Ride Like a Dressage Diva

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You can be a Dressage Diva too! You can be a Dressage Diva too!
Dressage is boring I hear you say? Well...that depends how you look at it! Yes, it can be dreary if horse and rider slop around any-old-how in endless circles, or you can view it as a challenge to see what you and your horse can achieve together.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see a top level dressage horse and rider perform, you’ll probably have shivered with goosebumps at some of the movements...half passes, flying changes, passages, pirouettes and superb extended trots.

I remember my first viewing of such a performance, it was at Melbourne Royal Show and pony-mad me sat transfixed in the stands, showbags forgotten at my feet as I watched (and shivered!) through a display put on by ex-mounted police officer Owen Matthews riding Aintree Boy, at night under lights. Wow!

My poor pony suffered thereafter as I tried in vain to make him do half passes and ‘arch his neck’ but alas, he was an old school-master wise to my efforts.

I moved through a succession of horses, ending up with another school-master, this time a thoroughbred who was well educated. By then I was having lessons from an instructor who was a top-level dressage competitor, and he helped me discover the true magic of dressage.

The most memorable lesson was one a few days before I was due to compete in a one day event. Previously my dressage had been so-so...adequate but nothing special. Everything changed during that lesson though! He taught me the difference between a working and extended trot. Instead of my horse merely going faster doing what I imagined was an extended trot, I soon discovered the right cues to ask my horse to lengthen his stride with impulsion that took my breath away!

He also taught me how to salute (yes, it is an art we’ll discuss later) and as basic as it sounds, to keep straight lines straight, circles round and that the loose rein walk at the end of the test was just as important as any other movement.

When it came time to do my test the following weekend, I nailed it, finishing a credible third in a very strong field and I know for a fact that if it wasn’t for that lesson, I wouldn’t have placed at all.

But there’s more to dressage than winning competitions, it’s about riding...really riding...as opposed to merely sitting on a horse’s back.

It’s hard work but can be fun and you and your horse will share those ‘light-bulb’ moments when everything just seems to click. Ideally, you need to have regular lessons if you’re serious about improving your dressage performance. Heck, even top-level riders regularly receive instruction!


First...learn your test. Basic huh? But if you don’t know it forwards and backwards, you won’t be able to focus on riding it to the best of your ability.

Here’s some tips to help you imprint a test on your brain:

• Use an old bed sheet and mark out a dressage arena on it. Then you can ‘ride’ the test as often as you like in the privacy of your loungeroom, trotting...cantering and saluting at the appropriate markers.

• Draw a dressage arena on an A4 sheet of paper, photocopy and draw the test with a pencil, using different line styles for the various paces (eg. dots for trot, dashes for canter).

• If you don’t have access to a dressage arena, mark one out yourself. You can use upturned terracotta or plastic pots to draw ‘A, B C’ etc. or buy some witch’s hats (you can get these from Bunnings) to use as markers. You can also buy a set of dressage markers from saddle shops.


Here’s some basics...make straight lines STRAIGHT. Tests usually commence with “Enter at A, halt and salute at X” Line your horse up with the C marker at the end of the arena and aim to keep the centre of your horse’s head pointing at C.

Prepare to halt at X (which is in the centre of the arena but isn’t marked) by sitting down in the saddle a few steps beforehand so you don’t over-shoot it. This will also allow your horse to be balanced and (hopefully!) stand square. Practice halting at home by having a friend telling you whether your horse is square or not. You’ll soon be able to ‘feel’ when your horse is standing square.

Now for the salute. I’ve judged a bit of Pony Club dressage in my time and am amazed how many riders rush through this bit. It’s like, halt...boom, boom...rush off again. Take your time! This is what my dressage instructor taught me:

• Halt for a few seconds (count one)

• Drop your right arm down by your side (two)

• Bow your head smoothly, not just a quick nod (three)

• Raise your head (four)

• Lift your right arm and take up the reins again (five)

• Ride forward (in a straight line)

This is all done in a smooth one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five.

Go on, try this right now as you read. DON’T RUSH the salute!

Don’t practise the whole test over and over and over or your horse may start anticipating movements. He needs to be paying attention and obeying you, not doing his own thing.

Ride INTO the corners...avoid cutting corners which will see you lose points.

Make circles ROUND, not flat sided. A figure eight comprises two ROUND circles with a change of direction in the centre...not two half circles joined by a straight line in the middle.

Try to do transitions exactly ON the required markers, not a few paces before or after.

Don’t rush your test...the judge is looking for accuracy and harmony between horse and rider. If your horse strikes off on the wrong canter lead, bring him back to a trot and try again, which will be marked more favourably than if you let him continue on the wrong leg.

Try to show a distinct difference between collected and extended paces. An extended pace doesn’t mean just going faster...it’s your horse covering more ground using impulsion. Look at Figure 1 on the left to help you get a mental image of what this means.

If you experience some problems, don’t despair...all is not lost. Dressage tests are made up of different sections which are all scored individually. Don’t dwell on any mistakes...ride on towards the next section and pick up the pieces as best you can. Your horse will sense if you tense up which will only make things worse.


So...does your horse need to be collected/on the bit? Well this depends on the level you’re competing at. In lower levels of competition, it’s more important the horse be moving freely forwards into a light rein contact, and the test be as accurate as possible with rhythmic paces.

At higher levels then your horse should be collected BUT not on the forehand, ie; head jammed in with hindlegs trailing, which will definitely not impress the judge!

If you aren’t ready for collection, it’s far better to have your horse moving forwards into a light contact rather than all jammed up.

Long/Loose rein

A lot of riders just let their horse dawdle during loose rein sections of a dressage test...and then wonder why they scored low for it! A good loose rein walk should see your horse lowering his head with long, even, ground-covering steps. Push, push, PUSH with your seat to keep him moving forward in an animated fashion. Now is not the time to slack off, this movement counts just as much as the others.

A clean turnout will help with overall impression. A clean turnout will help with overall impression.


• Double-check you’ve learned the right test!

• Watch a few tests before going in (unless you’re first cab off the rank!) to further imprint the test in your mind.

• Make sure your horse is well warmed up beforehand...avoid sitting on him too long watching tests (see above!) Keep him moving and keep him warm and attentive to your aids.

• Check your diagonals at the trot (sitting down on the outside diagonal, ie when the outside foreleg strikes the ground). Learn to do this by feel alone so you don’t have to look down, which can throw your balance off.

• Once you’ve collected your test, study the judge’s comments carefully and learn from them so you can try and do better next time. Have someone video your test to watch at home later, or get your instructor to critique.

• Remember...you can’t talk to your horse during the test or you’ll be penalized!

• Turnout may not play a part but a good, clean turnout will really help with your overall impression.

• Smile at the judge...enjoy yourself! This is a great opportunity for you to show off the work you and your horse have done together!

• Loosen up! Do some stretching exercises before mounting, listen to music (gotta love the iPod!), chill out and relax.

• Don’t rush getting your horse ready, if there’s the end of a stirrup leather tickling his flank, or the girth is too tight, your horse is going to be distracted and not concentrating on obeying you!

• Don’t constantly over-school your horse or he’ll go stale. Keep schooling sessions short and finish with something your horse enjoys.

• View dressage as a challenge and you’ll be rewarded with a better behaved and educated horse. And take it from me...that IS fun!

© Vicki Sach

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