Advice for Dressage Riders New to Showing

Question:I am new to showing dressage. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time memorizing and practicing my tests, what happens if I draw a blank and mess up when I’m in the show ring? What are the penalties for going “off course?” Also, I’ve noticed a few small details at shows that have made me wonder about the rules. Why is the arena centerline dragged for the upper levels but not for the lower levels? If my hat falls off during my test, are there any penalties? Should I continue or stop so someone can return the headgear? And if a horse whinnies during a test, are any points deducted?

Jayne Ayers |

Answer: Every year, new riders begin an exciting adventure by entering their first dressage show. Feeling comfortable riding the test on your horse at home is only the first step in preparing yourself for the big event. It is natural for many questions and concerns to come to mind before and during the show. The definitive place to find answers is in the U.S. Equestrian Federation (formerly USA Equestrian) Rule Book. If you are a member, you receive a copy. The rules also are available online at the Web site

The Rule Book makes it clear that you are allowed to have someone call your test out to you during your ride. You should memorize it, of course, because loud background noise or an incorrect reading of the test will not excuse you from off-course penalties-two points are deducted from your score for the first error; you lose four points for a second error in the same test; a third error costs eight points. After four errors, you are eliminated.

If you go the wrong way, all is not lost. The judge rings a bell to indicate you should stop. He or she tells you where you went wrong and where to start the test again-usually just before the movement where you made the error.

Going off course is not the only error you can make. Posting the trot when you should be sitting or making an incorrect salute also are errors. Instead of alerting you to these errors with a bell, the judge simply deducts points from your score. Article 1922 of the Rule Book gives a complete explanation of errors.

The best way to avoid such errors at Training through Fourth Levels is to memorize your test well. You also can find a good reader and practice with him or her before the show. Using a reader during the competition will greatly reduce your chances of going off course-one less challenge to worry about as you enter the ring.

The dressage section of the Rule Book mentions no penalty for a hat falling off. The rider needs to finish the test, and someone may go into the ring to get the hat after the final salute. You need to leave the arena mounted, but you also may go back for your hat after exiting. Sometimes the judge will invite you to dismount in the arena to get the hat, which is an alternative. A hat on the ground in the arena provides a perfect excuse for your horse to shy, so the best course of action is to secure your hat well before you enter the ring.

The whinny of a horse may or may not cause the score for a movement to go down. If the horse raises or shakes his head in the process, the judge probably will note that the horse came “above the bit” or was “not steady” in that movement. Both are basic faults, which will lower the score for that movement. If your horse stays nicely in your hand, a whinny should not affect your mark.

You, however, are not allowed to talk or use your voice in any way during the test. The Rule Book indicates that this is a “serious fault involving the deduction of at least two marks from those that otherwise would have been awarded for the movement when this occurred.” It is not considered an error and does not accumulate with any errors of course or errors of test. The judge simply crosses out the mark originally given and writes in another mark at least two points lower. The “Remarks” box at the end of your test usually will say “used voice.”

Judges and competitors alike appreciate a well-marked centerline because it makes their jobs easier. Article 1926 says the centerline should be marked in all competitions but must be marked only in certain championship, qualifying and selection classes. Practically speaking, there is generally a shortage of equipment and people power at shows staffed by volunteers. Marking the centerline several times a day in multiple rings is more than most shows can manage. The marking is thus sometimes reserved for international-level classes, since those tests have many movements on or referring directly to the centerline and often have more than one judge. The judges at points other than C need a marked centerline as a reference point to assess accuracy.

These are the types of questions raised by every person, new or not so new, to showing. In addition to the Rule Book, you may be able to find answers from your dressage instructor or from experienced competitors at local shows. An official known as the Technical Delegate (TD) also is available at recognized shows to answer your questions. He or she is a representative of USEF and required to be an expert on all rules. Don’t be afraid to seek out the TD. Most I know welcome the opportunity to help new competitors. They see it as one of the most rewarding aspects of their job.

Jayne Ayers is a USA Equestrian and Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) judge. She has served on the USA Equestrian Dressage Committee, the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Executive Board and as chair of the USDF Sport Horse Breeding Committee. She breeds Westfalens and trains at Hearthstone Farm in Dousman, Wisconsin.

This article is excerpted from Dressage Today, January 2002.

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