Going down the centerline remains just as exciting for me today as it was during my first dressage test in 1976. Over the years, I learned that one aspect of riding can only be developed with experience in the competition arena. It's what I call "show savvy." Considering that every dressage rider spends hundreds of hours schooling for a relative few seven-minute tests, this savvy takes years to acquire.
A consistent pre-test routine is invaluable. Try to warm-up in the same conditions expected in the show ring. If the footing in the arena is sloppy, be sure to splash through the puddles in the warm-up ring. For venues that are home to hundreds of birds, make sure you trot through the pigeon patch. You may have to spend extra time reassuring your horse but he'll encounter the same distractions in the show ring.
Prior to test time, I meet the groom for finishing touches--coat, hat, water and rags. In my case, it is my husband who stands outside the warm-up, but a coach, friend or show buddy will do as well. Just conduct one final check of the details before entering the arena. When the rider ahead of you salutes, hustle in and give your horse every available second to become familiar with the ring environment. In these few minutes, listen carefully and feel what kind of horse you have for the test. Then decide if you should ride conservatively or go for broke.
Even the best pre-test routine won't prepare you for every possibility. Years ago in Connecticut, at a Grand Prix test riding Monarch at the Westchester Fairfield Show, I felt my breeches' zipper open early in the test. I used the extended walk to pull it up so I could focus on the ride and not the draft. During a Prix St. Georges test in Culpepper, I felt my stallion's croup tighten when a huge horse fly landed on his rump during the collected walk. Realizing that the situation would only get worse, I reached around and smashed the bug just past "C" so my horse could relax for the walk pirouettes.
Recently, I rode Fourth Level, Test 2 in wet, sloppy footing. The test called for a canter half pass to X with a flying change at I. When my mare slipped and trotted just past X, I picked up the canter as soon as possible and executed the flying change. It was beyond the letter but we avoided omitting the movement and receiving a zero. These nearly automatic responses came from previous experience and resulted in higher scores.
Not all examples of show savvy are so colorful. This may seem obvious, but know your test. Mastery of the test sequence allows you to remain mentally ahead of the movement you are riding. Use the corners between movements to regain your horse's attention, and realize that many adjustments are less noticeable when you are riding away from the judges.
There is no tack store or catalog where you can purchase poise and composure. Show savvy is only acquired through show experience. Lastly, take heart and realize that even riders with decades of experience get surprised and make mistakes. I recently went down centerline at Dressage at Devon only to hear a bell ring after my salute. The judge at C politely reminded me that the whip attached to my hand was forbidden in CDI competition. Experience told me to simply smile and be a good sport.
Gigi Nutter has been a competitive rider for more than 30 years. A U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) gold medalist, she has also coached students to USDF bronze and silver medals. A Grand Prix competitor, she is a longtime student of Karl Mikolka. Her horses and students are prominently featured in Walter Zettl's video instructional series A Matter of Trust. Based in Whitesburg, Ga., she and her husband, Scott Nutter, operate Touch 'n Go Farm, a teaching and training facility.