Preparing for a dressage competition

Preparing for a dressage competition

Whether you’re aiming for your first unaffiliated event, or a championship show, preparing for a dressage competition requires a certain amount of preparation. We discuss how to get you and your horse primed for action between the white boards.

A good dressage test requires precision, harmony and relaxation from both you and your horse – the last thing you want is to be flustered and stressed going down the centre line. As the saying goes, by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail, so by planning ahead and preparing well beforehand, you’ll not only feel more confident about your test, but your horse will be more relaxed and able to perform at their best.

So, how do you get you and your horse primed for action? Read on for some helpful tips on how to prepare for a dressage competition.

Learn your test

A vital piece of preparation before a dressage competition involves learning your test and where each movement needs to take place. Everyone learns and retains information differently, so find a way that suits you best and practise reading through your test. A few ways to help learn your test include:

Draw it out

If you’re a visual person, drawing out your route can help you learn your test. Draw the outline of an arena on a white board including the markers, and draw out your route so you get an idea of where each movement needs to take place. It helps break down each move of the test into smaller, manageable pieces, and you could use different colours for the different paces.

Visualise your test

Many riders use visualisation to help learn their test; visualising the test as patterns in the arena. Try closing your eyes and imagine riding through the test, visualising the markers and where your movements will take place and at which pace. Imagine the aids you will use and how you would like your horse to perform. Try to avoid imagining what you don’t want to happen, and visualise in real time to really retain the information.

Talk yourself through the test

Talking through your test out loud is a good way to retain the information, and using language that you feel comfortable with, rather than the technical jargon, will make the test so much easier to remember. You could even record yourself talking through your test so you can listen back to it when you are mucking out.

Ride through the test on foot

Some riders like to actually walk through the test on foot, which can be done anywhere that has enough room to plot out a mini arena. Once you have plotted out your arena and know where your markers are, you can physically walk, trot and canter your way through the test.

Watch others

There are tonnes of videos of riders performing dressage tests available to watch on the internet, so why not grab a cup of tea and watch others riding their competition horses through the test? Not only will it help you learn the test, but it might also give you some insight into how each movement should be ridden, especially if you’ve not ridden through it before.

Practise movements

Once you have learnt your test, you will next need to practise riding it at home. ‘Start by riding each movement individually, and once you feel comfortable, you can then start to string movements together into short sequences,’ says Grand Prix dressage rider and trainer Stef Eardley. ‘Accuracy is key, so practise being as precise and on the markers as possible.’

While riding through your whole test a few times is advantageous, don’t overdo it, as your horse may learn to anticipate certain movements, which could affect their rideability and relaxation.

Key movements to practise include riding down the centre line and halting.

‘Focus on your horse’s straightness by riding them equally between both legs, thinking of sitting tall with level shoulders, keeping your own position straight, and focusing on riding towards the end marker,’ says Stef. ‘Aim for a square halt by collecting the horse, sitting tall through your upper body, keeping your weight down through your seat and into your heel, and ask your horse to halt. Square halts take a lot of practice, so include them in your weekly schooling sessions. Make sure your horse is happy to stand for at least three seconds while you take your hand off the rein to salute.’

Transitions are another area that you need to practise.

‘Having your horse on the aids and listening will ensure you achieve responsive transitions,’ says Stef. ‘You want your horse to react to you when you apply an aid, so start by practising transitions in the same place with correct aids, and eventually the horse will learn that they are being asked to do something in that place, and then you can replicate that anywhere. Upward and downward transitions are important, too – aim for them to be smooth, neat and in balance.’

Don’t forget to work on the size and form of your circles and shapes. You can mark out circle sizes using poles or cones if you are struggling.

‘Remember that corners are great for preparing for the next movement,’ advises Stef. ‘Cutting corners and riding irregular shapes won’t maximise your marks.’

Last but not least, read the test directives for each movement to see what the judges are looking for, such as ‘ground cover’, ‘balance’ and ‘suppleness’ in the medium trot.

Plan your warm-up

One thing that riders often overlook is their warm-up at a show.

‘Having a warm-up plan is really important to ensure that you and your horse are both physically and mentally prepared,’ says Stef. ‘After a good stretch in walk and then a few minutes in an active trot and canter to get everything loosened up, you can then select a few movements that you want to practise a few times. For example, if your horse wobbles on the centre line, practise riding a few straight lines, and if they swing their hindquarters out during the halt, practise a few halts.’

It might be a good idea to run through your show warm-up in a lesson with your instructor before your competition.

How do you prepare for a dressage competition? Head to our Facebook page and let us know!