One of the aspects I like best about showing dressage is that you get to demonstrate the connection you have between you and your horse. When you watch someone put in a great test, it looks effortless, as if horse and rider are one. The movements flow into one another for a seamless performance. I use several strategies to help me attain a precise and accurate test.
Before heading off to a show, study the directive ideas for the tests that you will be showing. These will help give you an idea of what the judge is looking for and let you know how the judges would like to see your horse presented. For example, in the trot lengthening at First Level, the directive ideas are lengthening of the frame and stride, regularity of trot, balance and straightness and transitions. So when you are schooling this movement at home, make sure your horse is really lengthening throughout his body and not just going faster and flinging his legs. Pay attention to the steps before and after the lengthening itself since these count as the transitions into and out of the lengthening.
It's important to know where your coefficient scores are, so you can focus on those movements. When practicing at home, really work on your transitions from the collected walk to extended walk back to collected walk. The extended walk is always a coefficient. If your horse gets tense in extended walk, try leg yielding him from one leg to the other--just a stride or two in leg yield one way and then back the other way. This will encourage your horse to reach into your hands and seek the contact while still remaining active with his hind legs.
Know your horse's strengths and weaknesses within the movements, and how many points are possible for each. Let's say your horse is a bit weak in his medium canter but is very precise in his simple changes. Focus on making your simple changes clear and accurate so you can get the maximum points for this movement and give yourself a little wiggle room if your medium canter doesn't go as well as you'd hoped. If your horse has a mistake in a movement, know where your next "highlight" movement is and really go for it to make up for the points you may have lost. I keep a running tally going in my head so I always know where I can pick up points when needed.
Also, don't forget the importance of corners. Corners are a great place to make a small correction that can make a big difference. You can bend your horse through the corner if he's getting stiff or give him a half halt to rebalance him. Take a moment to gather your thoughts before your next movement. Tests that flow beautifully are those that are ridden every step and not just from movement to movement. The quality of the preparation before a movement will determine the quality of the movement itself.
It's inevitable at some point in our show careers to go off course. If you know your test, hopefully you can quickly figure out where you are and get yourself back on course without disturbing the flow of your test too much. Familiarize yourself with the flow of your test and how and where the movements are scored. Then, if something goes wrong, you will only lose points for the movement with the mistake and not for the next three movements. For example, I had a horse that put in a change before C after his canter pirouette in the Prix St. Georges (I was supposed to remain in counter canter until C). The judge rang me off course. This gave me the opportunity to do the pirouette again. As a result, I had the chance to get the flying change in at C instead of getting a zero for not doing the change.
It sounds simple, but never forget to relax and have fun while riding your test. I try to take a deep breath and look around a bit once the test is underway. Take a moment to connect with your horse and give him a scratch on the neck when you're halting at X. A good rule of thumb is to show a level below what you are schooling at home. This way you will feel confident that you and your horse can perform all the movements easily. Enjoy the experience of showing off your horse. Dressage shows are a great way to check the progress of your training so show off all that hard work you've been doing, smile and have fun!
Jessie Steiner has been riding dressage all of her life with her mother, FEI rider/trainer Betsy Steiner. A U.S. Dressage Federation bronze and silver medalist, Jessie won a team bronze dressage medal at the North American Young Riders' Championships in 1992. She has trained and competed successfully through the FEI-levels. For over 12 years Jessie has served as assistant trainer for Team Steiner.