Dressage Spectator Etiquette

Coworkers brave a dressage show

By Sally O’Dwyer

My officemates decided to come and watch me ride in a dressage show. I was thrilled…at first. Then, I panicked because they don’t understand how to behave at a show. Since appropriate spectator decorum is pretty much unwritten, I hope to prevent any nasty faux pas by offering your fans some protocol tips.

Dressage loves its audience! Dressage fans everywhere, we welcome you with open arms and we want you to come see us prance. Dressage is visually stunning, the horses are beautiful, and the riders wear great outfits. Sadly, to some, dressage might lack the drama of foxhunting, show jumping, or the thrills of the rodeo. (Jumping, rodeo action, or fox sightings are unintentional at dressage shows).

The purpose of showing dressage is to stay on and impress the judge. To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to tell exactly what it is going on in the ring.  Just know that the horse and rider are giving it their all. We are suppling, bending, being accurate, using all of our aids, remembering a test series, keeping our horses forward, and more. This is our moment. We have worked hard and put in a lot of effort and expense to be here. Before we go in the ring, many things are going through our minds. We are likely to be tense, stressed out, and maybe even scared. We might not look like it, but we are, trust me. Forgive us if we are snappy.

Watching dressage is convenient. If you are going to watch a particular rider, they will be given a ride time, such as 8:59 AM. This makes it easy for you, the fan, to know exactly when your eyes should be on the ring. Our rides are usually only about 5 minutes long, so we won’t test your patience. After the performance, compliment the rider profusely, even if you are unclear how it went–good or bad. Safe commentary includes “well ridden” or “you had some beautiful moments.” Another safe word is “wow”. Praise the horse to death with phrases such as he/she is “such a beauty,” “so talented,” “nice mover,” and  “well bred.” Stay away from terms like “cute” and “adorable.”  A great question would be “What’s his or her breeding?” or “Who’s the sire?” To a well-groomed horse and rider, you can also say, “You both are beautifully turned out.”

Don’t scare the horses. Horses are flight animals, which means they tend to flee at any sign of perceived danger–it’s in their DNA. Horses at shows are already away from home and out of their usual environment. They are sensitive and react to movement and sounds. When startled, they may spook. Spooking is when the horse suddenly jumps sideways or changes directions to run away. To help all the riders, it’s best not to wear floppy, flowy clothing, such as big brimmed hats, scarves, or poufy jackets. Also, stay away from wild colors and umbrellas. Ball caps are pretty much de rigueur, and with sunglasses, they make a good look. There will probably be some walking involved at the showgrounds, from the parking lot to the show ring, so wear boots or comfy, flat shoes. Prepare for all kinds of weather. 

Expert spectators, standing back from the ring so as not to frighten horses.

Behave as if you were at a golf tournament. Be quiet, so that horse and rider can perform poetry in motion, undisturbed. Do not clap, whistle, or shout, ever.  No “whoop, whoops.” Don’t move around during a test, lean over the fence, or stand too close to the ring. Don’t hang sweaters, etc. on fences, posts, and the like. Also, try to stay out of the way of the flow of horse traffic. Don’t yak on your cell phone. Leave Fido at home. Do bring your kids because we want to expose as many people to dressage as possible. They can’t become obsessed with dressage if they don’t see it. Please tell your kids that they need to be quiet because magic is happening in the arena.

If you want to pet one of the magnificent show horses, ask the rider for permission to approach a horse. Best to do this after their test, when they are more likely to be relaxed. Fair warning, dressage horses tend to foam at the mouth (this is a good thing) and this foam or slobber tends to get everywhere. When approaching a horse, do so from the front, so the horse can see you. Bring your hand up slowly and give the horse a pat. Tell the horse how wonderful he/she was.

Look for the people with clipboards if you need information. They are volunteers working to keep the show on time and make sure that things go smoothly. They can tell you who is riding when and where so you can watch your favorite rider. If you are interested in learning more about dressage, or in taking a lesson, there are likely to be a dozen or so trainers on the show grounds. Go to the warm-up arena and watch the trainers coach their students. You can talk to them between coaching sessions.

Please take our photos. This is a special day for us and after all, we are divas. Please come back! We hope you will be inspired by our riding and become dressage junkies like us. Bring your horse next time and join us. We will be your audience. And, we promise not to clap!

About me. I am a passionate, amateur dressage rider, living large in beautiful Boulder, Colorado.  I have two horses, an Off the Track Thoroughbred, George (chestnut pictured), and Rayme, (the Warmblood I am standing next to.) I also have a couple of fabulous Welsh ponies

I enjoy learning, competing, and reaching for the stars.  I write because I believe we dressage riders need to lift each other up with gigantic buckets of support and love.  I hope my blogs help and encourage others to Go For It!

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