Secrets of a Successful, Harmonious Test Ride

United States 'S' dressage judge Charles de Kunffy explains how to focus on your horse instead of movements to achieve a picture of harmony and ease in the ring.

The secret to successful and harmonious showing underlies two principles: First, when riding your test, focus on your horse, not on the movements. Second, warm up your horse appropriately so you can present a fresh horse and evoke a picture of harmony and ease.

Ride your horse and not the test. Too many riders ride from point to point instead of riding their horse. Precision is highly important, especially in Grand Prix, but sacrificing a movement’s quality as well as your horse’s suppleness and calmness just to be precise is a mistake. Riding movements at a given letter is a guideline. It tests the ability of the rider to control his horse and that the horse moves gymnastically correctly, that is in a rhythmic, supple, elastic, suspended and adjustable manner.

I often see that some riders ride movements that didn’t come out well twice. For example, if a rider halts at A and his horse steps back, some riders halt again. However, this will always lower the rider’s score as the judge will always judge the first halt. A halt has to be immobile and not readjusted. Rather, prepare for each upcoming movement as well as possible.

Warm up your horse in a reasonable, efficient manner. The warm-up is an important tool to prepare your horse for the test. An efficient warm-up is based on a system that can be divided into three phases. Between these, give rewards with brief rest periods.

1. Limber up your horse and stretch him over the topline. Limbering up a horse means taking time to seek his own cadence and relaxation. The secret to achieve this is to ride constant changes of direction–utilizing diagonals, circles and serpentines. Perpetual changes of direction make the horse shift his weight from one side to the other with the result that he loosens up. They bring the horse on the aids as they work the horse’s haunches and encourage him to engage his hindquarters.

2. Do gymnastic suppling. This means lengthening and shortening the horse’s posture (topline) by lengthening and shortening his stride. This brings the horse’s focus to the aids and engages his quarters.

3. Review and perfect the exercises. Remember that the purpose is to focus the rider and hone the skills to execute correctly. The horse needs no review of exercises. It is the rider who does.

Avoid drilling certain movements over and over or working with the goal of making the horse tired by exhausting him. Also, if you start out with a stiff horse and try to loosen him up by beginning the warm-up with collected movements, the horse doesn’t have a chance to relax and become loose.

A principle that remains always relevant is “the horse is your clock.” A lower level horse may be warmed-up in about 15 minutes, with a Grand Prix horse it might take 35 to 45 minutes. However, this is a general guideline, which might be different for your individual horse. As a rider with feeling and a good communication with your horse, you know when he is limber, supple and contented.

Gymnastic know-how and preparing the horse properly are the secret for a successful, harmonious test ride. Make your horse supple, move him in rhythm and amplify his gaits to increase suspension. Present a fresh, willing, calm but focused horse to the judge. That’s winning–for the horse but not necessarily a blue ribbon.

Charles de Kunffy is a U.S. Equestrian Federation “S” dressage judge. He judges, gives clinics worldwide and is the author of six books and videos on dressage. His latest book is Dressage Principles Illuminated from Trafalgar Square Publishing. Learn more at

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!