Dressage Training in Aiken, SC
Amy McElroy

Coastal Flight Dressage Show

Dear Amy,

We have received a Member’s Confidential Evaluation Form from a Federation member commending you on your officiating at COASTAL FLIGHT DRESSAGE SHOW II (341051) competition that took place 4/24-25/2021.

While we cannot disclose the name of this member or their exact comments, we can share with you the substance of their comments. This member reported that your comments were very positive.

USEF would like to thank you for upholding the high standards that we set forth for our officials and for helping to promote the pursuit of excellence in equestrian sport.

Thank you,

https://www.usef.org/content/images/logo/useqlogo_email.jpgLICENSED OFFICIALS DEPARTMENT

Ask the Judge – Number of Judges

Dear Amy,

At several of our local USDF dressage shows there have been two or three judges’ booths with judges in them for some of the dressage classes. I wanted to know if these classes are judged differently from ones with a single judge? If you have three judges, do you receive all of the scoresheets afterwards? What class would I need to compete in to have this opportunity? I am still new to dressage and ride at Training Level.

Getting Started

Dear Getting Started,

This is a good observation! Many shows now, even our local shows, are offering classes that do require multiple judges. All dressage shows need at least one judge to be positioned on the centerline at the letter C, directly opposite A where you enter. Dressage judges earn different ratings, depending on their experience and expertise. An ‘r’ judge can officiate classes through the Second Level. An ‘R’ judge may officiate through the Fourth Level. An ‘S’ judge may officiate at all levels at a national show. FEI judges, who are sanctioned by the international governing body of equestrian sport, may officiate at all levels at a national or an international show. 

The judge sitting at C is considered the president of the ground jury for that competition arena. If there are two judges, the second judge would be placed on the middle of the long side in front of either the letter E or B: this decision is at the discretion of management. If three judges are required, in addition to the judge at C and a judge either at E or B, the next judge would be based at either M or H. The third judge’s booth will actually be on the short side, near the corner, to either side of the judge at C. When there are three judges, the second and third judges are placed diagonally to each other – If judge number two is at E, judge number three will be at H. If judge number two is at E, judge number three will be at M. 

Whether you have one judge or three judges, all of their scoring will have equal effect. Final numbers and percentages will be divided equally to come up with one final score and percentage. Each of the officials will evaluate the ride in the standard way. It is quite rewarding and informative to receive feedback from more than one judge. You should take note that these classes often will cost more to enter, depending on the number of judges. 

The purpose of multiple judges is to give you a more complete and accurate assessment of your ride. Wherever scores are posted, each judge’s score will be visible, but only the combined percentage score is official. It is to be hoped that all the judges’ scores will be similar so that the final scores will be close, and that the class will be placed in the approximately same order from one judge to the next. However, each judge will have a different view and will perhaps make different comments. After you have completed your ride, you are able to view all of your judges’ test sheets.

When competing in an arena with multiple judges, it is correct to halt and salute only your C judge in your entry and exit. This is the only judge who is allowed to signal you to start your test, who can eliminate you, and is the one who decides if you have made an error – in this case all the other judges will agree with the C judge. If you feel you need to excuse yourself from the ring for any reason, the C judge is the only one who can give you permission. However, you may acknowledge the other judges as you go around the apron of the arena as well as at your exit.

Most USDF tests (at national shows) will only have one judge. One type of competition where you would always see two judges is the USDF Regional Championships, which happen one time a year in the fall. All championship classes require two judges, one placed at C and one either at E or at B. You must be qualified to participate in these classes. If you compete at the U.S.National Finals (for which you also must qualify) there would always be three judges: C, B or E, and M or H. This competition occurs once a year and is in the fall.

So in what classes are you seeing multiple judges locally? These would be USEF qualifying classes, not to be confused with USDF qualifying classes: these are separate systems with different championships. In 2021, USEF competitors who want to qualify for the Dressage Festival of Champions, which occurs once a year (usually in July), will need to earn scores from USEF qualifying classes. USEF qualifying tests can require two or three FEI or S judges to be counted towards qualification. Qualifying classes at the Prix St. Georges, Intermediare 1, Intermediare II and Grand Prix levels require three judges. The following levels require a panel of two FEI or S judges: FEI Children Tests, FEI Pony Rider Tests, FEI Grand Prix 16-25 Tests, FEI Intermediare II Test (Brentina Cup), USEF Developing Horse Prix St Georges Test, USEF Developing Horse Grand Prix Test, USEF Four Year Old Test, FEI Young Horse Tests for Five, Six, and Seven year olds. More and more riders in our area are interested in these tests and luckily we have show organizers and secretaries willing to offer them. 

As you can see there are many different classes and opportunities to be evaluated by a panel of judges. If you would like to have this opportunity at your level, one goal might be to try to qualify for a USDF regional championship. Regional championship tests are offered at all levels, including Training level. You would be required to ride the qualifying test, which is the highest test of the level. If you want to qualify for the Training level championship, for example, you need to compete at Training level test three. You need to obtain minimum scores from two tests with two different judges and from two different shows. To qualify as an adult amateur at this level, the minimum score is 63%. There are additional membership requirements and often a modest fee that go along with being able to qualify. If you do qualify and compete at the USDF regionals you will have two judges and will receive expertise and commentary from two officials. As you progress further in dressage competition there are many additional opportunities to be judged from a panel. 

Until then, keep enjoying your dressage journey and supporting our shows and riders by watching these classes. If you have the opportunity to attend High Performance shows, such as CDIs, World Cups and Olympics, classes can have five, six, and even seven judges – sometimes there will even be a judge at A.

Ask the Judge – Attire & Shoulder In

Dear Amy,

I am an adult amateur dressage competitor and will be competing throughout the summer months at Second Level. Although I don’t mind the heat too much, I am concerned about the sun on my skin and eyes. I wondered about the following dress codes. Can I warm up and compete with a wide brimmed visor attached to my helmet? Can you wear sunglasses? Can you compete in a long sleeve shirt and do I need to wear a belt when I do not wear a show jacket? Can you please confirm the protocol? 

I also have a question about performing my test. I am not clear when riding the shoulder-in movement in the Second Level tests when and if I am supposed to straighten my horse. I have seen this ridden many different ways. Could you please explain how this movement should be ridden?

SPF 100

Dear SPF 100,

It certainly does get warm in the summer months and the sun can be a concern especially as it really does reflect off the riding surfaces. I am happy to answer all your concerns in this column. Keep in mind that a useful source of information is the USEF rulebook. Look under the Dressage Division for Dress (DR120). It is advisable to check the rules yearly as they may change and sometimes they even adjust midyear.

Let’s start with the attachable sun visor for your helmet. It is permissible to wear this visor while schooling your horse in the warm-up arena. Unfortunately it is currently illegal to wear this visor in the competition arena as it is considered an “attachment/gadget.” Wearing a visor is a dress code violation, however it is up to the discretion of the judge whether or not to eliminate you for wearing it. It is, of course, most important and mandatory to wear protective headgear that is properly secured.

As far as wearing sunglasses or any glasses, there currently is no ruling. You may wear your sunglasses in the warm-up as well as the competition arenas. Please make sure they are securely on your face and are not bouncing around since this can be distracting to you and to your judge.

When jackets are waived, there are many rules to follow. Currently, there are no rules about what types of shirts you may wear in the warm-up. However, when you enter the competition arena, this changes. A long sleeved shirt is always permitted, whether you wear a jacket or not. If you are not wearing a jacket, remember that your shirt must have a collar – T-shirts, whether short or long sleeved, are not permitted when riding without a jacket.  You should not wear any neck gear (stock ties, chokers, etc) when not competing in your jacket. But if you do wear a jacket, neck gear is mandatory.

Currently, wearing a belt is a matter of personal preference, whether you are in the warm up ring or the competition arena. There is not a USEF rule. It is advisable to look neat and always at your best, but you are free to decide if you look better with a belt or without one.

If you have a question about rules while you are at your competition, you can always confer with the technical delegate (TD) to discuss the situation. Part of the TD’s job is to help you. I hope this answers all your dress code questions.

Now let’s look into your questions regarding shoulder-in at Second Level.

The shoulder-in is an important lateral movement that is first required in the Second Level tests. It is important to know how to ride and how to finish this movement correctly. There are three Second Level tests and the shoulder-in patterns are different in each of them so they have different endings.

First, let’s look at what the rulebook has to say about the shoulder-in, and then we can discuss how these guidelines apply to the specific tests you will be riding.

According to the USEF rulebook DR 111.f: “If the shoulder–in is performed on the long side or on the centerline, the horse should be straightened after the shoulder-in, before going into the corner. If the movement that follows the shoulder-in is a circle at any point, or a turn left or right at any point other than the four corners, the horse should not be straightened.

Let’s start with Second Level, test one. You start at K, which is the first letter on the long side after the corner. The movement states “K to E shoulder-in right and E turn right.” Therefore, you would NOT straighten your horse after the shoulder-in as you would be immediately going into a turn, and your horse should be bent to the right. The next shoulder-in pattern goes “B to M shoulder-in left.” This time, since M is the last letter on the long side before the corner, you DO straighten at M before you go into the corner. 

In Second Level, test two, shoulder-in right is ridden from M (the first letter on the long side) to B (the middle letter on the long side.) Then, at B you make a half circle of 10 meters to the right. Since you will be riding directly into a 10-meter circle you would NOT straighten your horse. The shoulder-in left starts at F (also the first letter on the long side) and goes to B, followed directly by a half circle of 10 meters to the left. Again, since you go immediately into a half circle you do NOT straighten your horse.

In Second Level, test three, the shoulder-in is ridden similarly to Second Level test two: the shoulder-in both directions goes immediately into a 10-meter circle, therefore you DO not straighten your horse at the end of the movement. 

I hope this helps clarify things for you. Put on your sunscreen and sunglasses and have a wonderful ride.

New USDF Medal Winners

Congratulations to Heidi Beaumont on your Bronze Medal and Kathy Viele on your Gold Medal.

Ask the Judge – Proper Salute

Dear Amy,

I recently started competing at the Prix St. Georges level at dressage shows and I am now riding with a double bridle. In the entry of my test I come down the centerline, and halt and salute with a nod of my head. In the final centerline, I halt and salute with a nod of my head and drop my right arm to the side. At my last show I was surprised to see I received an error for my entry salute, even though the judge did not ring the bell to signal it. I have been saluting this way ever since I started using the double bridle because I don’t want to lose my hand’s proper position on the pair of reins at the outset of the test. I have never gotten an error for this before.

I also didn’t realize that at this level an error would take two whole points off my final percentage. Is this correct? Also, I noticed that the final collective mark, which used to be for Rider Position, is now called General Impression. I seemed to have scored a bit lower than I have in the past on this final mark. Is the judge looking for something different now? 


Dear Salute,

It is very exciting to be competing at the FEI level as well to be riding in a double bridle. It is useful to know that a double bridle is allowed (but not required) once you are competing at Third level and above. According to the USEF 2021 rule book DR 3.10.2, for Third and Fourth level a snaffle or double bridle are permitted in the warm up and in competitions. According to DR for all FEI tests ridden at a national level, a snaffle bridle or double bridle are permitted in the warm up and competitions. So you could have started using the double bridle in previous levels, but it is perfectly acceptable to wait until you reach Prix St-Georges, or stay in the snaffle. 

Let’s start with your salute. According to the USEF 2021 rulebook DR 122.2, 3. “At the salute riders take the reins in one hand. All riders let one arm drop loosely along his/her body and then incline his/her head in a slight bow.” The 2021 USEF rulebook states in DR122 5.f; “At the salute if the rider does not take the reins in one hand he must be penalized as an error of course.” DR122 5.c.1 states. “In FEI tests every error of course must be penalized whether the bell is sounded or not.” So you can see that your judge was absolutely correct to give you an error for saluting by simply nodding your head, and was not required to ring the bell. If you have been saluting this way habitually and you have not received an error in the past, you were just lucky!

When you are riding with a double bridle, it can be a bit tricky to salute and coordinate the four reins in one hand and then immediately take them up again and move off, but it is mandatory. Never fear, it will become easier with practice. And as you can see it is quite costly if you don’t do it. This is because there is a difference in the way error points are deducted at the FEI levels versus the way they are counted in tests Fourth level and below. If you have an error in a test at Fourth level and below you would see a two-point deduction off your gross score prior to calculating your percentage. In the FEI Levels, however, if you make one error you incur two points off your final percentage score. For instance if you were performing Fourth Level test 1, and your gross score was 253.5, your final percentage would be 65%. (There are 390 maximum points in this test.) If you had an error, two points would come off that gross score, leaving you with 251.5, and your final percentage would be 64.5%. In practice, therefore, that two-point error would only cost you half a point off your final score.

Now let’s look at Prix St-Georges. If you have an error at this level, the two points are deducted off your final percentage, so that if you would have gotten 65%, now you will get a 63%.  So you can see an error is much more costly at these levels.  If you have a second error at the national levels, you will have another four points taken off your gross score. At the FEI level, however, a second error would entail elimination.

Now let’s talk about the final collective mark. As before, FEI tests continue to have one final collective mark, but it has changed slightly for the 2021 competition year. The name was changed from “Rider’s Position and Seat; Correctness and Effect of the Aids” to “General Impression.” The new mark has the following directive:  “Harmonious Presentation (harmonious presentation of the rider/horse combination; rider’s position and seat, discreet and effective influence of the aids).” 

This final collective mark is a representation of your ride and should be similar to you final score. For example if your final percentage was a 62%, you would likely see a 6.0 to 6.5 for your General Impression mark. Your riding position is still taken into consideration, but it is just part of your score. This collective mark, as before, has a coefficient of two. 

I hope this helps to clarify how to perform a correct salute and avoid a costly error, as well as how tests are scored at the FEI level. It is always a good idea to practice your halt and salute at home, especially if you are new to handling the four reins of a double bridle. With a little work, picking up those reins should become second nature to you, and nothing to worry about at all. Keep striving for correct equitation while influencing your horse in a harmonious way. 

Wishing you much success at the FEI levels!

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!