Ask the Judge – Dressage Newbie

Dear Amy ,

My horse and I will be competing at our first recognized dressage show this month. We will be trying out the Training Level. Can you give me some tips to avoid making beginner mistakes and ride a winning test? 

Dressage Newbie 

Dear Newbie,

I am excited for you and your horse: welcome to the dressage world! This is such a good question, because the small details are an important step towards a competitive ride. I see many riders losing points and even getting eliminated for some situations that are completely avoidable.  

Attire and Tack

Most important, make sure your helmet is correctly fitted and secure. The chinstrap should be adjusted to hold the helmet on your head: it cannot have a loop in it. An improperly fitted helmet can mean elimination, because it is a safety issue. 

Be sure you are wearing your number. The number should preferably be on the left side although there is currently no official ruling on this. The left side is the traditional side. You will not be allowed to compete without a number.  

Be ready to go into the arena on time. After the judge has signaled you to enter the arena and start your test there is a time limit of 45 seconds for you to come down the center line, whether you have had a chance to ride around the arena or not. If you do not come down the center line within 45 seconds, you can be eliminated. Being on time is the responsibility of the rider and not of the ring steward. If there are two or more rings at your show, be sure that you know the signal for your ring: sometimes one ring uses a bell, and another one a whistle, etc. Check to make sure you are listening for the right one. You are allowed to enter the apron of the arena once the rider ahead of you has performed their final salute.  

Be properly dressed for your level, because you can also be eliminated for improper attire. At Training Level, you should wear: 1) a short riding coat of a conservative color, with a tie, choker, stock, or stand-up collar. 2) White or light colored breeches or jodhpurs with boots or jodhpur boots. You may also wear half chaps, gators or leggings in solid black or brown, with no fringe, and matching the color of your boots. If you choose to wear leggings or gators, be sure they are of smooth leather or leather-like material. 3) A protective helmet that meets or exceeds USEF standards. 

Your horse must also wear the correct tack and equipment for your level. At Training Level, he should wear: 1) an English type saddle with flaps and stirrups; 2) a plain snaffle bridle with a noseband. The noseband can be a regular caveson, or a dropped, flash, or crossed noseband. The bit must be some type of snaffle, and it must be smooth with a solid surface. There are many types of snaffle, some of which are legal and others are not permitted. If you have any doubts or concerns, consult the USEF rulebook (DR 121.) 3) Fly hoods are permitted. But remember, no martingales, bit guards, gadgets, ear cotton, bell boots or bandages. Any illegal equipment could cause you to be eliminated.  

Riding Your Test

The purpose of Training Level is to confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward into a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit. All trot work may be performed rising or sitting unless otherwise stated. You may choose to rise the trot in some movements and sit it in others, but you will present a more harmonious picture if you don’t switch from one to the other in the middle of a movement.  

Once you have entered the apron of the arena, it is courteous to tell your horse’s number to the judge/scribe along with a short word of acknowledgement, i.e., “Good morning, I am number 23.” In all Training Level tests, you will enter the arena at a trot and halt at X. Be sure to hold the halt for three seconds. Make sure you clearly salute by putting both reins in one hand and letting the other hand drop to your side while you bow your head. There is no ruling on which arm to use, but saluting with the right arm is more traditional. Forgetting to salute is an error, which means two points off your final score.  

During your test, be sure not to use your voice, which means any words, sounds, clicks, clucks, etc. If the judge hears you using your voice, this will mean two points off each scoring box in which a sound was heard.  

Make sure that you use your corners and pay attention to the letters and your accuracy and geometry. Be aware of your canter leads and know what to do if you get a wrong lead. If your horse strikes off on the wrong lead, do correct it with a transition and try again as soon as possible so that it will only affect one movement.  

After your final salute, you must leave the arena mounted in a free walk at A. Do not get off your horse or you might be eliminated. If you do something like drop your whip and need to get it, or your horse has lost a shoe, or something like that, tell your judge or your ring steward and they will organize getting it picked up and returned to you. If you feel like you need to get off for some reason during your test, you should pull up, salute and ask to be excused. This will end your test and you will get no score.  

Here’s hoping this is the start of many successful shows. Be prepared, try to relax, smile, and enjoy the ride. 

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