but
they often whisper it to their writer!   The judge may, however,
lower the "Rider Score" for a poor or ineffective seat.
- If your horse is well on the outside rein, light in the hand,
in front of your legs, and is in self-carriage (collectively called
"through"), show it off to the judge!   Slightly give the inside
rein momentarily in canter when the judge can see it.   (A variation
of this - with both hands giving the reins - is required in some
dressage tests.)   Don't do this if you are carrying your horse
or playing tug-of-war!
- Consider visiting the venue (competition location) ahead of time
to get a feel for the place, the potential distractions, and the
placement of the arena and judge for use in your psychocybernetic
Above All Else
Expect your dressage test, away from home, with the pressures of competition,
and under the watchful eye of a judge, to be only partly
as good as what you would get at home when no one is watching!
Knowing this, many competitors compete one level lower than what they are
actually working at home.   So, don't be surprised if at a novice level
competition you see some horses warming up doing counter-canter and simple changes.
Whenever possible, get used to riding in front of an audience.   It makes
competition that much easier and less stressful!   One less thing to tense
up about... and most likely, you'll get higher marks since you'll be able
to better focus on your test and not on who's watching you!
If something's not ready by competition day (a movement or a transition),
don't sweat it.   Stressing yourself and your horse! by trying to
train the solution on showday backfires nearly everytime.   Do what you can
and school the missing bits when you get home.   Keep competition day as
stress-free as possible for both yourself and your partner.   Aim to make
Finally, don't waste too much useful energy getting overly nervous.
Remember, it's just a dressage test, not an Olympic Trials competition.
Keep things in prospective...   World Peace is not riding on your score.
I hope this has been helpful to you.   Enjoy Your Next Competition!