How to Improve Your Dressage Scores
Every dressage rider rides down the centerline with the hope that they will ride a good test and achieve a score to match. However, all too often riders are disappointed with their marks, returning home disappointed and discouraged.
So, what can you do to improve your dressage scores?
Well, as you know, dressage training is more of a marathon than a sprint, and you can’t drastically improve your horse’s way of going overnight. But there are some simple tactics you can employ immediately to improve your dressage test scores.
Here are our 20 top tips that you can use to gain you those valuable extra marks the next time you compete:
BEFORE YOU GO
There’s a lot you can do to improve your dressage scores before you even put your horse on the lorry and drive to the event.
Here are a few simple ways to boost your percentage without even sitting on your horse!
1. Choose a dressage test that suits your horse
When choosing what tests to enter, listen to your horse!
All too often, riders enter a test that is either beyond their horse’s current ability in the hope that it’ll be okay on the day. So, pick a test that contains exercises that your horse can perform well and with confidence.
For example, if you have just begun competing in elementary level tests, make your competition debut with the most straightforward test of that level that your horse will find easy.
2. Don’t upgrade too soon
Never try to run before you can walk!
It’s much better to continue competing at the lower levels successfully than it is to pressurize yourself and your horse by attempting tests that are beyond your current capabilities.
As a general rule of thumb, you should wait until your scores are consistently above 65 percent before moving up to the next level. That way, you will ride down the centerline secure and confident in the knowledge that the level is well within your horse’s comfort zone.
3. Learn your test!
Learn the test thoroughly! That sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many people enter the arena having just quickly looked over the test five minutes before their start time.
That’s not to say that you should ride through the test endlessly at home, as doing so could lead to your horse anticipating the movements, which will lose you marks on the day. However, you do need to know where you’re going so that you can prepare your horse for the next transition, half-pass, medium trot, etc.
If you’re concerned that you might “go blank” on the day, ask someone to call the test for you so that you don’t throw away marks by going wrong.
Related Read: How to Remember a Dressage Test
4. Read the directives
The test directives are shown on the dressage score sheet right next to the movements.
The directives are often used by the judge to justify their marks for that movement. For example, if you see that the judge has underlined “bend” or “lengthening of steps and frame,” that immediately tells you where the marks for that movement were lost.
So, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the directives for each movement. For example, the directive for a serpentine mentions the equality of size of each loop. So, pay attention to the accuracy of your serpentine!
5. Visualize the test
A helpful tactic that will help you to remember the test is to visualize yourself riding it. That way, you can “ride” through the test as many times as you want to at home without the danger of your horse learning it too.
If you’re familiar with the competition venue, it can be extremely helpful to visualize yourself riding a fabulous test in that arena. Once your subconscious mind has memorized that picture, it’s much less likely that you’ll forget your test on the day.
6. Please don’t change!
Never make any changes right before a competition. That includes your way of riding and your equipment too.
For example, don’t decide to wear spurs or use a double bridle if you don’t generally use them at home. Even riding in new boots or a different jacket can affect your performance and upset your horse. If you feel stiff or uncomfortable, you won’t be able to relax and ride to your best ability.
Finally, it’s not a good idea to have a lesson with a new instructor right before a competition. That can leave you feeling confused and trying to change your riding too quickly. Wait until you have plenty of time to process your new coach’s instruction and methods before you attempt to put them into practice in the arena.
7. Leave plenty of time to acclimatize at the venue
If you arrive late at the competition venue, you won’t have time to look around and acclimatize yourself and your horse. Rushing can make you nervous, and that will be transmitted to your horse.
So, always set off in good time so that you’ll have plenty of time to look around the event venue, watch a few tests, and go through your usual warm-up routine before you ride your test.
Related Reads: How to Prepare for a Dressage Competition
RIDING THE DRESSAGE TEST
Most marks are thrown away during the actual riding of the test. Here are some simple tactics that can help you to maximize your scores every time!
8. Ride a good center line and halt
Many riders throw marks away right at the beginning of their test by not riding an accurate, straight center line and halt.
Make sure that you are right on the centerline, not to either side of it. Check the markers so that you ride the halt in the right place. If there is a judge at E or B, they will mark you down for halting early or late.
Practice riding a good halt at home so that you know you can replicate that in the arena. Don’t always halt at X. Practice halting other places in the arena so that your horse doesn’t anticipate always halting at X or G.
Also, make sure that you maintain the halt for a few seconds before moving off. Dressage test directives ask for “immobility” in the halt, so be sure to show it clearly.
9. Look where you’re going!
It’s incredible that so many riders ride the whole test with their gaze fixed firmly on their horse’s plaits!
If you don’t look up and look where you’re going, you haven’t a hope of being accurate. So, from the very first centerline, look ahead and prepare for the halt, turn at C, or whatever movement comes next.
Also, if you’re riding a circle, looking up and around the circle means that your body is subtly positioned in such a way that you are giving your horse a clear turning aid.
10. Be accurate
Many marks are lost through inaccuracy.
Although demanding accuracy can sometimes seem petty, dressage tests are designed to show the judge that your horse is obedient to the aids and that you can, therefore, perform the movements precisely as directed.
So, don’t throw marks away unnecessarily by carelessly riding circles that are too big, too small, or not centered at the prescribed marker. Make sure that serpentines have loops that are equal in size, and that transitions are ridden as your body passes the marker.
11. Keep focused if things go wrong
Everyone makes mistakes, even the greatest dressage riders.
If something goes wrong, put the error behind you and focus on what’s coming up. Don’t become a victim of “rabbit in headlights” syndrome; keep going!
Related Reads: What to do if You Make a Mistake During a Dressage Test
12. Ride the walk properly
Many riders throw marks away by allowing their horse to drop behind the leg in the walk.
Remember that the mark awarded for the walk is often doubled.
Make sure that you keep the horse’s attention and have him marching forward into the bridle, especially in the free walk. Don’t forget to allow your horse plenty of rein in the free walk so that he can stretch, use his back, and cover the maximum amount of ground that his natural stride length allows.
- About The Horse’s Walk Gait in Dressage
- How to Improve the Free Walk on a Long Rein
- How to Stop Your Horse From Jogging When They Should be Walking
13. Give and retake the reins clearly
If the test asks for a give and retake of the reins in trot or canter, make the release of the contact obvious to the judge!
The judge needs to clearly see that you have completely released the contact for a stride or two. All too often, the give and retake happens so quickly that it appears more like a nervous twitch! Blink, and you’ll miss it!
Related Read: How to Ride a Give and Retake of the Reins
14. Smile confidently!
No matter what happens during the test, smile and look confident right through to the bitter end!
In your final halt, look the judge in the eye, smile, and pat your horse. If you look defeated, cross and upset, that may be reflected in the judge’s final marks.
15. Use the whole arena
When you ride your test, it’s amazing how small the arena feels, especially if your horse is tense!
Make the most of every inch of space in the arena by riding deep into the corners, establishing good bend, and putting the horse well into your outside rein. Use that extra space to prepare your horse for every movement.
16. Check your position
Be sure to maintain your position when you’re riding in a competition. Many riders get tense and nervous, so they tighten up. That can cause you to tip forward, look down, or become stiff through your shoulders and arms.
Remember that the mark for the rider includes “position” and “effectiveness.” If you lose your position, you will become less effective, and that mark will be lower as a consequence.
Related Reads: The Correct Position For Dressage
17. Remember to count!
If the test asks you to halt for four seconds, make sure that you maintain the halt for the specified length of time. Many riders barely allow the horse to stop before walking on again, losing marks in the process!
Similarly, if you are asked to show three to five steps of rein-back, make sure that you don’t show two or six!
18. Stick to your usual warm-up routine
Horses are more confident if they have a routine. That applies both to their daily yard routine and to their work.
When schooling your horse at home, work out a routine that makes your horse ready to perform a test, and use that same routine when you’re warming-up at a competition.
19. Ride good transitions
Transitions, including half-halts, are an element of schooling that you will use dozens of times in every home schooling session. So, when you ride a dressage test, don’t neglect the transitions!
The judge will mark the transitions as part of a movement, so don’t neglect that! Make your transitions balanced, round, and fluent, and you’re sure to pick up extra marks right across the board.
20. Use psychology to help you keep your focus
When riding your test, imagine that you are wearing an earpiece through which your trainer is instructing you.
As you ride each movement, “hear” your trainer giving you directions.
For example, before each change of direction and transition, your instructor might tell you to ride a half-halt to rebalance your horse.
Many riders throw away marks unnecessarily every time they compete. You can use our top tips to stop losing those valuable marks by making these simple adjustments each time you ride a test.
Do you have any good tips that help you to maximize your dressage scores? If you do share them with us in the comments box below.
- How to Handle a Poor Dressage Score
- Judge’s Comments Commonly Found on Dressage Score Sheets
- How to be a GREAT Dressage Rider
- How ‘Ordinary’ Horses can Excel in Dressage Competitions