Memorize Your Dressage Tests

Dressage rider and trainer Heather Mason offers several strategies to successfully memorize your dressage tests.
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Dressage rider and trainer Heather Mason offers several strategies to successfully memorize your dressage tests.

Q: What's a good technique for memorizing my dressage test? I'm riding in my first event, and I'm afraid I'm going to forget the test as I enter at A!

A: There are many different methods for memorizing dressage tests. Choosing the most effective one for you depends on how you learn best: by watching, doing, writing down, etc. If you're not sure of your specific learning style, you may have to discover it through trial and error. (Just be sure to make the "errors" at home, not in the show ring.) Before I explain these different methods, here are some general tips to keep in mind:

Memorizing Dressage Test

When you read a new test, try to understand the logic of its organization. Ask yourself, "Why does this movement come before the next one?" The more sense the tests make to you, the less likely you are to skip movements, ride them out of sequence or ride them at the wrong letter. For example, in USEF First Level, Test 4, the 10-meter circle before the leg-yield helps to balance your horse and improve the bending. The 12 meters of straightness on the center line between the circle at L and the start of the leg yield at X shows that your horse isn't falling sideways into the leg yield.

Be familiar with the locations of the letters around the arena, especially C, A, B and E, which can be a good reference if you blank out halfway through the test. Rather than trying to memorize your test word-for-word, try to learn the pattern of the movements, simplifying the terminology in your mind. For example, instead of memorizing, "HXF, lengthen stride in trot," say to yourself, "Lengthen across the diagonal." Here are some other typical phrases: Canter in the first corner, trot at the end, circle in the middle, free walk across the short diagonal.

As you read the new test, break it down into sections. Since the walk movements are usually in the middle of the test, I find it easiest to break the test into two parts: the work before the walk and the work afterward. Many movements are repeated in both directions, so check to see if they appear back-to-back in the same section or with one in the pre-walk section and the other in the post-walk section.

After you've read through the test several times and thought about its logical organization, try one or more of these techniques to commit it to memory:

  • Practice riding the test. Give a copy of the test to your trainer or a friend and ask her to correct you if you make any mistakes. If no ground help is available, carry the test in your pocket while you ride, and stop to refer to it if you get lost. (Only do this with a safe horse that won't spook when he hears you unfold the paper.) You can practice your test in any size arena, so long as you're aware of which dimensions are inaccurate--and you remember to correct any modifications you had to make when you enter the actual show ring!

One drawback of practicing a test repeatedly is that some horses learn to anticipate the movements. In these cases, using one of the following unmounted techniques is preferable:

  • Draw the test. Sketch the rectangle and letters of the arena on a whiteboard, chalkboard or piece of paper. Then draw the test pattern, making note of particular movements and transitions between the gaits. Repeat this until you can do it without referring to the printed test.
  • Visualize the test. Close your eyes and imagine yourself riding each movement. This technique also works well when done in conjunction with the drawing method.
  • "Ride" your test on foot. This is especially fun for kids. In your living room or basement, arrange pieces of paper labeled with the arena letters in a rectangle on your floor. Then walk through the test, making transitions at the appropriate letters. Change your gait just as your horse would: jogging for the trot and skipping for the canter.
  • Watch the test being performed live or on video. The US Dressage Federation offers a DVD, "On the Levels," which demonstrates and explains the current tests. You can also make your own videos of yourself or friends riding at home or at shows.

You'll know you've memorized the test successfully if you can pick it up from any point. This is very useful if your test is disrupted for whatever reason. For example, if there were a loose horse on the show grounds and the judge decided to stop your ride until the horse was caught, you would be expected to continue where you left off.

On show day, take a last look over your test before entering the arena. (I do not recommend watching the test right before your ride, though, as it can be very confusing for you if the rider before you goes off course.) Think through the movements that you take for granted in practice: At exactly what letter does the walk start and finish? How many seconds is the halt? How many steps is the rein back? I like to do this in the barn before I tack up. If you prefer to do it with a friend, be sure it's someone who is familiar with your shorthand, so there's no risk of getting confused in the critical moments before the test (e.g., the poor husbands or boyfriends who don't get that "free walk across the diagonal" means the same as "HXF, free walk").

If you plan to ride more than one test at a show, only look at the first test in the morning before you ride it. Once you've finished that, clear your mind of it and review the second test.

Remember, if your mind goes blank in the middle of a test, it's not the end of the world. Almost everyone has been there! Take a deep breath, regroup and continue in an organized manner. If the judge's bell doesn't jog your memory, ride up to the booth and ask her to tell you the next movement. You will be marked down for the error, but if you give your brain a moment to "reboot," you won't have to write off the rest of the test.

Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Mason has trained and competed many horses through the FEI levels, including two homebred mares, FC Fantasy and Integrity. A US Equestrian Federation "S" dressage judge and US Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist, Heather also has guided many students through the FEI levels. She teaches, trains and breeds horses on her family's Flying Change Farm in Tewksbury, New Jersey.

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Read more about Heather in the July 2012 issue.