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Ignore the Dressage Judge?

In a previous blog, “Tips for Tactical Test Riding”, I detailed some ways riders can squeeze every last mark from the dressage judge. However, in this article, I am going to backtrack a little and say that the judge’s marks and comments are not the be all and end all and here’s why…

To set the scene; you have just finished your test, which you feel went quite well. No major errors, you stayed within the white boards, you both remained at least semi focused!

You are cautiously optimistic ahead of the results but when they arrive, you are heavily disappointed with the mark. You quickly read down through the comments and they definitely seem harsh. 

Here are some pointers and things to consider for the interpretation of your dressage test. 

Only You Know What You Are Sitting On

You may be sitting on a 4 year old at its first show or an older horse but fresh off the track and while YOU know what your horse is currently capable of and its circumstances, the dressage judge does not. Unless you are in an aged specific class, the judge has no idea what you are sitting on. It is for this reason that sometimes, while we should take the judge’s comments on board, you may have to actually ignore their advice… for now. 



Riding a 4/ 5 year old at its first ever show and receiving comments such as “unsteady in the contact”, “above the bit on occasion”, “needs to be rounder” etc. are to be expected. However, they may leave us wanting to go home and put the draw reins on! While these comments may be 100% true, due to your horse’s current circumstances, your focus is most likely / should be more so on the first two elements of the training scale, rhythm and relaxation and less on the contact. As the horse matures, consistency in the contact will rank higher on the list of priorities. Working with a good coach is hugely important at this stage.

Rider Goals

Before I go down the centreline, I like to set myself achievable goals, “rider goals”.These are  centered around things that I can easily control and I like to pick 2 or 3 at a time. They should be things that if done consistently well, will benefit the test overall. 


Here are some typical examples that would be on my list…

Half Halts – I like to input my half halts into the test floorplan as it helps me to remember to do them.

Breathing – I like to plan my deep breaths like I plan my half halts.

Keeping my horse in front of my leg at all times and if they sneak back behind it, do something about it. 

Positional Errors – being mindful of bad habits such as a wayward hand from start to finish. 


The most important thing that all of these goals have in common is that the expectation is on the rider. Not the horse. 


The effect of taking this mindset approach is…

1) Having executed the “rider goals”, there is a sense of achievement, regardless of the result.

2) If you did not do what you had intended, without even seeing the dressage sheet, you will know the areas where practice is needed. 

Working with your Coach

Riders at all levels of the sport need to have a coach they work with regularly. Find me a top level rider that does it solo? 


By working with your coach, you can develop a training roadmap for you and your horse.

Having a direction and a plan to get there, will not only ensure you have the patience for the small steps along the journey, it will also help ensure that you do not go “off piste” on the back of a sub par dressage score or judges comment – see previous point re draw reins.


Working with a coach that you have established a relationship with is probably the most important piece of advice I could give. You need to trust your coach and similarly, trust the process! Shortcuts just don’t work with horses.

A few last things…

Before signing off, here are a few things that are important to remember before you pay to be judged and head up that centreline…


Leave your emotions aside – Equestrians are a passionate breed of people and typically heavily invested in our horses. So, before a disappointing result leaves you questioning your whole life’s purpose (pause for dramatic effect). Ask yourself, are the marks / comments harsh? Or am I being hypersensitive?


Training programme  – Have you set out a training plan with your coach? Have you got a realistic timescale for the different elements and steps of the training scale? As we all know with horses, within our plans, we also need flexibility. Consistently working with your coach will keep you focused even if you have to step a little sideways from the original plan. If your coach is unable to be present at a show, I strongly recommend getting your test recorded. Often as riders we feel one thing and when we look back on the video, see something else leaving us a little confused. Once again, your coach can help you understand what should take priority and when. 


Progression – It is so important when you read through your dressage test to take note of the improvements you may have made and the marks you have achieved for doing so. Has the accuracy of your circle sizes improved? Did you gain an extra mark this week for submission?  Take the good feedback and celebrate it. This will help keep you motivated.


Get on your own path – please do not compare yourself and your horse with others. We compete on a living, breathing animal and as well as being different to each other, every day with them can be different too. We are all on our own journey so stay in your own lane and remember that comparison is the thief of joy! 


The Bigger picture – I often tell my clients, don’t be afraid to sacrifice a mark or two for the sake of good quality training. So for example, it is better to have a late transition of good quality than a transition of poor quality on time. One is conducive to a solid foundation of training while the other could become an issue that may need more time to fix in the future. 


All of this prior planning and mindset management can really help riders set realistic expectations for their tests and prevent them from becoming disheartened upon receiving a less than desired result. 

I hope you found this helpful and as always, feel free to contact me with any queries. 

Stay Sound, 

Sarah x