Dressage Training in Aiken, SC
Amy McElroy

Ask the Judge -Rule Clarifications

Dear Amy,

I was recently a competitor at a USDF dressage show and I watched some other riders’ tests.  I am confused by some of the rulings for decorating mane braids and tail braids, and for riding with seat covers on the saddle and nose nets on the bridle.  I observed several riders who were allowed to compete and others who were eliminated for using what looked like the same equipment. I cannot figure out why these things are okay for some riders and not for others. Could you please explain the rules?


Dear Confused,

These are great observations. As you noticed, it is clearly quite important to know what is allowed and what is not so as to avoid a disappointing elimination. Let’s take a look at each of rules in question.

1. There are many things to keep in mind when it comes to braiding your horse’s mane. According to the 2020 USEF rulebook DR121.7

• Braiding the mane is not mandatory but definitely looks neat and prepared. It also allows your judge to better see the development of your horse’s neck and topline.

• There is no ruling on how many braids or on which side of the neck the braids should lie.

• All styles of braids are allowed.

• Having a roached mane is acceptable

When you do braid a mane, any decoration – flowers or ribbons or anything extravagant –is strictly forbidden and will entail elimination. At a recent show, a horse and rider were eliminated because the horse had a sweet shamrock pin in its mane for good luck. Even though it looked adorable, according to the 2020 USEF rulebook, decorations such as these are strictly forbidden and so the elimination was unfortunate, but was to be expected.

2. Here are things to keep in mind when it comes to braiding your horse’s tail. According to the 2020 USEF rulebook DR121.7

• Braiding your horse’s tail is perfectly legal although not a common practice in dressage competitions. A loose, well-groomed tail can enhance the look of your horse’s relaxation to your judge. Many riders will bang the bottom of the tail (a straight even cut across the hairs near their tips.) Some riders will trim the short hairs on the sides of the tail near the dock. All this is allowed and will help to give your horse that polished look.

• A red ribbon in a horse’s tail is permitted. This would and should only be used to identify a horse that kicks.

• An interesting fact is that false tails (similar to a wig or hairpiece for people) are permitted in dressage, as long as they do not have any metal parts.

• As with the mane, according to USEF 2020 ruling, any extravagant decorations other than a red ribbon to identify a kicker is strictly forbidden and will entail elimination.

3. What about seat savers – those coverings that go over the top of your saddle to provide comfort, warmth or security? There are a few factors involved with these. According to the 2020 USEF rule book DR 121.7 and DR 121.14

• Seat savers are forbidden in the warm up as well as the show ring. Using one is strictly forbidden and will entail elimination, except:

• Athletes holding a Federation Dispensation Certificate may use special saddlery and equipment as specifically listed on their certificate. A seat saver can qualify as special saddlery

• If you want to use a seat saver, you will need a dispensation letter, which you can request from the USEF. In order to have such a letter issued, you would need to have a doctor’s signature on a statement saying that using one is essential for you to be able to sit with comfort in the saddle. If approved, you would have to submit this letter with every entry. A copy would then be attached to your test for the judge to acknowledge. This is the only way you would be able to show with a seat saver legally. 

• At a recent show, there were two riders who entered the arena using seat savers. One rider had a dispensation letter and the other did not. The first rider did well while the other was eliminated.

4. Let’s look at the regulations surrounding “nose nets.” These are coverings that attach to your noseband and are intended to calm horses that shake their heads while being ridden. There are a few factors to know. According to the 2020 USEF rule book DR121 .9 a and b

• Nose nets are perfectly legal provided the entry is accompanied by a signed letter from your horse’s veterinarian. The letter must be attached to each test.

• The letter must be on the veterinarian’s stationery and must clearly state that the horse has been diagnosed with head shaking syndrome and that the condition is improved with the use of a nose net

• There is a list of approved nose net brands on the USEF website.

• At a recent show, there were two riders who competed with nose nets. One had a veterinarian’s letter and was legal; the other did not and was eliminated.

I hope this brings clarity to your questions. Remember it is always important to know the current rules before competing to avoid elimination and disappointment. Read the rulebook, and if you have any questions about whether any piece of equipment is legal, it doesn’t hurt to ask the technical delegate at the show – he or she is there to help you.

Good luck to you in future competitions.

Ask the Judge – Using Your Corners

Dear Amy,

I am going to be competing at the dressage Training Levels starting this summer.  I know everyone says “remember to use your corners,” but I am not sure what that means and what the judges are looking for. I also don’t see where you get a score for the corners. I also wondered if the short sides are scored, since I do not see a place for a score for that, either. What is the judge really looking for in the Training Levels?

Dressage Newbie

Dear Newbie,

It’s great that you will be starting your dressage show journey this summer. These are very important and interesting questions.  Let’s start with another question: what is Training Level? On all dressage tests each level has its own purpose. You can find the purpose written on every test. It is useful to know what is going to be required and expected of you and your horse. This is what judges will be taking into consideration when critiquing your ride. Let’s see what the Training Level purpose states:

To confirm the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit. 

In other words these are the basics and fulfill the bottom four rungs of the training scale.

For each Training Level test, it is interesting to take into consideration how many test movements there are, and of these, which ones are coefficients (double points), how many transitions, how many corners, and how many short sides are in each test. Training Level is comprised of three tests. Let’s take a look and make some comparisons:

Training 1: 13 test movements, 6 coefficients, 11 transitions, 10 corners, 0 full short sides

Training 2: 16 test movements, 6 coefficients, 11 transitions, 15 corners, 4 full short sides

Training 3: 15 test movements, 7 coefficients, 12 transitions, 11 corners, 0 full short sides

Training Level includes the following gaits and movements: working trot and canter, medium and free walks, 20 meter circles left and right in trot and canter, stretchy circle (introduced in Training 2) and a trot three-loop serpentine (Training 3).

 As you can see these tests all have many transitions. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that scores for the transitions make up more than 50% of your final score at this level.  So how do you perform a correct transition? According to the USEF rule book DR 107.1, the changes of gait and pace should be clearly shown at the prescribed marker, they should be quickly made yet must be smooth and not abrupt. The rhythm of a gait or pace should be maintained up to the moment when the gait or pace is changed or the horse halts. The horse should remain light in hand, calm and maintain a correct position. In DR107.2 the same applies to transitions from one movement to another. In other words when riding your transitions the objectives should be smooth, willing, calm, regular, obedient, and accurate.  

In Training Level tests, the coefficients are assigned to nearly half the movements of each test. Since these moves are counted double it is even more important to be secure in your ability to ride what is requested as effortlessly and accurately as possible.  

There are an abundance of corners you must ride through in each test. Although there is not a specific scoring box for just the corners, this does not mean they aren’t being judged. Keep in mind that from the time you enter at A and until you salute and leave the arena, your judge will be taking every stride into consideration. The corner scores will be combined either with a movement before, a movement after, or with a transition. Corners are very important because they encourage your horse to stay supple, and to rebalance as well as to prepare for the next move, to name a few of their benefits. When riding corners, as a general rule you want your horse’s bend to correspond to the correct bend of the smallest size circle of each gait in that test. In Training Level, the smallest circles are 20 meters in both the trot and canter. It is generally accepted expected that corners should be ridden about two meters smaller than the smallest required circle. Therefore, in Training Levels, corners should have the bend and depth of about an 18-meter circle.

Your short sides are also taken into consideration in the same way the circles are in the scoring. Although there is not a direct score for every short side, they will be linked to a movement before, a movement after, or a movement within. So, yes they are being judged. Short sides are not a rest break. Similar to corners, they are where you can regroup, encourage and balance your horse as you prepare for what’s to come.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind specifically when riding Training Levels:

  1. Halts may be done through the walk, and you may move off from the halt through the walk. If you do choose the walk, I would suggest limiting your trot to halt and halt to trot transitions to no more than three walking strides.
  2. The trot may be ridden rising or sitting. Try to decide which type style would best show your horse off and keep him moving freely forward. You will not score higher just because you are sitting.
  3. A reminder that in correctly ridden circles and in the serpentine you DO NOT “use” the corners: in other words, do not go deeply into them.
  4. You may wear half chaps, gaiters or leggings in solid black or brown, without fringe, matching the color of your footwear, and made of smooth leather or leather-like material instead of tall riding boots if you prefer.

Other thoughts to impress your judge at any level.

  1. Be prepared. Know your test and be able to perform it reliably.
  2. Be on time.
  3. Remember to wear your number and to remove any schooling boots your horse may have been wearing in the warm-up because these are not allowed in a test.
  4. Know the rules, purpose and directives of each level and test you ride
  5. Smile and be confident

I hope I have clarified what is expected in the Training Level tests and the way corners and short sides are incorporated into a score. 

Enjoy the ride!

spring show photos of Heidi Beaumont
dressage photos from spring 2020

SCDCTA Year End Winners

Congratulations to all the students who had so much success in 2019! Here are the year end results for SCDCTA:

Lisi Tibrea

First level AA Reserve Champion – Doris Westhoff and Fortunate Wind
5th place – Sherry Pues and Orion
Second level AA Champion –  Doris Westhoff and Fortunate Wind
Third level AA Champion – Sue Bender and Rania
Fourth level AA Reserve Champion – Lisi Tibrea and Talisman
PSG AA Reserve Champion – Dru Hall and French Kiss

Lisi Tibrea won the Volunteer of the Year award

Ask the Judge – National Championships

Dear Amy,
I heard you were on the panel of judges at the U.S Dressage National Finals this year at the Kentucky Horse Park. Congratulations! I’m hoping someday to be able to participate as a competitor in the finals. I was wondering, how does riding a test in the Nationals differ from riding a test at a regular rated USEF/USDF show? Is it also different from riding a test at a Regional Championship?  


Dear Ambitious,
It was certainly an honor and very exciting to be one of the 13 judges selected for the Nationals, which is a Level Five Competition, the highest level under USEF rules. To answer your question, you will find many differences between riding in a regular show and competing in a Regionals or a Nationals. Let’s take a look. 

At the Nationals you will be competing against the country’s best horse and rider teams at each level, from Training through Grand Prix. There are also Freestyles at all the levels except Training, Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire II, and these have become very popular. Championship classes at all levels are divided into Open and Adult Amateur divisions. The Championship test will be the highest test of each level. For instance, if you compete at the First Level, your test will be First Level Three. In addition to the Championships, the Nationals also offer non-championship classes at most levels. These non-championship classes are run according to the same rules as a regular recognized dressage show. 

Here are some differences between the three types of competition:

• For a US Finals class, your ride time is done by a draw, and you will not know the exact schedule of the class until the draw is complete. However, you will know, for instance, that the First Level Championship starts at 8 am and runs until 12. At a recognized show and a Regionals you will have an assigned ride time that you will know it well in advance. 

• If you are riding in a US Finals class, you the only one allowed to ride your horse during the show, except to walk on a long rein. This rule is strictly enforced: if someone else rides your horse, you will be eliminated. At a Regionals, the same rule applies, but at a regular recognized show, anyone can ride your horse with no penalty.

• For a US Finals class, all tests must be ridden by memory. This rule also applies at Regionals. At a regular recognized show, a caller is allowed with no penalty. 

• For a US Finals test, carrying a riding whip is forbidden and will entail elimination. The same applies for Regionals. At a recognized show, a riding whip is allowed with no penalty. 

•For a US Finals class, you will have three judges: at C, at M or H, and at B or E. All the judges will have S or FEI status. At a Regionals, you will have two judges: at C and at B or E. At a regular recognized show, you will only have one judge most of the time, stationed at C, although there are some qualifying classes that do require two judges. (The second judge will be at B or E.) When there is more than one judge for any class, the judges’scores are averaged to arrive at your final percentage. After your test, you will be able to have copies of all the individual score sheets from each judge.  

• All US Finals classes are scored electronically. Most arenas do have an electronic scoreboard, where you will be able to see your name in lights and all the judge’s scores when your test is complete. At some Regionals, you might have electronic scoring and a scoreboard. At most recognized shows, you are not likely to see one.

• For a US Finals class, there is a mandatory awards ceremony with ribbons to tenth place. Your judge at C will be one of the award presenters. At a Regionals, the awards ceremony is also mandatory and there are ribbons to eighth place. For a regular dressage class, there are ribbons through sixth place, and there is often no awards ceremony. 

• Any horse competing in a US Finals class must be stabled at the showgrounds. At a Regionals, the same rule applies. At a regular recognized show, you can trailer in and out with no penalty. 

The US National Finals has an electric atmosphere and beautifully decorated arenas. It feels very special and it may be as exciting to be a judge at this competition as it is to be a competitor. Riding in the finals is a great goal. If you don’t qualify next year, I recommend going as a spectator, or, better yet as a volunteer – no dressage show can succeed without dedicated volunteers, and you will have the opportunity to participate in one of our most important and impressive events!

Wishing you luck in your journey! Ride forward.

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.