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The 3 Most Common Mistakes Riders Make In Their Dressage Tests And How To Avoid Them

Sep 14, 2023
dressage arena with arrows showing to turn inside the letter A

Aside from watching countless dressage tests at competitions, teaching dressage lessons, and making my own mistakes over the years, I also had the opportunity to be the dressage judge for a local schooling show/ride-a-test earlier this year. All of these experiences have given me a solid insight into what are the most common mistakes I see happen at the lower levels of dressage. 


20 meter circles

For the love of god, PRACTICE YOUR CIRCLES! This is by far the biggest issue I’ve seen. Your circles need to be:

  1. Circular, not ovular or rectangular - this means each step should have the same amount of turning. 
  2. 20 meters (for most lower/mid levels), which means they go from side to side of the arena, and halfway down the length (in a small 20x40 arena)
  3. In the correct location


I would say the most common mistake is that riders get too much in a hurry to turn, which makes their circle into an oval. They know that it has to touch each longside, but they forget about making it 20m wide on the centerline points. At the ride-a-test I judged, this is probably what I worked on with 80%+ of the riders after their test, during the feedback portion. Everyone was shocked when I walked and stood to where the open side of their circle should be touching on the centerline, particularly for a 20m circle that is located in the middle of the arena at E or B. The riders doing tests with a 20m circle at A or C were somewhat more successful since it was easier to aim at X, although they still sometimes had trouble actually going all the way to X on that side of their circle.


I think a big part of the hurry to turn is probably nerves making riders want to rush the movement, followed by not knowing how wide/far to go down the arena (particularly for circles in the middle), and then finally followed by their horse falling in against their inside leg.

You can address these issues and practice your circles in a few ways:

  • If you have access to a correctly sized/set up dressage arena, you can easily aim for the correct spots within that. (See figure below for knowing where the points of your 20m circle at E/B should reach)
  • Even if you don’t have access to a dressage arena, you can set up guides/spots to aim for to understand the 20m shape and size. This can be just about anything: cones, poles, etc. Take a tape measure and measure out the 4 points from a middle spot. (FYI the conversion into feet is about 65’7” for 20m, or about 32’8” for a 10m length, i.e. from middle of circle to each point on the outside).

As another helpful hint, depending on the style of dressage arena, you can use the poles/planks to gauge your position. You can look at the short side of the arena by the judge. Typically, there are 5 planks/poles down the short side. This means each plank/pole is 4m long. You can then use this information for many movements, including your circle in the middle of the arena. A 20m circle means that you go 10m to each side of the letter. If your circle starts at E, and there is a joint in the planks at E, then each point of your circle on the centerline should be 2-½ planks (2.5 planks x 4m each plank = 10m) away from E.


There are 2 common issues on centerlines: a lack of straightness and turning too late. I believe that a lot of the lack of straightness boils down to 2 factors: 

1) Riders don’t ride off the rail at home enough, so they rely on an arena rail for straightness, but that isn’t there to help you when going down a centerline.

2) Riders get too concerned and busy with their hands while on the centerline. Either from trying to steer and control the horse, or keep the horse in a frame. 


We can fix these two causes fairly easily at home: practice riding off the rail in a straight line more often, and when you do so, make sure you are keeping quiet/steady hands, keep them in unison (act like they are fixed together and can’t move separately), and push the horse straight with your legs.


The second common issue with centerlines is turning too late (which also has an effect on your straightness!). Horses cannot turn 90 degrees on the spot. Typically I don’t see much of an issue with tests that have a half circle onto the centerline. The mistakes come into play when you have a ¼ turn onto the centerline from the short side of the arena to finish your test, as well as when you initially enter the arena to begin your test.

As far as a ¼ turn at the end of the test, make sure you start turning early enough so that your horse ends up straight onto the centerline. Don’t wait until you reach the letter, it is too late at that point. 


In terms of initially entering the arena, the biggest tip I can give is that you should ALWAYS turn *in front* of the letter A. (See image below) This allows your turn into the arena and onto the centerline to be nice and straight. If you turn and go around the letter A to enter the arena, you are forcing yourself to make an S-turn which will increase the wobbliness of your line and present a not-so-great picture to the judge.

Additionally, by turning in front of the letter A, you are able to 100% control exactly where you end up on the centerline. What I mean by that is that even if your turn is slightly early, you can apply inside leg to take a leg yield step or two to get over to the centerline before you officially start the test. If you go around A, you are weaving back and forth too much and creating tension in your horse’s way of going, which is not a good first impression!

Showing Differences

This next mistake I see most often in terms of corners and lengthenings: showing a difference.

For corners, even at the lower levels, the judge should be able to tell whether your corners are corners, or whether they are part of a circle. These two movements should not look the same. This means you should be going further into the corner when it is a corner, while making the entire shape even and rounded if it is part of a circle.

Upper levels should have a deeper corner, but regardless, all levels should be able to show a difference between a 20m circle and a corner. See image below for example.


Technically a corner isn't ever a true "corner". But in essence just a quarter of a smaller circle, as your horse cannot turn in 90 degree shifts. 

The other “big item” that I see most commonly done is that riders do not show a difference between their working trot vs lengthen trot, and their working trot vs “stretchy trot”.

While judges are not expecting you to perform these movements like Valegro, they still expect to see a difference. And at the lower levels, showing a difference (and being accurate in your execution) is going to score way better than having a flashy horse yet not showing differences and not riding accurately.

When lengthening trot, the dressage judges want to see the horse clearly covering more ground than in their regular working trot. 

Also important to note, it should be about *ground cover*, not speed. 

When performing a “stretchy” trot, your horse’s head and neck should be clearly lower and further out than their head/neck location in working trot.


So there it is, the 3 most common mistakes I see at the lower/mid levels of dressage. Take this information home, practice your circles, centerlines, corners, and showing differences! If you can do those 4 things decently well and accurate, you don’t need an insanely flashy horse, you will gain major points from the judge for being accurate and executing well.

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