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3 Ways to Improve Your Dressage Test Score

dressage tips Jan 09, 2024
dressage arena diagram showing a 20m circle in the middle.

Here are 3 ways you can improve your dressage test scores.

These are mistakes that I myself have made in years past, as well as seen others make either by watching rides or when I have judged schooling shows. While perfection is always a faraway goal, making sure you avoid these common mistakes that are easily fixable can make or break your dressage test and final score. While expectations increase as you go up the levels, these are still items that every level should pay attention to.


1) Make sure your geometry is correct!

This is one of two most important and most common mistakes I see all the time. Your circles need to be circular, your corners need to be corners, and your lines need to be straight (centerline, diagonal, etc.). Additionally, the circles need to be the correct size!

I'd say 9 out of 10 of the riders I judged at a local schooling combined test a while back had issues with their geometry. Most often they either turned too quick and/or let their horse fall in on the circle. This meant that the circle became an oval, or that it became far too small. If you have a 20 meter circle at E, it needs to be a circle, and it needs to be equal at every point. This means touching E, then having a nice sweeping quarter turn to touching the centerline at a point 10m from X, then again a nice even turn to touching B, then again touching the centerline at a point 10m from X, then getting back to E. All on even, symmetrical turns. 

If it helps, you can envision being up in the air and looking straight down at the dressage arena. Your circle needs to be a circle. Not an oval, not a wobbly diamond. And again, it needs to be the correct size (20m versus 15m versus etc.)

It doesn't count if you touch both E and B if you turn too quickly and make it into an oval. 

It doesn't count if you have a perfect circle shape if it was an 18m circle rather than a 20m circle.

Each judge is going to score these issues of size and shape slightly different, but with how little you are being tested on at the lower levels, this is actually a major part of your test - testing the ability to create the correct size and shape. I would score a horse higher who made a perfect 20m circle but moved like a cow above a horse that trotted with springs in its feet but made an 18m oval. 

Moving on from circles, the corners need to be a clear difference from the circle (more on that in the next point), and your lines need to be straight. The more you practice straight lines, the easier it will get. Again, if the horse trots like Valegro but is wobbling side to side down the whole centerline, that would score worse than the typewriter moving horse who executes a perfectly straight centerline. 


2) Showing a difference

I touched on one example of this, but you need to show a difference in your movements. While the depth/angle of your corners increase as you go up the levels, even the most beginner level test needs to show a clear difference between a turn on a circle (say at C), versus turning through the corner between movements. Make sure the judge can clearly see a difference in where you are located in that corner between those two movements.

Another big example where I see people lose points is in their "extension" work. This can be the medium walk versus a free/extended walk, or can be the working trot versus a lengthen/medium/extended trot. Or the working canter versus the lengthen/medium/extended canter. SHOW A DIFFERENCE!

Judges know, especially at the lower/mid levels of eventing and pure dressage, that not every horse is going to be moving as light as a cloud and as elegant as a Grand Prix bound horse. So if you can show a difference on your horse that isn't a great mover, you would score better than the elegant moving horse who doesn't show any differences.

Pro tip/trick: I will slightly collect the trot or canter in the corner before an extension. It is in a spot where the judge can't tell a whole lot, it sets the horse up even better for their movement, and then it also provides an even greater explosion/difference shown as you proceed out of the corner into your extension. As a judge, again especially at the lower/mid levels, you are going to place greater scoring weight on the difference shown versus the quality of the trot (or whichever gait) itself.


At the end of the day, another rule of thumb is that any spectators watching should be able to tell what the movement was without having to look at the test. If you have people wondering whether that was just a regular diagonal or a lengthen trot over the diagonal, then you didn't perform it well enough and didn't show enough of a difference.


3) Being Accurate

This is one of the areas where I gained the most points with my first horse in dressage. She maybe was a slightly above average mover in terms of eventing dressage, but we ended up typically in the top 3 after dressage due to the ability to be extremely accurate on her (as well as her workmanlike consistency).

If your circle starts at E, you better be turning off the wall as soon as you pass it. 

If your canter-to-trot transition is supposed to happen at K, it needs to happen AT K

Now with this, there is some wiggle room at times, at least for the lower levels. Most judges would rather see a well executed, nice transition a stride late versus an ungraceful horrendous transition accurately at the letter. However, with that being said, since your goal should be getting the most points possible, you should be aiming for BOTH of these items. But in the heat of the moment, if you have to sacrifice accuracy slightly, sometimes that is okay. But this is also why the lower level tests typically have transitions happening between letters. It is to give greener horses/riders the ability to perform a good transition and not worry as much about the accuracy of being at an EXACT letter.

Another item that overlaps accuracy with geometry from Item 1 is ensuring that your circles are properly located. It's easy enough to do a 20m circle in a small dressage arena at the ends because your only open end is right at X. It's harder if your circle is in the middle, or even if your circle is at the end but you're in the large (20mx60m) arena. You have to know where your marks are on the centerlines to hit your correct size. For example, see the picture below for where your circle needs to hit if you are in a 20x40 arena with a circle in the middle. Hint: There is no exact marker, so you will have to judge the distance accurately.

Additional hint: make sure you know these distances between letters, because the distances are different from letter to letter versus letter to corner. They are also different in the large arena versus the small arena.


Pro tip/trick: Depending on the arena fence material, most dressage arenas I compete in have single plank boards. Count the number of boards across the short side when you get to the competition or are warming up. Typically there are 5 boards across the short side (see photo below). Which means each board is 4m long. Use this information when planning out your circles, you can count how many full/partial boards you need to go in a certain direction. (Also remember that, for example, a 20m circle is the entire diameter (width) of the circle. So you need 10m on either side of the center, so in this case, you would go 2.5 boards past the center).

Like I said, if you can nail all of these things, it doesn't matter if you have a below-average moving horse. You can rack up points from judges who appreciate a well-executed test over a fancier mover that isn't as well executed.


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