Do you know what I notice when I watch top riders? Whatever they're doing in the arena, whether they're riding a figure or asking for an extension, they make sure they push for perfection--they go for it.
In taking this chance, they might miss a mark. However, a circle ridden beautifully forward but not quite at the mark is preferable to a slow, dull circle ridden exactly at the mark. Take a chance, and strive for perfection.
I see a lot of riders trying to be very careful and not mess up. It's human nature to say, "well, that's good enough. It wasn't really round, but that's OK." Maybe you can get a safe 5 or lucky 6, but a wake-up call might boost some of those scores to 7s or 8s. The horse might need a quick, strong leg or a definite half halt if he's dull and on the forehand. If nothing else, it will result in a better school in the ring. Say to yourself, "All right, I'm going to ride this figure," and then discipline yourself mentally to really do it.
If you go for it and make a mistake, don't dwell on it. If there is a momentary problem, put yourself and your horse back on track and continue. Let's say you asked for a canter and your horse picked up the wrong lead. You might have to come back to the trot, rebalance and ask for the correct lead again. Yes, it will take time and yes, you will get a low score for that part. However, if the next part of the test is a circle on the correct lead, you will have saved your next mark.
To train yourself to go for it, be really diligent about riding the lines from one point to another. If you're going to do a diagonal, force yourself to really stay on the diagonal. Don't let it weave a little this way or that way. Really nail all the markers, even in your everyday riding practice. Say to yourself, "I'm going to ride a 10-meter circle at B," and make sure you really do it. Don't drift and sway and fall in and out. It is helpful to picture the shapes in your mind (10-meter circle, volte, half-volte, serpentine), just as you see them in books.
Next, pay attention to your transitions. They are really important. For instance, you want to lengthen the trot through the diagonal. At the beginning of the diagonal, really show a point where you make a change. Ride forward, and then really bring your horse back through a crisp transition. Don't let the lengthening gradually build up so that you finally have it partway through the diagonal and then you start slowing down way before the next letter.
Finally, remember that the line and the tempo are chosen by the rider-not the horse. Don't settle for less. If your horse gives you a sort of slow trot, say to him, "I want a little more trot." Then he might start running a little, so you say, "No, I want you here." Keep dictating the tempo and make sure it's always your ride. You pick the line, you do the transitions and you pick the tempo.
Editor's note:Betsy Rebar Sell rode her Wonderful Walden to a U.S. team gold medal and an individual 4th place at the 1999 Pan-American Games in Canada. She runs Shade Tree Farm, a small training facility in Akron, Ohio, and trains with Carole Grant, a double gold medalist at the 1983 Pan-Am Games.
This article first appeared in Dressage Today magazine.