1. The challenge in riding tests is putting everything together, so practice that at home! It is not enough to simply be able to do each movement separately, so string the movements of your test together at home. Even if you are not running through the entire test, make a habit of doing several movements in a row. I see many people do a wonderful leg yield when they are specifically working on leg yields, but when asked to do a lengthening on the diagonal, come down the centerline, then perform a leg yield the quality of the movement often deteriorates.
2. Be realistic about the level you are showing. Just because your horses does flying changes doesn't mean you should show him at Third Level, even if the flying changes are easier that the simples ones. The movements of the test should feel easy to you. If there is a shoulder-in in your test, you should be able to ride a quality shoulder-in the first time you ask for it 99 percent of the time. If you can only do a good shoulder-in after five tries your chances of performing one well in the ring are slim. Think about it this way: If the test feels easy in the show ring and it is fun then you gain confidence and learn to relax and really ride in the show ring. If the test feels difficult, then the horse or the rider leaves the show ring feeling defeated and less confident, and it very difficult to improve from that feeling.
3. Plan your show day routine. Pay attention to how long into the training sessions your horse peaks. After 15 minutes, does he get tired or distracted? Is he loose and more relaxed after 50 minutes? Plan your warm-up accordingly. There is nothing worse than having your horse warmed up perfectly and then finding you have to wait 20 minutes before your test.
4. Be organized on the day of the show. For example, how you will do your hair? Will you braid first and then get dressed? If you groom your horse and put him in the stall while you get dressed, is he likely to roll? Don't try to figure these things out on show day. Have a plan.
5. Know your test. Try to avoid waiting until the night before you show to really memorize your test. I find that if you learn it thoroughly a few weeks prior to the show and then every time you ride you practice parts of the pattern, when you get into the show ring, it comes to you easily and it feels natural.
6. Show off! I find the best cure for nerves is to change my mind-set. Take the focus off of yourself, "I hope I don't mess up, I hope I can still ride, I hope I look OK" and change it to, "I am going to make this horse look the best he possibly can!" If you keep the focus on the horse instead of yourself, you will have a better chance of alleviating your own self-created pressure. It is a horse show, so show off your horse!
Courtney King is on the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Developing Long List. She is also a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and has earned her USDF gold medal. She was Lendon Gray's assistant trainer for six years and also worked with Conrad Schumacher. King won the Grand Prix at the 2006 Dressage at Devon on Idocus.