The Unwritten Rules of Dressage Test Riding

Follow these points for each dressage level to improve your dressage test scores.

The members of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s (USEF) Test Writing sub-committee recently had an interesting discussion about dressage test Directives?the brief explanations of what the dressage judge looks for that are printed next to each movement on a dressage test. We wondered how we could make the dressage test Directives more clear? Does anyone even read the Directives? After much discussion, we decided: 1) There are many dressage test movements that dressage riders and dressage trainers don’t really understand how to do and; 2) it would be too lengthy to write a complete description in each little box on the dressage test. These “little rules” are not in the USEF Rule Book either. To that end, I am hoping to share with the Dressage Today audience what I consider the “unwritten rules” of dressage test riding.

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Training Level
Judges like to see symmetry, so in the Training Level tests, where the transitions are between the letters, try to put the upward and downward transitions on both reins in approximately the same place. However, the judges also want to see good basics over accuracy. For example, if you need to make a choice between riding a smooth, obedient transition a little before or after the letter or doing a stiff, crooked transition exactly at the letter, then choose the smooth transition not quite at the right place. It is better for your training. However, if you can be both accurate and have good basics, then your score will go up.

Here is how that looks using numbers: If the transition was an 8 but was a little early or late, I might take off one point, and you would get a 7. Or I might go ahead and give you the 8 with the comment “incorrect location.” That said, the transition must happen from the rider’s aids, no extra credit for a great transition that the horse does on his own. If the transition is exactly at the correct location but the horse gets stiff, crooked and braces his neck, the score is going to be a 5 or 6. So, from a judge, you will only get extra points for accuracy if the basics are correct.

Many riders are not accurate because they do not have access to a real dressage ring. If this is the case, make letters and put them down in your living room. Walk yourself through the test until you know exactly where the letters are and where to start and end each movement. Or put buckets out in your ring at the correct measurements. If you ride in a large ring, you will be shocked at how small the dressage arena really is. But, if your ring is tiny, then you will feel like you have oodles of room! Now, let’s discuss the movements:

Halts: At Training Level, walk steps are allowed into and out of halt. I think three or four steps are OK. Note: this does not mean strides. There are four steps in one stride. Again, the straightness, the quality and obedience of the transitions are more important than if you walk or not. It is fine to trot-halt-trot, but you won’t get extra credit.

What part of the horse should halt at X (or G)? Ideally, the horse’s shoulder to the rider’s knee should be over the letter. However, the horse’s nose to the rider’s knee is OK too. This is perhaps more important when you have a judge on the side. So, imagine there is always a judge on the sides, and you won’t have so much trouble during the USDF/USEF regional championships, where there actually are judges at B and E.

Another unwritten rule: Only salute the judge at C. The C judge is the president of the Ground Jury for the class and will return your salute. Also, if you go off course, go to the judge at C.

Circles: Learn the dimensions of the ring. I often ask riders “how many meters are between the letters.” If they have no clue, I wonder how they ride accurate 20-meter circles. The answer is that they don’t! The worst job at a horse show, in my opinion, is to be the side judge at the regionals during the Training Level championships. All circles are at E and B, and most will be 24-meter ovals, with riders using the RSVP letters as circle points. And, if the first horse puts the wrong footprints in the sand, the rest will follow. The judge must decide whether to ignore this all day or take off a point every time it happens. I think I will buy my scribe a rubber stamp! It is hard to see the exact size of the circle at C, so you may go through an entire show year with no comment about the accuracy, and then be surprised about the deductions at regionals. This is another good reason to ride every test as if there is a judge on the side.

Diagonal lines: To ride good diagonal lines, use the corners. The horse’s nose and shoulder should touch the letter as you leave the corner, and the horse’s nose and shoulder should touch the letter at the end of the diagonal line before you go into the corner.

Corners: At Training Level, there must be corners that do not look like the path a 20-meter circle. A 12-meter corner goes from the corner letter to a point six meters from the corner on the short side. When not on a circle, you are doing straight lines connected by corners.

Free walk and medium walk transitions: As soon as the horse’s nose touches the first letter (example: free walk M-V), start the turn toward V and immediately start to release the reins. You want the longest line possible to show the judge the relaxation and ground cover of your free walk. Do not take up the reins on the last quarterline. Often this is the best part of the walk, and the rider ends up ruining it. Wait until the horse’s nose touches V, then take up the inside rein first as you turn and then the outside rein. This will help keep the horse from stiffening during the transition.

One more word on free walk: It is not how low the head and neck goes that counts. It is the ability of the horse to use his topline and move his neck and back. Do not hold the horse’s head down. This will create stiffness and cost you marks. I must admit I am a bit distressed when my students bring their tests back and the judge’s only comment is about how low the neck should be. Instead, there should be comments about the legs (ground cover, rhythm, activity, etc.) as well as the topline (relaxation, suppleness, frame ?) as they are equally important.

First Level
Although many movements in First Level build on those ridden at Training Level, now the circle size decreases and the difficulty increases. You will be expected to go deeper into the corners, and judges will be stricter about accuracy.

Show transitions at both ends of a movement! Even though at First Level there are no scores for the transitions in the trot lengthening, you should be working on developing them in order to move on to Second Level. Most First Level riders coast through the second corner with no thought about showing a downward transition back to working trot. I usually tell my students to begin the downward canter transition about 12 meters before the letter. So, if the canter lengthening is M-F, then I tell them to check their straightness and start to come back, so at F they are really back to working canter. Most riders at this level start too late and then run through the pokie machine online short end.
Change of lead through the trot: Judges would like to see the trot steps centered over X. How many steps; about three to five. Use the corners, making sure the horse is straight on the line. Trot prior to X, trot over X, trot the same amount past X and then canter in the new lead, making sure the horse is straight. Don’t forget the nose and shoulder must touch the letter at the other end.

Leg yield: When done from the centerline, ride up the centerline and be straight before going sideways. It is cheating to start going sideways as soon as you turn onto centerline. You may start going sideways when your horse’s nose hits the letter G (or D). You should arrive at the ending letter somewhere between your horse’s nose and your knee. You want to show the maximum amount of crossing of the legs that you can. So, if this is a movement where your horse will shine, then wait until your knee hits the letter to begin. This will increase the angle and crossing.

10-meter half circles: For the two 10-meter half circles, be sure to go straight up centerline to connect them. They should be of equal size. Usually, one is too big and one is too small. If your circles are too large, there will be a one-point deduction because you are making it easier. Know the dimensions of the ring, and mark the five-meter points on the circle (see diagram, left). If the 10-meter half circle is at E, for example, it should be centered at E, only going five meters to each side of it.

Serpentines: A three-loop serpentine, width of the arena, actually follows the path of three 20-meter half circles connected by straight lines (see diagram, right). The loops must be equal. There should be a clear change of bend in the horse at trot. You do not go into corners once you start the loop, however, after you finish the three loops, you should go into the corner. If the loop is C-A, you follow the circle line after C and before A. After you finish at A, you go into the next corner.

Second Level
Shoulder-In, travers and renvers: Know where each movement begins and ends, and be sure to finish the exercise. If the test says E-H, then you must straighten at H, rather than riding shoulder-in through the corner. The definition for travers and renvers has changed. Many still ride them as three-track movements, but they are now four-track movements (see drawing, p. 48). Review the drawings and descriptions in the USEF Rule Book.

Simple change: As with the change of lead through the trot at First Level, the walk steps should be centered. Three to five steps (not complete strides) is acceptable. When done as part of a serpentine, the test says “simple change over centerline.” You want to have walk steps prior to centerline, walk steps over centerline and the same amount of steps after centerline before beginning the new canter lead. If the movement is required on the long side at H, then you walk prior to H, walk at H, walk a step or so after H and then canter.

Turn on the haunches: We judges need to encourage riders to do the movement correctly and not give high scores for turns on the haunches that look like walk pirouettes. The track of the hind legs is allowed to cover approximately one meter. Also, pay attention to wording. If it says begin before C then that means before C, not past C, not at C.

Medium trots and canters: Judges expect a higher standard of Second Level riders. There are now scores for the up and down transitions. The judge will have a score in his head for both and come up with an average. If you make a mistake (perhaps the horse canters at the beginning), quickly regain control and show a medium trot. The judge will give you credit for what you did show with a small deduction for the beginning.

This brings me to an important point: Know where each movement begins and ends. If a mistake occurs, try to contain it in one movement. Don’t lose your temper and make a huge correction, which often carries the low score into the next movement, too.

Third Level and Above
Walk pirouettes: Now size does count. Most riders do not understand the concept of shortening (and activating) the walk. It is much easier to turn around a shorter, higher stride than a huge, long one. If you think of this movement as helping the piaffe, maybe you will get a better idea of what the hind legs need to do. If the pirouette is done between letters across the arena (e.g., between M and H), make them close to the rail, which will help set the horse up. Then, make sure you do the other one at a comparable location. Symmetry!

Canter pirouettes: At Fourth Level, the most important part is to show the ability to shorten the canter stride and put more weight on the hind legs. Size is secondary. It becomes more important at the FEI levels. The rule here is that a full pirouette should be six to eight strides. More strides indicate the rider is having trouble with the turning aids. Fewer indicate the horse’s lack of strength to stay in the movement and show the rider’s lack of control. In a half pirouette, the number of strides is three to four.

Half pass: Any half pass that comes from centerline must show straightness first. That would be shoulder-fore. Remember the haunches come onto centerline last, so if you go sideways as soon as the front legs hit the centerline, the haunches will lead. This shows a lack of engagement, and the score will generally remain around a 6. In the half pass, we see a lot of sloppy endings. Horses lose bend and fall to the rail. Get to the rail with the bend, and then change position into the new direction.

Counter canter has as much bend as a 20-meter circle. Riders tend to overbend the neck in the direction of the lead, which puts the horse on the outside shoulder, unbalancing him.

Flying changes: These are ridden a bit more forward than the normal collected canter. If you have a change after a half pass, be sure to finish the half pass exercise in time to ride the canter forward and show a nice expressive change. If the change is on the long side, think of making it as the horse’s nose touches the letter. If you wait until the horse is on a curved line (the corner), you increase the difficulty and likely decrease the balance and the score.

In tempi changes on the diagonal, it is best to center the middle change at X.

Transitions on a diagonal line: If you have an extended or medium canter with a flying change at the end, collect on the second quarterline and ride forward. The front leg of the change should be the first stride to touch the track. If you change in the corner, you will not be balanced or straight and will lose points.

Always read the Purpose of a test, which is listed at the top of each one. The Purpose discusses the basics that will be needed to accomplish the exercises in the test. Remember that accuracy is always secondary to good basics. Your training is finished when you arrive at the show grounds. You are there to demonstrate your training. The judge does not appreciate seeing huge corrections made by riders. If you go back and do a movement again, you will receive an error deduction on your score at the end, and the judge will give you the score you deserved the first time on that movement. This is not golf. No Mulligans!

I hope that reviewing these “unwritten rules” will help you ride a more accurate and higher scoring test next time.

This article was originally published in the April 2010 issue of Dressage Today.

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