Tips on how to ride a successful dressage test from FEI Judge Andrew Fletcher.

Q: Could you give me some tips on the salute to the judges? Should I smile? When putting one hand to the side, which hand is best?  Just some simple tips to make my entrance and salute better would be great.

A: A good salute should be completed confidently and in good balance whilst your horse is fully immobile. It is very acceptable to smile but not essential. Reins should be taken in one hand with a soft contact. A salute should be taken with the other hand of your choice. Immobility should be kept throughout. The straighter your horse halts, the better quality your halt will be. Use the halt to ensure you are sat upright and well balanced for the test ahead. Go for it!

Q: What makes a dressage test stand out to you?

A: A good standout test will always be in good balance of both horse and rider. Horses who work through a test whilst maintaining good longitudinal and lateral balance will show good levels of self-carriage and suppleness with correct rhythm in all paces. Invisible aids are desirable from a rider who is in complete harmony with the horse. Impulsion from the horse’s hind-legs will always be pleasing to see as long as they’re not being run onto the forehand. Always remember to ride from back to front, meaning impulsion from the hindlegs to an elastic rein contact that helps balance the horse and manage energy.

Q: How can I perfect my square halt at the end of a test?

A: Good square halts are achieved through horses arriving in good balance and ideally not against the hand. Try to keep active hind legs whilst collecting into downward transitions. Progressive halts are fairer to your horse in the early days and at new levels. Get into the habit of always correcting your halts whenever you know they’re not square. Use mirrors and eyes on the ground from a helper. Look down at your halts if needed and train your horse to react his legs to your corrections.

Q: I sometimes don't really understand the comments on my test sheet - is it acceptable to approach the judge and ask? 

A: Understanding the judges summary at the end of your dressage sheet is essential and one of the most important areas of the test sheet. All judges are trained to sum up the test in the box at the end of the test sheet, named: ‘Judge’s Comments’. The summing up comments should be factual and therefore reflect the actual test, ideally outlining good areas and maybe give a pointer to weaker areas along with possible future improvements. 

If you do not understand the comments, then you should definitely approach the judge for a polite discussion after the class has finished, www.dressageonline.org can put you in touch with the judge from your class. Judges are encouraged to discuss tests, we all love the sport and if judges can help a rider improve and grow in confidence then we are doing our job correctly.

Q: I am really nervous to move up a level, how do I know when my horse and I are ready?

A: Being ready to move up a level is not an exact science. Ideally you should feel confident at the current level and address any gaps in your horse’s training you feel may be there, gaps in the basic training often bite you later on.

At this point ensure you have a full understanding of the new level including knowledge of the movements required to perform. If finances permit and you feel you are performing the test reasonably well on your own then you should consider attending a BD test riding clinic in your area, this will enable you to ride the test and be judged by a BD listed judge who will give you an idea of the marks of each movement. They may also help with ideas of improving any weak areas. It is well established that repetition is a proven way of developing horses, so ensure you practice your test, as practice makes perfect!

Q: My horse definitely has an issue with the judges’ box. Do you have any tips on how to handle this? I do try and ride past several times before the test but he still spooks when he can.

A: Personally, I would use inside flexion with a rideable inside leg, flexing your horse away from problem areas to reduce spooking. A gradual approach to a problem works better than tackling the issue head on. Your approach should be to help your horse cope rather than frighten him more by giving the problem area too much of your attention. Keeping the ride-ability is more important than going head on to the problem. As a judge I would rather see a combination give a slightly wide birth and lose a mark or two for accuracy than see horses put the brakes on fully. Also, consider using a table at home or in the arena you ride in.