By Ashley Simmons
Everyone knows that the best way to get a very good score on a movement is to perform that movement very well. But, as we all well know, and have experienced, sometimes that doesn’t work out. Maybe our horse was feeling a bit ‘off’, or there were external distractions, or it was our error in not preparing for the movement – mistakes happen. There are, however, some simple things you can do to impress the judges that will help you earn that extra half point, even on a movement that isn’t quite right.
Perfect Your Basics
There is a saying, “Beginner riders want to work on intermediate movements. Intermediate riders want to work on advanced movements. Advanced riders work on the basics.”
There are two basic elements to every test that riders at all levels can work and improve upon, and should be practiced as often as possible until you can ride them to near perfection – geometry and transitions.
Geometry is very easy to get either right or wrong. Don’t get suckered into following in the hoof prints of the horse that went before you assuming that they have the correct dimensions for the circle or track you need to do! Instead, use cones at home to map out exactly the size of the circle you need to perform in a test or the line you need to follow for a straight or angled track. Practice approaching these movements until you can do them accurately and with the correct bend and regularity of tempo. The majority of judges are very impressed by accurate geometry because so many riders just “go with the flow,” in regards to the pattern that has been ridden before them.
If you look beyond just the required movement on any given test, you will see a column titled “Directives”. These are the elements the judges are looking for in each movement. More than all the others, you will see repeated over and over “willing, calm transition” at the lower levels and “clear, balanced transition” or “well defined transition” at the upper levels. As transitions, both between the gaits and within the gaits, are considered the gateway to the half halt, you can never practice enough of them. Set aside time every ride for transitions. Practice them all over the arena, in all gaits, and on both a straight line and a curved one.
Know Your Test
Show nerves; everybody gets them. They are just an annoying aspect of showing that only time and familiarity can diminish. While it is understandable that some people like to have a reader for their test to help them eliminate the fear of forgetting a movement, it is a crutch. While it is allowed, except at the upper levels and in championship classes, and judges can’t penalize you for it, they are obviously aware of it when you have one. While it may not affect the judge’s opinion of your ride one way or another, having your test memorized shows them that you are prepared for and confident about your test.
Know Your Limits (And Your Horse’s Too)
Everyone wants to move up the levels. It’s a sign you are training your horse correctly and allows you to try more advanced movements. Yet, too often, there are people who show a certain level one year and then automatically move up to the next level the following year, even if they aren’t truly prepared for it.
Many people think that judges relish giving out low scores, but in reality they are only judging what they see. Most of the judges that I have had the pleasure of speaking to lament about the large number of horse and rider pairs moving up a level, when they truly haven’t mastered the level at which they are currently competing. Don’t move up until you have obtained good, consistent, quality scores with positive comments. Judges appreciate watching a quality ride just as much as we do riding it!
As for your horse’s limits, you should be intimately aware of the physical and mental capabilities of your horse. If he needs a long warmup to relax, great, but if he gets tired easily, don’t warm up for a long period of time. Judges are savvy horse people and they can see quite quickly a horse that is lame or one that is already exhausted before you even enter the ring. The same thing applies to entering multiple classes. Judges respect those who know the limits of their horses.
Know The Horse You Came With
It is fairly common knowledge that a horse will perform correctly a certain percentage less at a show than they will at home. Perhaps it is just their way of expressing their own “show nerves”. Whether they suddenly become more spooky of things that normally wouldn’t bother them, or they start being lazy, or wanting to run, or they are just plain cranky, it is your job to handle it all with calm and poise. It is quite obvious to the judge, by the expression on your face, how your attitude towards your horse is at any given moment. Scowling angrily while jerking on the reins and jabbing your horse with your spurs or smacking them with your whip because they blew off your request for a flying change is not only rude to your horse, it presents a very unprofessional picture to the judge.
If you truly know your horse, you will realize that there are moments in every test where you can calmly correct mistakes, and there are moments when you just need to let the mistake go and move on to the next movement. Your horse is not being disobedient out of spite, they simply need more time to understand what is being asked of them and for you to be there to support them.
Be Polite To The Judge
Judging is grueling work, in often extreme weather, for very little pay. Scribe for a judge when you can, and you will see what I mean. A little common courtesy goes a long way in showing the judge a lot of respect.
When you are going around the outside of the ring waiting for the signal to enter, make sure to greet each judge (if more than one) with a polite “good morning/afternoon” and give them your show number. After your final salute, make sure to get close enough to thank them verbally for their time. It may seem like a trivial thing to do, but it shows that you appreciate their time.
So you may ask, do these things really impress a judge? Absolutely! Let me relate a personal story to you. I was at the Estes Park, CO show a couple of years ago showing one of my Friesian mares at Prix St. Georges, trying to get one more score for our silver medal. To say this mare is temperamental is an understatement. As we began to enter the ring, she spooked at some birds. Getting her to halt at X was a feat of pure willpower. What followed was what some people would consider a disaster of a test, but I kept calm, quietly reminding her of all the training we had done together over the years and in-between the crazy moments, there was accuracy and beauty. I have a photo from that test of us in the corner before you turn across the diagonal for the four tempi changes. In it, I am smiling, because I am laughing to myself thinking about how many changes I would actually get because she was so on fire (4 of the four tempi’s, 3 of the three tempi’s if you must know – though none of them were pretty). I smiled through most of the test and during the final salute. When I approached the judge to thank her, she beamed a smile back at me. Later, that judge made a point to come up to me and told me how much she enjoyed watching the calm I exhibited during a ride that was obviously difficult. She expressed admiration with how obvious it was that we had a deep understanding of the basics and how well I used them to keep her together as much as I did. Her comments on the test paper were very much in the same vein. I looked to see what our final score was, expecting it to be in the 50’s at best. So what was it? 62.5%! Enough to secure our silver medal.