There’s no point in spending hours schooling your horse at home and investing in expensive lessons if you go ahead and throw marks away when you ride a dressage test in a competition! Yet, so many riders do just that.
In this guide, we give you some top tips on how you can avoid losing those precious marks when you ride your next test.
[Please Note: This post was written by a British Dressage judge and although some of these points will be very similar to the rules of other governing bodies, please check the rules and requirements with the governing body that you intend to compete with.]
Don’t throw away marks before you start!
Before you even ride down the centerline, you can potentially lose marks! That’s so frustrating and can easily be avoided by taking on board the following advice:
1 – Arriving late
Allow plenty of time to drive to the competition venue, get the lay of the land when you arrive, and warm up your horse in good time for your test. That might sound obvious, but many riders leave themselves short of precious time.
But did you know that if you turn up late for your test, you may not be allowed to compete, especially if the class is full? If the judge takes pity on you and there’s time, you may be permitted to take an empty slot if there’s a withdrawal later in the class, but don’t take that for granted.
Also, if you arrive late and you don’t have enough time to work in properly, your horse won’t be ready to produce his best work during the test, and you’ll lose marks unnecessarily.
Related Read: How to Prepare for a Dressage Competition
2 – Working in for too long
When you arrive at the competition venue, it’s always a good idea to ask the steward or organizer if the class is running on time before you even unbox your horse. That way, if the class is late, you won’t overcook your horse by working him in for too long, which could lose you valuable marks if your horse has gone off the boil when you ride your test.
Related Read: How Long to Warm up for Before a Dressage Test
3 – Incorrect dress/tack
There are rules and regulations around what items of tack you are permitted to use, which vary depending on whether the event is affiliated, a championship, or a small, local show. Make sure that you know the rules!
At the very worst, you could be eliminated if you use tack that’s not allowed, and in the best-case scenario, you will certainly lose marks.
For example, at affiliated events, you are not allowed to use brushing or overreach boots, and the penalty for doing so is elimination. Of course, if the judge spots the boots before she rings the bell, you may be allowed to remove them before you begin your test. However, it is not the judge’s job to point out incorrect dress and tack to competitors, and in a busy class where time is tight, she may not even notice the forbidden boots until it’s too late.
The same applies to your dress. For example, if you’re riding in an affiliated competition, you must wear gloves. If you forget, you will be deducted two precious marks.
Bottom line: make sure that you know the rules. If you are in any doubt, ask the organizer of the event in good time so that you can make any adjustments as necessary before the day.
4 – Numbers
In some jurisdictions, it’s now a rule that you display your starting number on both sides of your horse. That applies to all affiliated UK events and to some unaffiliated competitions too, where they run to British Dressage rules.
If you have only one number displayed, or no number on show at all, you will lose two marks.
5 – Learn the test!
It’s amazing just how many riders come down the centerline and immediately track the wrong way! That’s an automatic two-mark deduction. Also, taking the wrong course interrupts your concentration and spoils the flow of the test.
So, learn your test thoroughly before the day of the competition, and if you think you might forget where you’re going, ask someone to call the test for you as a backup.
Related Read: How to Remember a Dressage Test
Entering the arena
Did you know that entering the arena before the judge rings the bell could get you eliminated? That’s very easily done if you’re concentrating hard on what you’re doing or if there’s a lot of background noise and you think, wrongly, that the bell has gone. If in doubt, play safe, and politely ask the judge if he or she has given the signal for you to start the test.
First impressions count, so, when you enter the arena, ride accurately down the centerline – not a foot or so to one side of it!
Basically, if you’re on the centerline and your horse is moving straight toward the judge, you should get a good mark. Don’t throw marks away by being inaccurate! Also, your entry sets the scene for the rest of the test. Impress the judge with a good centerline, and you’re off to a great start.
Related Read: How to Ride a Good Center Line
Riding onto the centerline
When turning onto the centerline from inside the arena, look ahead and give your horse plenty of time to make a smooth, balanced turn. If you leave the turn until the very last moment, the poor horse ends up falling around the turn and losing his balance, which will lose you marks, especially if you overshoot the centerline.
The rules for saluting apply whether the salute happens at the beginning or the end of the test or both.
First of all, you must salute the judge. A nod of the head is not sufficient, and neither is no salute at all! To salute correctly, establish a square halt, take your reins in one hand, drop one hand down by your side, and nod to the judge.
Note that if you are a member of the armed forces, and you are riding in your uniform, you must salute as you would do when acknowledging a senior officer.
In all cases, do not salute with your whip in your hand.
If your salute is not performed at all or is incorrect, you will be penalized two marks for an “error of the test.”
Related Read: How to Salute in a Dressage Test
The inaccurate riding of the figures is another big mark loser at all levels in dressage. If the test asks you to perform a 15-meter circle, then make sure that the circle you ride is indeed 15 meters in diameter and that it is centered at the prescribed marker.
Learn the geometry of the arena beforehand, and practice riding the movements accurately at home.
Similarly, if the test asks for a transition to be executed at a specific marker, you must make sure that the transition happens as your body passes that marker. If the transition is late or too early, you will lose a mark or two every time that happens during the test, which will really impact on your overall score.
Related Read: How to Improve Your Dressage Test Accuracy
Ride circles, not “squircles!”
If the test asks for a circle, don’t ride a square or an egg! Think of the circle as a diamond with the points rounded off, and make sure that you have the horse clearly bent uniformly around the circle.
Again, be sure to practice riding accurate, circle-shaped circles in your home arena, using cones to mark out the “points” of the diamond to help your accuracy if necessary.
Related Read: How to Ride a Good Circle
Smooth changes of rein
When riding changes of rein across the diagonal line, don’t make an abrupt turn at the marker and don’t ride straight at the letter on the other side of the arena. Instead, make the turn smooth and fluent by establishing the correct bend through the corner before the marker and riding the turn as if you are beginning a circle.
Aim to reach the track on the opposite side of the arena via a smooth curve, rather than aiming the horse directly at the letter, and then executing a sharp turn.
Use ALL the arena
It’s really important that you maximize all the space available to you in the arena. Cutting corners or riding a foot in from the boards will make the arena feel much smaller than it needs to be.
The more time and space you can create for yourself in the arena, the easier you will find the movements, especially in a busy test where the exercises come quickly one after the other.
Related Read: How to Ride Good Corners
Although you might use your voice to encourage your horse or give him subtle instructions when you’re riding in your home arena, you can’t do that in a dressage test, or you will lose marks.
“Use of voice” is penalized by a loss of two marks each time you do it. So, if you chatter to your horse continually throughout the test, you could potentially lose two marks for every single movement!
Don’t repeat yourself …
If something goes wrong, some riders repeat the movement, hoping to make a better job of the second attempt. For example, if the horse strikes off on the wrong canter lead, which puts him wrong for a half-pass, the rider might circle away to repeat the canter transition, before attempting the half-pass again.
Technically, representing the horse to perform a movement that you’ve already attempted is an “error of course,” which will cost you a two-mark deduction. So, unless you are riding the test as a schooling exercise, if something goes wrong, put that behind you and continue with the test.
Related Read: What to do if You Make a Mistake During a Dressage Test
Give and retake of reins
The “give and retake of reins” exercise is a prime mark-loser! When you ride the “G&R” you should clearly and smoothly release the contact so that the judge can see that the horse is working in self-carriage and not being held into an outline by the rider’s hand.
However, many riders make the G&R so abruptly that it’s more of a nervous twitch than a give and retake! If the judge can’t clearly see that you’ve released the contact over one stride, you will most likely see the comment, “No clear G&R” on your scoresheet with a correspondingly low mark or even a two-mark deduction for an error of course, depending on the judge’s opinion as to whether you attempted the exercise or not.
Related Read: How to Ride a Give and Retake of the Reins
If you’re riding in a dressage to music competition, there are a few ways in which you can lose marks.
- Your test plan doesn’t include all the compulsory movements for the level of test you’ve entered.
- Your test plan includes movements that are not permitted for the level of test, i.e., the work you’ve included is too advanced for the level.
- Your test plan is too long or too short for the prescribed time limit for the test.
- You haven’t shown 20 meters of continuous medium walk, i.e., two 10-meter half-circles at either end of the diagonal line doesn’t fulfill the test requirements.
- You must show a full, continuous 20 meters of a free walk if stipulated in the test requirements for the level.
You must also remember to test and retest your music CD before you hand it to the organizers. If your CD fails on the day, you won’t be allowed to compete.
Related Read: How to Plan Dressage Freestyle to Music in 7 Steps
The above are all ways in which riders lose marks in the dressage arena, all of which are easily avoided with a little forethought and practice.
Are there any other areas where you have lost marks in a dressage test? Share with us in the comments box below.
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