How to (Actually) Learn Your Dressage Test


By Kate Snyder

Do we really need another article on how to learn a dressage test? Actually, yes. You might be surprised to learn that a lot of what is passed around as “common sense” for learning tests is actually debunked by research. Using my training as a developmental and educational psychologist, specifically my knowledge about the science of learning, I have improved my personal dressage education. In this article, I share test-learning strategies with research evidence behind them: spaced retrieval practice, dual-coding, and elaboration. I will also call out “old wisdom” you should avoid.

These strategies require a bit more mental effort, but the payoff is a solidly memorized test that is less likely to be rattled by show nerves. Think of this like the trot-canter transition! Sure, you can get the canter with a kick from your outside leg (cramming strategies), but you’re more likely to build real strength and a reliable transition through aiding with your inside seat bone (cognitive psychology strategies).

Spaced Retrieval Practice

Decades of research support the effectiveness of what used to be called the “testing effect.” Now called retrieval practice – recalling information from memory results in stronger, long-lasting learning. Retrieval practice is most effective when done after forgetting has started to set in – this is the spacing effect. Resist the temptation to read a test over and over until it feels familiar, because this results in a false sense of competence (illusion-of-knowing effect). Instead, learn a new test by recalling it from memory (retrieval practice) over time (spacing). USDF Bronze medalist Jeri Fuller-Matheny uses retrieval practice when she describes “pulling the test back out from her mind” a few hours before her ride.

Any amount of spacing seems to work pretty well [1], so just try to forget a bit before you retrieve. USDF Bronze and Silver medalist Briana Williams explains that she frequently “rides” her tests in her mind as she falls asleep at night, which is a great form of spaced retrieval.

Spaced retrieval practice appears to be a general principle of memory across species[2], so try limit re-rides over time or your horse will gain the memory benefits and start to anticipate movements.


Dual-coding is the cognitive strategy of pairing images with words/concepts. This strategy can be especially effective in learning test geometry. In the 2019 US Dressage Tests, Training Level Test 3, the three-loop serpentine is a double-coefficient, so it’s worth a bit of cognitive effort to invest in this movement.

  • In order to pair the image with the concept, you need to know what the correct movement looks like. USDF has helpful articles that diagram out geometry: ([3]. Use retrieval practice to draw the pattern from memory so that you mentally link the geometry and the movement.
  • Tackling a new test that requires zig-zags? Sketch out the movements alongside an article on the topic, like this ( helpful read from FEI 4* and USEF “S” dressage Judge Janet Foy. Even better, try annotating your diagrams with notes so that you’re combining concepts, images, and meaning.


Elaboration is the process of attaching meaning to something. For the 2019 tests, make sure you read the test designers’ perspective! Don’t just focus on what’s changed for your test, but reflect on insights such as this[4]: “…to try to help maintain the quality of the horse’s walk from the very beginning of training, we have added from Training through Third Levels a double coefficient (×2) for both the medium walk and the free or extended walks.” (FEI 4* dressage judge and chair of the USDF Test Writing Working group, Jeanne McDonald). That little gem also gives you the bigger picture of how your test fits in the bigger picture of training.

Approach the new test with the goal to not just memorize a to-do list, but to build a cohesive mental model of an interrelated set of movements. As you scan the 2019 tests and compare them with previous versions to see what has changed, don’t overlook the test designers’ discussion of the rationale for changes. For example, Jeanne McDonald4 explains how the true simple changes at Second Level Test 1 are now modified to support the training process by breaking the canter-walk transition into a canter-trot and trot-walk transition. Pay close attention to your double coefficients for your test, the test designers’ explanation of double coefficients – especially those that are new for 2019, the directives for the test (you know, that little box up at the top that so often gets ignored), and how each of those fit together.

Combining Cognitive Strategies

Many of these cognitive strategies can be combined for extra learning power. USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist Laura Burket explains her method that taps into retrieval practice and elaboration: “I like to visualize where I am going, sometimes making little riding notes to myself as well. If you see me staring off, pointing into the distance, and possibly muttering to myself, don’t disturb me. I’m making sure I know where to go in my next test!”

New research finds that sketching and explaining is more effective for learning than either sketching or explaining alone, and more effective than just restudying.[5] So for an extra memory boost, sketch out your test and explain your strategy out loud as you draw.

Here are some other suggestions on combining strategies:

Instead of… Try this…
Rereading the test or having someone read it to you. Can you recall the test movements from memory? (retrieval practice)Can you recall the test movements alongside your own “effective riding” checklist? (retrieval practice)What are you doing at each movement? (retrieval practice) How are you preparing for the next movement?  Where are your half-halts and why? (retrieval practice & elaboration)What does the geometry of each movement look like? (dual-coding)
Always reviewing or recalling the entire test from memory. If someone gives you a movement within the test, can you recite the rest of the test from memory? (retrieval practice)
Looking over the purpose of the test and the double-coefficients. From memory, can you explain how certain movements in your test prepare you for subsequent movements? (retrieval practice & elaboration)Can you recall the purpose of the test and the double coefficients, both from memory? (retrieval practice)From memory, can you explain why those movements are double coefficients and connect them to the purpose of the test? (retrieval practice & elaboration)
Watching videos of the new tests being ridden. Pause the video periodically as you watch it – can you name what comes next? (retrieval practice)
Reading from the test and drawing out the movements. Can you draw the test from memory? (retrieval practice & dual-coding)Can you draw the test from memory and annotate your drawing with notes about your half-halts, dual coefficients, and more? (retrieval practice & dual-coding & elaboration)

What’s Hot, What’s Not

With your new toolkit of cognitive psychology strategies, what techniques should you avoid?

  • Be skeptical of anything that suggests you “take it easy on your brain.” In contrast, research demonstrates that desirable difficulty is necessary for learning to stick. Re-reading your test over and over is easy on your brain but it fools you into feeling like you have it memorized, much like a student who crams for an exam by copying over notes. Retrieval practice that is spaced out over periods of forgetting is tough on your brain, but the payoff is more solid learning.
  • Run away from anything that advises you to tailor your test learning to some kind of learning style. Although lots of people insist that they learn better if they process information visually or auditorily (or some other way), there is no research evidence to support this[6] and your time is better spent on cognitive psychology strategies that have decades of evidence to support their effectiveness for learning.

Whether you use an app, videos, drawing, or whatever – just make sure you’re approaching your new test in a cognitively active manner that draws on spaced retrieval practice, dual-coding, and elaboration.

Happy test learning!

Dr. Kate Snyder received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at Duke University and currently works as an Associate Professor of Psychology at Hanover College. She adopted her off-track Thoroughbred, Safely Spun, from Second Stride, Inc. and earned her USDF Bronze Medal with him in 2018. Kate trains with Laura Burket of Battle Creek Dressage. You can find Kate’s work on the application of educational psychology to dressage on Facebook at Ed Psych Equestrian and on Twitter @DressageProf.

[1] Karpicke, J. D., & Bauernschmidt, A. (2011). Spaced retrieval: Absolute spacing enhances learning regardless of relative spacing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition37, 1250-1257.

[2] Sisti, H. M., Glass, A. L., & Shors, T. J. (2007). Neurogenesis and the spacing effect: Learning over time enhances memory and the survival of new neurons. Learning & Memory, 14, 368-375.

[3] Rowse, K. (2016, September). Geometry Class. USDF Connection, 28-32.

[4] McDonald, J. (2018, November). First Look: The 2019 USDF and US. Equestrian Dressage Tests. USDF Connection, 60-63.

[5] Fiorella, L., & Kuhlmann, S. (2019). Creating drawings enhances learning by teaching. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/edu0000392

[6] Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

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