Improving Your Dressage Scores - Part 1

You halt, salute and as you exit the arena in your best 'free walk on a long rein', you find yourself wondering how well your dressage test went...  That one circle may have looked a little more on the triangular side, but on the plus side you aced the canter leads each time and you're almost sure the halt was a square one.  However, when the actual test scores are handed out, you realise things did not go that well - at all!

Riding a dressage test can be a nerve wrecking endeavour at the best of times.  Firstly there is learning the test and then having to ride the actual movement while thinking about preparing the next movement, there is a lot going on both physically and mentally.  All this while keeping a grin pinned to your face (memories of that pony club instructor drumming it into you that judges like to see you enjoying yourself!).  Add this to the fact that your trust team mate, your horse, might have other ideas about how to impress the judges with his athletic abilities...

You can listen to this episode of the Daily Strides Podcast HERE >>

Dressage can often seem very clinical, with the comments and accompanying scores from the judges often repeating themselves over and over regardless of the test or day it was ridden on.  However, if the same movements are consistently producing the same comments, perhaps the judges might have a point?  So, taking that into account and working on the items that are showing up for you each test, here are some other simple tips you can begin implementing today that will help you to improve your overall scores and feel better after your next test.

1. Plan your warm up

Preparation is everything and this is also true for better results with your dressage test.  Even if your next test is months away, begin now on finding the best warming up sequence for you and your horse.  Focus on exercises that encourage relaxation as well as responsiveness.  Also exercises that help your horse to loosen up and become supple through his body.

Often the difference between a mediocre and a good test is the amount of time and preparation spent warming up.  A few circles and transitions is not enough to really have you both ready to ride a great test when you enter the arena

Also, remember to keep in mind that different circumstances which are outside of your control may necessitate you having to have a few different warm up plans ready.  Factors such as wind, the length of time travelling to the competition grounds, the horses you are sharing the practice arena with all can affect both you and your horse.  Take the time to figure out what exercises work best to overcome those different challenges and help you both to relax and concentrate on the task at hand.

2. Practice the actual entrance

So like many things in life, first impressions count and with dressage, the first impression is how you enter the ring right up to when you track left or right at the top of the arena.  Very often we practice over and over how straight we are on the centerline and also, how straight and square our halt is.  These things are really important, but if the 'turn' itself into the arena is not a great quality bend, it will take the first few strides of your journey up the centre line to sort out and fix.  This will leave you with less focus and preparation for your halt.  I suggest laying out a mock 'A' with mock ends and corners the the arena and practice firstly establishing a good, forward going gait before you 'enter' and also, the bend as you enter to make sure you are on the centre line from the word go.

Also, make sure that the quality of the gait you enter in is one which you intend to continue on with

Many riders tend to use the time before they hear the bell to show their horse any 'spooky' objects around the arena.  I suggest if you can, work on desensitizing your horse at home, so you can use the minute or two before you enter A to really establish focus and forwardness in your horse.  Of course, new situations will always have the potential for your horse to react in a different way, but working through different scenarios and 'spooky objects' at home will not only help desensitise your horse, but also help you figure out the best way to regroup and refocus your horse if he should have a 'moment' in the arena.

Improving Your Dressage Scores

3. Quality of Transitions

With all the stress and nerves surrounding remembering and riding your dressage test, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about your transitions as merely a way to get from A to B (with the A and the B being the important parts of the equation).  However transitions make up quite a large percentage of the scores in your test and are key to riding a good A or B at all!  The first transition you will meet is usually the one into the halt on the centre line.  Take the time to practice this, not just the straightness and squareness of the halt, but also how your horse 'steps down' into the halt and then, how he propels or pushes himself out of the halt into whichever gait you choose.

Work on refining your aids, the more subtle the better, and also how responsive your horse is both preparing for, during and riding out of any transition.   This is a part of your test where a point here or there can make a big difference to the overall score at the bottom of the sheet.

4. Understanding what the judge is looking for

We all think of accuracy as being 'hitting the markers' and this is true, but I find that very often accuracy is also reading the test correctly beforehand so you understand what the judge is looking for with each separate movement.

Very often riders try to run before they can walk regarding what they expect from their horse in dressage

The temptation to look at higher level horses and riders and then try to emulate them in lower level tests is always present.  However, it is important to keep in mind that depending on the level of the test, trying to 'skip ahead' without getting the basics correct is a recipe for disaster.  A good example of this is lower level riders who are obsessed with their horse's 'head carriage', rather than working on encouraging relaxation, rhythm, balance and a sense of forwardness.  Another hang up of riders is aiming for a lot of self carriage by fixing their horses into a stiff frame, rather than focusing on straightness, a consistent contact and impulsion.

The dressage levels are created for a specific reason; to build strong foundations and then, with each progressive level, another layer of sound training from which both horse and rider can grow from

Take the time when learning and then riding the test to figure out what the judge is looking for with your particular level and then working towards delivering exactly that to the best of your abilities both in your warm ups and when performing the actual dressage test in the arena.

5. Create mental 'checkpoints' to help you refocus

Imagine if there was a speaker in your ear, that every once in awhile reminded you to carry yourself, or half halt, or whatever it is that you forget to do, but makes all the difference to you and your horse when you do it.   Well, this is possible however, the 'speaker' will be a voice in your own head.  I suggest using the corners as your 'checkpoints'.  Every time you ride through one, you will mentally remind yourself to check that you are indeed doing (or  not doing as the case may be!) that one thing that makes all the difference.  Make this a habit every time you ride.  Begin with consciously saying it out loud as you ride into each corner and later, it will become second nature to you as you ride your schooling routines or dressage test.

Using the corners as checkpoints will also ensure that you pay attention to riding every corner, which can be a game changer when riding a whole dressage test

The corners are the easiest place to rebalance and make any small adjustments necessary to keep your horse working with you for the duration of the test, and because they appear so often, this will ensure that both you and your horse are focused throughout the performance on the job at hand.

There are many ways to improve your dressage scores.  Keep in mind that a few points here and there are what make all the difference to the overall scores.  Also, try to improve marginally from one test to the next, perhaps 2 or 3 points on each outing.  This way you will make your overall goal of reaching the next level an attainable one, but also a sustainable one.

Dressage is more like a marathon than a sprint.  Pace both yourself and your horse, master the basics and from there, you will begin to see the results you want at the end of each score sheet.

Happy Riding

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