Dressage Training in Aiken, SC
Amy McElroy

Congratulations Mikaela!

Congratulations Mikaela Engert and Ambar for earning the scores for their Bronze Medal at the Holiday on Horse Dressage Show in Aiken, SC!

Amy McElroy and Mikaela Engert
Mikaela and Amy in the awful weather!

Competition Questions

Dear Amy,

I am looking forward to competing in dressage shows this season. I am new to competition and I have a few questions. First, is there a proper side on which to wear your number? I have seen many variations. Second, if I choose to have a reader, do they need to have any qualifications, and do they need to sign up or do anything else to be permitted to call the test for me? Where should the caller stand? Finally, I am planning to ride with a whip and I will be carrying it in my right hand. I understand it is not appropriate to salute with your whip. So, can I salute with my left hand instead of my right one?

Dressage Newbie


Dear Newbie,

The new dressage season has begun with the revised tests in effect on December 1, 2018. These are all interesting topics to review before the shows begin. They are also important, because if you don’t abide by the official USEF rules in these areas, you could get an error, and might even be eliminated.

Let’s start with the proper placement of the number. Most shows will give you one number to wear; although some shows do provide two numbers, only one is mandatory. According to USEF rule DR121.12: “Numbers must be worn at all times when a horse is being exercised or ridden.” This means you must be wearing a number or you will not be allowed into the show arena; technically, you should not be allowed in the warm-up arena either.

Not wearing a number as you enter the competition arena will entail immediate elimination: you will not be allowed into the arena and elimination is mandatory in this situation. Where you wear the number is a matter of personal preference: Legally, there is no assigned place or side for it. Traditionally, if you choose to put it on your bridle, you would put it on the left side, at the juncture of the headstall and the browband. It is also acceptable and often popular to have your number pinned or sewn neatly onto your saddle pad, usually on the bottom corner of the left side. Most important, your number must be visible at all times when you are mounted. As a courtesy to your judge and scribe, when you pass the judge’s booth before entering the arena, confirm with them your competition number.

You bring up an interesting point about having a reader. You do not have to tell the show in advance that you are planning to use one or who it will be. Anyone you choose may perform the service for you: currently there is no qualification system or any other official requirement for readers. But do choose your reader carefully and make sure he or she reads the test accurately and succinctly. It is important that the reader does not add instruction or read movements more than once. This could be considered “unauthorized assistance”, in which case, it would result in elimination. It would be advisable to have a reader with a loud and clear voice, with some knowledge of dressage, of your test, and of the letters of the arena. There is no ruling on which side your reader should be stationed, unless specified by the show management. However, standing at either E or B (midway on the long side) is the appropriate position. The reader should start calling with the rider’s entry, after the judge has signaled that the test can begin. Readers are permitted (with no scoring deduction) at all national tests, Fourth level and below.

If possible, you might want to have a practice session with your reader before the show. It is important that the reader not call movements too far ahead in your test, or fall behind your performance. You need to have sufficient time to prepare for the next movement, but if the reader gets several movements ahead of you, it can be confusing. When called out, the names of the letters can often sound similar (“B”, “E”, “C”, etc.) so your reader needs to speak clearly and enunciate well. A voice that carries is also a prerequisite since no amplification devices are allowed. Even if you are planning on having a caller, you should still have your test memorized and be very familiar with it. The rider is ultimately responsible for performing the test correctly: unfortunately, you will have no dispensation if your reader gets late, or calls the wrong movement, or does not speak loudly enough for you to hear the directions. The success of your ride is always up to you.

Finally, your salute is an essential part of your dressage test: it appears twice, at the entry and exit of every test. According to the USEF rules, not releasing one hand in your salute is considered an error. The first error is two points, the second error is four points, and the third error is elimination. So make sure that your judge sees and acknowledges your salute. It is required to put the reins in one hand and to let the other hand drop loosely by your side, while slightly inclining your head in a bow. It is easy to forget your initial salute, possibly just from nerves. People sometimes forget at the end of the test because they are so pleased with their ride that they are too busy patting and praising their horse. Thanking your horse is wonderful and many judges like to see it, but be sure to salute first. Keep in mind that in case of a missing salute, your judge does not need to ring the bell to give you an error.

As far as the salute itself goes, it is more traditional to put your reins in your left hand and salute with your right one, similar to a military salute, but this is not a requirement. You are certainly allowed to use your left hand and there will be no deduction or error for doing so.

Bear in mind that when you cannot find a regulation in the USEF rulebook, then it is not a rule. However, tradition and elegance is always a positive, contributing to a successful ride. Always be mindful about possible elimination situations. Don’t forget your number, and if you realize that you have forgotten it on the way to the arena, go back and get it as soon as possible. Benefit from having a reader, but always assume responsibility for your test. Don’t forget your salute at the beginning or the end of your ride.

Thank you for these interesting questions. I hope you have a wonderful showing season!

Atlanta Labor Day Dressage Show successes!

Congratulations to all who had a great show. Nan Campbell earned her bronze medal with Tavish at the Labor Day Show. Lisi Tibrea and Talisman won their Fourth Level Test 1! Doris Westoff won first place in 1-3 on Sunday and great scores on Saturday in 2-3 and 1-3 with her horses, Dakotah and Fortunate.

Amy attends Lamplight Dressage Festival

Lamplight Dressage Festival
August 2018

Amy added two more distinctions to her S judges license: Young Horse and Dressage Equitation. This brings the total to three, as Amy previously earned her Freestyle distinction.

Ask the Judge – Upper Level Newbie

Dear Amy,

I have just purchased an FEI dressage schoolmaster and I am hoping to be able to show at the Prix St. Georges level locally very soon.

I want to know, if my horse was born in the United States does he need a passport to show at this level? Also, people keep asking me if I am going to do the “Small Tour,” and I don’t know how to answer them. What is the Small Tour?

-Upper Level Newbie


Dear Newbie,

Congratulations on the purchase of your new ride. You are lucky to have a schoolmaster to bring you up the FEI levels (Prix St. Georges through the Grand Prix.) For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a schoolmaster is a horse that is already trained and confirmed at the level at which you are riding. Because the horse is well-versed in the movements, you can concentrate on your own development. You are not both learning at the same time: in fact the horse can teach you and help to show you the way.

Although you will be showing at the Prix St. Georges level, which is an FEI (international) level, if you are showing locally, you will still be showing on the national level, because we don’t currently have an international dressage show here in Aiken. Because of this, you will not need a passport, whether your horse was born in the U.S. or in another country.

If you show in the United States (or any other country) at an international show, a horse passport is mandatory, whether your horse was born in the country in which you are showing or somewhere else.

There are differences between national and FEI tests. In America, the USDF has dressage tests from Intro through the Fourth Level. These national tests are for our country only: Other countries have their own versions of these lower level tests. For example, in Germany, our Third Level tests are equivalent to an M (Medium) level test, but the tests themselves are not the same even if they have many of the same elements. However, all countries use the exact same FEI tests and the exact same scoring system.

So, if you compete at the Prix St. Georges level in the United States it will be the same test as the Prix St. Georges level in Germany. According to the FEI rulebook, the official dressage tests are published on the authority of the FEI, and in no case can they be modified or simplified without the approval of the FEI.

Interestingly, there are other FEI tests beside the upper level test. To name a few: the FEI Young Rider, Junior, Children’s, Pony, and Young Horse tests, which are all standardized internationally.

Let’s address your question about the Small Tour. There are four FEI tours: the Small Tour, the Medium Tour, the Big Tour and the Under 25 Tour. The tours are groupings of tests that can be ridden at the same show: remember you can compete at two different levels, but they must be consecutive. The Small Tour comprises the Prix St. Georges, the Intermediaire I and the Intermediaire I Freestyle. The Medium Tour includes Intermediaire A, Intermediaire B and Intermediaire II. The Big Tour is made up of the Intermediaire II, the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Freestyle and the Grand Prix Special. The Under 25 is exclusively for riders aged 16 to 25 years old. This tour includes combinations of the Intermediaires A, B and II, the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Freestyle.  

So if someone asks you if you are planning to show the Small Tour, you can say that you are just getting started with the Prix St. Georges. If your goal is to progress to Intermediaire I, you can say you are working towards the Small Tour.

Here is a comparison of the lower levels and FEI levels at national and international shows.

(Regional and national championships have different rules and these comparisons might not apply.)

USDF National Level (4th Level and Below) FEI Tests at National Show FEI Tests at International Show
• Can have a reader or perform by memory • Ride by memory: Callers prohibited • Ride by memory: Callers prohibited
• May carry a whip • May carry a whip • Whips are prohibited
• May use a snaffle bridle: Double bridles optional Third Level and above • Snaffle or double bridle allowed • Double bridle required
• Spurs are optional • Spurs are mandatory • Spurs are mandatory
• Must wear a safety helmet • Must wear a safety helmet • Safety helmets optional: top hat allowed (Military riders in uniform may wear military cap.)
• Any English saddle with stirrups allowed Third Level and below: dressage saddle required for Fourth Level • Must ride in dressage saddle with stirrups • Must ride in dressage saddle with stirrups
• You don’t need to turn in a copy of your Freestyle test before you perform. • You don’t need to turn in a copy of your Freestyle test before you perform. • You must submit your Freestyle test before you perform
• No horse passport required • No horse passport required • Horse passport required for all horses.
• You may have your trainer warm up your horse for you. • You may have your trainer warm up your horse for you. • No one may ride your horse but you while on the show grounds. (Exception: your groom may ride at the walk on the buckle.)
• Only one judge is required (“r” at Second Level and below; “R” at Fourth level and below. All higher ratings permissible.) • May have one or more judges. “S” or above required. • A panel of three to seven judges depending on the rating of the show. All must be FEI judges.
• First error: -2 points off your rough score; Second error:-4 points; Third error: elimination • First error: -2 percentage points off your final score; Second error: Elimination! • First error: -2 percentage points off your final score; Second error: Elimination!

Good luck to you riding at Prix St. Georges. I hope you will work your way through the Small Tour and perhaps to an FEI sanctioned show in the future, maybe even here in Aiken!

Ask the Judge – Dressage rule questions

Dear Amy,

I am new to dressage, although I have done some eventing. I am planning to stop jumping and show straight dressage from now on, so I have a few questions about equipment. First: is it acceptable to ride a dressage test in my jumping saddle? I don’t currently own a dressage saddle and I feel safe and comfortable in the saddle that I have. Second, am I allowed to use a neck strap for “just in case” at the show? Third: my horse prefers to go without a noseband. Is this allowed? Thank you for your help.



Dear Newby,

Welcome to the dressage circuit. These are great questions and the answers are important to know as an equipment violation could mean elimination. Let’s start with your saddle.

You are in luck with your jumping saddle. In all levels of eventing dressage, any English-type saddle is compulsory according to USEF EV 115.2a. In straight dressage up to Fourth level, any English saddle is also allowed as long as the saddle has flaps and stirrups with closed branches. When you ride at the FEI Levels (anything above Fourth Level) a dressage saddle then becomes compulsory. You might be interested to know that saddle pads are optional at dressage shows, but I don’t recommend riding without one.

However much you like your jumping saddle, if you continue your pursuit of dressage you may want to try a dressage saddle because it will encourage your body to be in a more correct and balanced position. This will make is easier for you to be effective and you will find it more comfortable to do sitting work with the dressage saddle’s deeper seat and strategically placed stirrup bars.

Next, let’s address the issue of the neck strap. Neck straps are permitted in eventing dressage as there is not currently a specific rule about their use as a “gadget.” It’s a different story entirely in straight dressage competitions. Under the penalty of elimination, a neck strap is strictly forbidden as it is considered a “gadget.” You can’t use it in your test. Of interest: other gadgets that are illegal according to USEF rulebook DR 121.7 include martingales, bit guards, nasal strips, tongue ties, and bearing, side, running or balancing reins. Any kind of boots, bandages, blinkers, ear muffs, ear plugs, and seat covers are also illegal.

Finally, let’s consider the noseband. In all dressage levels, a noseband is a requirement. There are many styles to choose from. When you are using a plain snaffle bridle, you can use one of the following nosebands: a regular caveson, a drop noseband, a flash noseband, a combination of a caveson and a drop, or a crossed noseband (also known as a figure eight noseband.) Of interest: a padded noseband is allowed, but you cannot use a noseband that has any metal on the inside touching the horse’s flesh. Other equipment that is required includes a browband which can have as much decoration and “bling” as you like. You are also required to use a throatlatch or its equivalent, such as the jowl strap that is a feature of a Micklem bridle.

With so many nosebands to choose from, there should be one that suits any horse. Also, remember that there is no ruling on how loose a noseband may be, only on how tight it may be. The noseband may be fitted snugly, but not so tight that you can’t fit two fingers beneath it. Your ring steward may check the fit of the noseband after your test when he is examining your bit. He may also check the length of your whip, the length and severity of your spurs and the sides of your horse for blood. If your horse is wearing a bonnet, you will have to remove it so that its ears can be checked for noise-canceling devices. If the steward discovers any violations, you may be eliminated.

I hope this answers all of your questions. So, come on down the centerline in your jumping saddle while maintaining a correct dressage position with a perpendicular straight line between ear, hip and heel. Find a noseband that suits your horse and fasten it loosely if that makes him happier. You will have to leave the neck strap at home; when you feel comfortable doing this, that would be a good indication that you are ready to start showing. Enjoy!