When I practice and review a dressage test, I study the way it should be and also problems that might occur as I ride it. For instance, if my horse typically is resistant on the left rein during a left shoulder-in, I specifically practice what my reactions will need to be if a problem occurs on the left side.
In another example, I have a young horse that's quite spooky. I don't study my test as if he will go around perfectly. I study it as if he was going to spook, and I figure out what I will need to do to handle the situation. This visualization helps so that if the problem occurs in the arena, I don't panic. I ride through it.
This kind of preparation is a skill I learned from competing at the North American Young Riders' Championships. Along with it came learning to focus. As I've matured, I know that my ability to focus also has matured. That's one of the most important tools a rider must learn.
Say, for example, you're riding First Level at a show and your horse isn't quite consistent and steady. Focus on what you can do at that time. Make a system for yourself, and stick to it. At the show is not the time to look at everyone else and what they're doing and change what you do. A show is not the place to ask your horse to be more expressive, for example. That's homework. Try riding your figures more accurately, instead of thinking about how to make things more brilliant. Think about how you can get from letter to letter accurately and with the greatest amount of ease.
Also, listen to your instructor, because what you focus on--skills such as half halts or aid giving--can be different during each stage of training. Dressage is made up of building blocks, and you can't run before you learn to walk.
This article first appeared in the June 2001 issue of Dressage Today magazine.