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Tips for Tactical Test Riding!

Have you ever ridden a Dressage Test and upon leaving the arena, struggled to remember the details or feel it was all a bit of a blur??? 

Well, I think we have all been there at some stage! Whether it was a moment when you went blank and lost your way or felt like you went through the movements at the speed of Super Mario, these next few tips are aimed to give you TIME within the test and learn how, with tactical riding, not to give away those all important little marks. (And keep an eye out for the Bonus Tips!)


1. The Centre line. In every dressage test, you will usually go up the centre line AT LEAST twice, to start and end your test, but you will often turn onto it many more times during. We all know this and yet, we can all be guilty of focusing on other, “more challenging” areas of the test.

 A good centre line starts with a great turn. With the arena being 20m wide, a turn onto the centre line can (at the lower levels) be ridden as a half of a 10m circle . However, I encourage my clients to practice riding half a 9m circle to the centre line. This will ensure that you do not overshoot the centre line and if you find yourself a little shy of it, a gentle leg yield sideways will get you there quite subtly. Bonus Tip: Remember that forwardness helps with straightness so for a great centre line, you may want to consider being in a slightly higher gear. 



2. The Halt. If you find that your horse keeps stepping to one side in the halt, flex them (at the poll) to that side. So for example, if your horse consistently steps right into the halt, through the transition, ensure that they are flexed to the right. Bonus Tip: Remember, you only need flexion at the poll, no neck bend. 



3. Count. If the movement says halt for 5 seconds, be patient and count those 5 seconds. Similarly, if the movement says walk 3-7 steps, actually count the steps. This can take practice but it’s excellent for keeping you accountable. Bonus Tip: if your horse has a tendency to be slow off the leg, aim to walk for 5 steps as it may take another 2 steps to get back into the trot… (and add “work on Responsiveness” to your to do list). 


4. Correct Posture. A rider that sits tall, with shoulders back and head up, will have a look of poise and elegance. It can change the whole picture for the better. I am guilty of this myself and consistently need to be mindful of it. Use of mirrors or a person on the ground (can be anybody that can say “shoulders!) will keep you aware. We may not all be blessed with the long legs of the “ Typical Dressage Rider” but let’s not make ourselves look even smaller! 



5. The 1m rule. This tip can be applied in several areas and you have already read about riding the turn onto the centre line as half a 9m circle instead of 10m. Others areas that it can be applied to: 

Transitions – aim to complete your transitions 1m early. This will prevent them being late and help to ensure that transitions are ridden with a forward tendency… no handbrake needed & abrupt transitions can be a thing of the past! 

Returning to the track – when you have a movement that takes you off the track (a change of rein KXM for example), aim to reach the track 1m early (so 1m before M using the example). 

This gives the illusion of more fluidity to the test and will also give the rider a little more time to take a breath before the next movement.



6. Corners vs Circles. It seems obvious to say that corners should be ridden deeper than circles. However, many riders will fall into the trap of following the tracks of previous riders and not differentiating between riding a corner or a 20m circle. Don’t be afraid to make your own tracks!



7. The Free Walk. This movement is often overlooked in training and sometimes for good reason with the walk being the most fragile of paces. However, the marks given for the free walk are  x 2!!! For example: 8/10 = 16. 4/10 = 8. The walk is where the majority of a horse’s tension will be displayed and so it is worth practicing techniques which encourage your horse to relax during this movement. Bonus Tip: Lateral walk movements can help establish a better walk. 


8. The Half Halt. There are many benefits to riding a half halt. Most of which are for the horse and include:

  • Preparing for the next movement.
  • Re-balancing within a movement.
  • Maintaining horse’s focus and attention.
  • Encouraging engagement of the hind end.
  • Improvement of suspension / cadence of the paces. 


However, I will always explain to my riders that the Half Halt is also a huge benefit to them! In simple terms –  Half Halt = 1 Second. By half halting regularly throughout the test, the rider will give themselves a second to take a breath and as a result, stay calm,  focused & present in the moment. I also encourage riders to include their half halts in the learning of  their test, (much in the same way that a singer would learn where to take a breath while singing a particular song). 


9. Smile: Yes we all know that a smiling rider is more pleasing to the eye of a dressage judge and so is highly recommended. However, it actually goes deeper than that… the link between smiling and relaxation is similar to the chicken and the egg scenario –  Which comes first? We know that smiling will come naturally to a person who is relaxed or happy. However, it has been proven that smiling (even a forced smile) can trick your brain into relieving stress and slow the heart rate down. For this reason, training yourself to smile as you go up that centre line will help you ride a better test – fake it ‘til you make it!