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How to Plan and Prepare for a Dressage Competition

plan and prepare dressage test competition

Competing requires preparation, not only on the day of the event but also in the days preceding it.

The level of success you achieve can be significantly impacted by the amount of time and effort you devote to your preparation.

So, in this article, we will cover why diligent preparation is essential if you are to give your best performance between the whiteboards, and what you need to do to ensure that you and your horse are perfectly prepared and primed for action. 

Why spend time preparing?

Before we delve into the how, let’s first take a look at the why

Here are five reasons why you should spend time preparing yourself and your horse for a competition. 

Reason 1 – Makes the day run smoother

For most people reading this, dressage is probably your hobby and, therefore, attending a competition should be a fun day out with your horse. 

Ensuring you have everything you need to hand and have trained and prepared sufficiently makes for a smoother day that you can get more enjoyment from. 

Reason 2 – Creates a positive experience for your horse

The more prepared you are, the more relaxed you’ll be. This will help you ensure you can give your horse a positive experience so that he, too, enjoys competing. 

It also helps you to make sure that you have everything that you need to keep your horse comfortable while he’s traveling and competing away from home. 

Reason 3 – Increases your confidence 

The better you know your test and the movements involved, the more confident you will be when riding it. You’ll be able to give your horse clearer aids and prepare and position him correctly for each movement which, in turn, will help your horse feel more relaxed and confident. 

Overall, it will lead to a more harmonious performance. 

Reason 4 – Eliminates (or at least reduces) “flapping”

Flapping happens when you’re running late and still have a million and one things to get through. It’s a mix between rushing, panic, and stress. 

Ensuring that you have all your necessary equipment, arrive at the venue on time, and know your test inside and out, can help reduce the chances of you getting into a “flapping” state.  

Reason 5 – Better test scores

Of course, all of this preparation results in you leaving the dressage arena with a better test score than if you didn’t prepare. 

Remember that, in most cases, competitions are won or lost before you even ride down the centerline. 

Planning and preparing 

Your planning and preparation can be broken down into the following three parts. 

  1. The test
  2. Transport
  3. Tack and equipment 

Let’s go through each one individually. 

1 – The test

Your first step is to ensure that you pick a suitable test for both you and your horse. 

You should compete at one level below what you currently train at home. For example, if you are training at British Dressage Novice level at home, you should be competing at British Dressage Preliminary level. This helps to make sure that your horse is easily capable of the movements in the test. 

If you ask your horse for a movement that he is still learning or developing at home while in an unfamiliar environment under the additional pressures of competition, he isn’t going to be able to show his best work, and it may lead to tension and mistakes. 

A dressage test is not the place for you to train your horse how to do movements. Instead, a dressage test is a place to show what you can already do. 

Next, you need to learn your test inside and out. And by this, we don’t just mean to learn where you are going. You need to learn how to ride it. So, you need to:

  1. Look at each individual movement.
  2. Make sure you know how to ride each movement correctly. 
  3. Know what the judge is looking for when they judge that movement and what they need to see to give you top marks. 

For example, if your test asks you to ride a give-and-retake (1), this involves you yielding your contact forward and pushing your hands toward the bit for a couple of strides (2). The dressage judge will be looking to see a clear visible looping of your reins and that your horse maintains the same rhythm, outline, balance, and speed (3). 

Related Read: How (And Why) To Ride a Give and Retake of the Reins

Lastly, you need to plan your ride. Think about what areas of the test your horse can do really well and how you maximize your scores for those movements. 

TIP: Visualization is a powerful tool many professional riders use to help improve their performance. Visualize yourself riding the perfect dressage. 

Don’t simply rush through the test in your head. Instead, focus on every step and every aid; where you’re going to apply your half-halts, where you’re going to change your bending aids, where you’re going to change the weight in your seat bones, etc. 

Picture the arena and see yourself riding every single movement perfectly. Throughout the whole experience, you’re smiling, the judge is smiling, and even your horse is smiling! Many top riders use this strategy, and it is incredibly effective.

2 – Transport

Ensuring your horse arrives at the venue safely and comfortably will help him perform at his best. 

Don’t leave it until the day of the competition to check your transport, especially if it has been sitting in the corner of your yard for several months over winter. 

If you have a lorry, you must ensure its engine turns on! A flat battery or some dead spark plugs on the morning of your dressage test will be a bad start to the day and may result in you having to withdraw, forfeiting your entry fees. 

It’s also advisable to check that all the lights are working, the tire tread and pressure are satisfactory, and your mode of transport is safe and secure for your horse to travel in. If it’s not safe (or if you are unsure), then this gives you plenty of time to hire the services of a mechanical professional. 

TIP: Fill up with fuel before the day of the competition. Leaving this job until the day of your test provides more opportunities for things to go wrong and for you to be delayed.

Lastly, plan your route. Make sure you know where you are going, how long it will take, and that all the roads you intend to use are accessible by your vehicle. 

3 – Tack and equipment 

Ensuring you have the right tack and equipment on the day can make or break an otherwise promising performance. 

Remember that dressage competitions have rules regarding what tack you are permitted to use on your horse and what clothing you are permitted to wear, both for the test and during warm-up. If you are unsure, check the rule book of the organization that you intend to compete with, as failure to follow these rules can result in lost marks or total elimination. 

TIP: Whatever tack you intend to use in competition, try to use the same tack when schooling at home. Changing bits and bridles on the day of a competition can cause problems because you will be riding your horse in an unfamiliar piece of tack in an unfamiliar environment. 

To help ensure you remember everything, make a list of all the items you need to take with you. This should include the obvious things such as saddle, girth, bridle, riding boots, and show jacket, but also include the equipment you need to keep your horse comfortable such as forage, rugs, bedding, feed, grooming supplies, and first aid kit. Also, remember to include things for yourself, such as a change of clothes, waterproof layers if rain is forecasted, and a packed lunch. 

On the morning of the competition, go through your list and physically tick off each item to make sure you’ve not forgotten anything. 

Your competition countdown

To help you prepare, here’s a run down of what you should be doing in the run-up to a competition. We have broken it down into the following: 

  1. A few weeks before your competition 
  2. A few days before your competition
  3. The day before your competition
  4. The day of your competition 

1 – A few weeks before your competition 

Book a lesson with your trainer so that you can run through the test with them.

If possible, have a trial run where you plait your horse, wear your show attire, warm up, and ride through the test as though it were a real competition. To make it even more realistic, you could hire a local arena and travel your horse to the venue. 

Having your trial test videoed from the judge’s position at ‘C’ is also a good idea so that you and your trainer can critically appraise your performance. This will give you a good idea of what areas you need to improve upon and if any tricky areas of the test catch you out. 

2 – A few days before your competition 

In the days before your test, don’t over-practice. Your horse may begin to learn the test, which can lead to him anticipating some of the movements, and that will lose you marks on the day.

Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Anticipating

If there’s a particular movement in the test that’s not going so well, don’t get too hung up on trying to perfect it. At this point, it’s probably too late to fix it for your test, and you risk souring your horse with endless schooling. So instead, during the test, just present that movement as best as you can and accept that you won’t get top marks for it.

Lastly, keeping your horse fresh by varying his exercise routine is also a good idea. For example, if your horse enjoys hacking, take him for a relaxing ride to keep his muscles loose. Perhaps lunge instead of schooling on one day, or pop a few small rails if your horse likes jumping. But whatever you do, don’t drill him in the run-up to your test. 

3 – The day before your competition

The day prior, you should have everything ready. Gather all your equipment and pack what you can into your transport. 

Double-check your dressage test time(s) with the venue and make sure you know the schedule of events. You can then work backward and calculate your timings to create a schedule for the following day. For example: 

  • 10:30 am – Ride down the centerline smiling. 
  • 30 minutes to warm up.
  • 20 minutes to tack up and get changed.
  • 20 minutes to arrive at the venue, declare, and get your bearings.
  • 1 hour to drive to the venue. 
  • 20 minutes to load. 
  • 45 minutes to plait up and groom. 
  • So, you need to be at the yard by 7:15 am.

Lastly, get to bed! You must be well-rested. Staying up late and trying to function on only a few hours of sleep is not going to help you give your best performance. A lack of sleep is also more likely to leave you irritable and forgetful.  

4 – The day of your competition

At this point, you should have done everything you could have possibly done to prepare. You have your plan for the day; all you need to do now is follow it and stay on track. 

TIP: Aim to arrive at the venue early so you have plenty of time to get organized, warm up, and get ready for your test. It’s much better to arrive 1 hour earlier than 10 minutes late. This will help to keep you calm and give you time to focus. 

Lastly, stay positive throughout the day. Remember that it’s not about winning, but performing your best, gaining experience, and having a fun day with your horse. 


In conclusion

Planning and preparing for a dressage test is crucial for achieving a successful and enjoyable competition experience. It can help you and your horse perform better, feel more confident and relaxed, and improve your partnership and communication in the arena.

Focus on the three areas of planning; your test, transport, and equipment, and make sure you are doing the right things in the run-up to your competition. 

After you’ve got a few competitions under your belt, you’ll soon fall into a tried and tested pre-competition routine, which will eventually be reflected in your riding.

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