1 – Do a FANTASTIC warm-up! Allow sufficient time before your test to do a really good warm-up. This means planning your day so you arrive with adequate time to check in and get numbers, find your arena, double check the draw and all the other little things there are to do which chew up time. You want to give your horses body time to be supple and to have him obedient and on the aids and also give yourself time to get into the right mental space to produce a calm and proficient test.
Warm up areas can often be chaotic so ensure you remain aware of your fellow competitors and work on things to bring your horses attention to you like transitions both between paces and within the pace, changes of rein and any lateral movements which may be in your test. If the competition venue has adequate space head off and find your own area to work so you can concentrate fully.
2 – Take your time after the bell rings. When the judge sounds the bell, or the car horn, make sure you take your time to enter the arena. This obviously doesn’t mean you stop and have a cup of tea, but don’t get flustered. Depending on the rules you’re riding under you’ll have either 45 seconds or 60 seconds from the sounding of the bell to enter the arena. Take this time to set your horse up, make sure you’ve got him on a nice entry line, not ‘oh wow, there’s A!!’, and go and show them your stuff!
3 – Show the judge a super centreline! The centreline is your first chance and your last chance to make an impression on a judge so make sure it’s great! Practice riding straight lines on both your centreline and your quarter lines at home. Pick something to aim towards over the top of the judges car and ride towards it. Riding forward and straight is much more effective than trying to steer your horse straight. There are some exercises on this in the Dressage Test Success Download.
4 – Practice your salute. Yes, I know you’ll feel silly practicing saluting to no one at home but it’s worth doing to ensure your horse is ok with a halt followed by one hand off the reins and your arm moving. You want to train him to stay still while you take your hand off the reins and put it back on again. Don’t lose valuable marks by not having a steady halt.
5 – Know where your circles and other shapes should go. As part of learning your test make sure you work out just how big your circles and any other shapes you’re asked to show are. Know the distances between your arena markers and draw your circles on an arena map. Practice the shapes at home with the aid of some markers to get the feel of the correct size. On game day make sure you ride your own circle and not simply follow the tracks of previous competitors, they may not have had it right!
6 – What if it all goes wrong? OK, riding into the arena and discovering your horse doesn’t like green cars/flowerpots/arena edging/insert scary object here is never a great feeling! It’s pretty easy to sit here and advise you from my keyboard to take a deep breath, keep calm and keep going but of course I’m not on your fire-breathing dragon… Seriously if a movement feels like it’s heading more towards ‘1’ than ‘10’ it really is the best thing you can do. The judge has already seen the bad behaviour, marked it and is looking at the next movement. The part of the test that’s gone wrong is done with, you’re not going to be able to fix it, keep going and show the judge that you can do better!
7 – Free walk. Every test will ask you to show some free walk on a long rein. Your horse should lower his neck and stretch towards the contact. A judge wants to see your horse keep walking as well! It will be very hard to keep your horse straight on the diagonal line if the walk’s asked for from M to K and you don’t keep your leg on, to often you see the walk get a bit slow and meandering across the diagonal. Keep your leg on, keep the walk active and like your centreline pick something in the distance and aim for it.
8 – Know your test!! Even if you choose to have a caller make sure you’re familiar with your test. You really don’t want to be finding out what move comes next from your caller just in case they make a mistake. Here’s a blog on how to call a test to help your caller. If you’re not having a caller, really, really, really know your test. Practice picking the test up from a movement in the middle, kind of like you’d know the what comes next in the alphabet if I said ‘L, M, N’ to you. This is useful just in case you do make an error of course or there’s some sort of disruption and have to pick up the test from a random point.
Depending on how you learn you might like to walk the test in your lounge room, you may prefer to draw the test or read it aloud/have it read aloud to you to learn. Riding the test endlessly on your horse can often be fraught with danger as they start to anticipate movements. Riding two or three movements in a row from the test in your regular ride is a great idea though! Try a few different ways of learning tests and see which way works best for you!
9 – Accuracy and preparation. Riding an accurate test will earn you easy marks! If your transitions are to be on the markers you can incorporate that into your daily riding at home also. If something’s asked for on a marker you’re expected to perform the movement or transition as your body is level with the marker.
Prepare, prepare, prepare! Prepare for each movement, many tests are written to flow so one movement is actually a preparation for the next. We want nothing to come as a surprise to either of you, between you knowing your test and using each movement in your test as a preparation for the next movement you’re on your way to showing a great result!
10 – Breathe! Maybe this should have been number 1? Breathing is NOT an optional extra on competition day. When we become stressed our breathing generally becomes shallower, sending messages to our body to remain in a state of stress. The phrase ‘take a deep breath’ isn’t just a throwaway line. Three deep breathes, all the way to the bottom of your lungs and then fully exhale, actually sends the message to our brain that we’re ok. Next time you’re feeling like there’s too much to do and are running around feeling stressed stop and check in with how you’re breathing. I bet you that 90% of the time you’re breathing very ‘short and shallow’ and not ‘full and deep’. Try it out, it really works!
FINALLY, have fun! We ride for many reasons but one of them should be for enjoyment so go out and have a great competition day!