Know Thy Test


By Sally O’Dwyer

We have the new 2019 US Dressage Tests to learn. Daunting, right?  When I enter the show ring, I fear I will be possessed by a horrific amnesia attack and forget where/what I am supposed to be doing.  So, what do I do?  I go all in. I prepare as though I am earning a PhD in my test. 

With my trainer, Adriane Alvord

Get Serious and Work with a Dressage Trainer that competes and knows the tests, so they can teach you to be amazing.  You are worth it! Think of the cost as a necessary part of your PhD test tuition. You are a Young Jedi and you need a Yoda!  Trainers are worth their weight in gold. “Practice makes indeed perfect-but only after a very serious apprenticeship under a master who introduces the disciple to the secrets of the art of choosing the right remedy and solving the problem.” Otto Von Monteton

What’s My Purpose?  Just like an actor, know why you are doing what you are doing. Each level has a specific purpose explained on your test. Understanding your test’s purpose will help you know what your judge is looking for, and you will also be better able to decipher the scores you receive from the judge.

It’s Easier to Remember Something You Love: Your riding is art. Understand how the movements flow together and are sequenced to prepare the horse and rider for the next skill.   Thank the creators for designing your test and tell yourself that the test pattern was written just for you to show off all your mad dressage skills. You know you are gonna WOW the judge because you are freaking poetry in motion when you ride your test. 

Nail Your Directives:  Directives for each movement (also found on your test) explain how to perform each movement. When memorizing your test, include the directives.  Most people know the movements, but not the directives. Accuracy counts, so know the size of your circles, where the transitions are, and to what letter you are traveling. Know what new movements are being introduced in your test.  Know your coefficients.

What Learning Style Works Best for You? Do that!Think about what type of learner you are and focus memorizing your test in a way that best suits you. Are you a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (hands on/physical) learner? Take it easy on your brain and learn your test in three sections: the walk, trot, and the canter tours. 

Read: There are many books on dressage to help you work on your Doctorate. Dressage Secrets for Intro, First, Second, Third  level, by Melanie Patton lay out details riders need to know at each level, along with suggested exercises to prepare and learn tests. 

Dressage Clinic: Sign up now. I mean it! There is a monthly fee and you are worth it.  More tuition towards your PhD. Dressage Clinic offers hundreds of training videos and now have a feature where you can sort the vids according to test level, which is very helpful.

Visualize Rocking It:  To learn your test, visualize in your mind you are riding your test–astride your horse. Do this anytime. It’s great to do this at night before falling asleep in bed. By the way, visualize yourself killing the test! Imagine your horse’s regular, rhythmic footfalls. You are looking up and you can see between your lovely horse’s ears, and you are using your corners. You are relaxed, and your horse is supple and in front of your leg. You look great. Think about what you will be doing while riding and how you will prepare for each movement. Give your horse a little pat for doing such a great job.

Draw Your Test: Download a PDF of a regulation dressage ring. Make a bunch of copies and then draw your test–be accurate!!!!  Make sure you use the standard arena size, 60 by 20 meters. A Dressage Arena Sketch Book is available on Amazon.  I also have the Dressage Rider’s Journal, which is a planner and calendar with 50 plus arena diagram layouts, also available on Amazon.  You can also walk your test out in a ring, or your living room.

Get with the 21st Century, Join the Millennials and Get a Phone App. USDF TESTPRO app covers Intro through Fourth level dressage tests. This app offers multiple learning options. You can read the test as it is written, watch a digital horse perform your test–click to move to the next movement–and you can record an audio version of the tests. TESTPRO with the 2019 tests is currently available for iPhone users and will be available to Android phones this month (June). For more info, please see:

TESTPRO is not free, but it is worth every penny and is part of your dressage test PhD.

Listen to You! You can also record yourself reading the test and play it back to yourself by using an app called Smart Recorder.  Smart Recorder is free, you can download it onto your phone, and is super easy to use. I also use this to record my lessons. You can listen in the car while you are driving to the barn.

Trainer Adriane Alvord Takes a Video

Watch You!  Have someone video you performing your test and watch yourself go. This works best in a regulation sized ring with letters.  Sometimes it is difficult watching ourselves on video because we are our own worst critics, and we are just too harsh on ourselves.  If that’s the case, watch your test being performed by others who have uploaded their rides on YouTube. Make sure you are watching the 2019 test version. They often have the score posted. Judge for yourself where the you think the rider and horse are going well and perhaps could improve. Think about what movement will come next while watching the video.

Consider Just Riding One Test Per Show. Riding more than one test can be challenging.  They are often similar enough to cause confusion. At the lower levels, it is acceptable to ride more than one test at a show–If you like to show more than one class, ride your test, say Second Level Test 2, then ride Second Level test of choice (TOC) and select test two. That way you can do your thing twice without the headache of having to memorize more than one test.  You can also bolster your confidence by having a reader read your test for you.  Don’t worry what others might think of you.  It is okay to have a reader for tests Intro through Fourth level. Readers are prohibited in championship classes. Having a reader really reduces my anxiety! ()

Pictured with my trusty reader, Susan Dunk

Go to Shows and Watch People Ride Your Test.  Try to attend when you are not showing so you can focus on the rides and not have to deal with your 1,500-pound friend.  Enjoy getting to know other competitors at your level.  They are part of your tribe, posse, student body, your cohorts!  These are your people. Show them some love. Now go out there and ride a killer test!

About Me: Sally Bio—Thanks Megan!

I am a boomerang rider, like so many other amateurs. I began as a kid with backyard ponies and horses.  Then college, family, and career consumed me, and horses took a back seat in my life.  I attribute, or blame Megan, my youngest daughter, for getting me back into horses about ten years ago.  She expressed interest in riding, and I jumped all over it and leased a horse for her.  Turns out, she was a lot less interested in horses than I was.  But it got me going again and now I have two horses, an Off the Track Thoroughbred and a young Warmblood.  I am loving the journey, especially all the wonderful people I have met, and am currently working on earning my USDF silver medal. I call myself a dressage passionista and enjoy sharing with others what I have learned, offering encouragement and support to others.  Dressage can be intimidating, and we need to hold each other up and build a nurturing, supportive community.  We ARE good enough! I have started a new blog called

Disclaimer:  I am not affiliated in any way with the products mentioned above. I am recommending them from my personal experience with the products in case they prove helpful to others.


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