What My Tests Taught Me


By Sally O’Dwyer

“Learn by looking back”

Wanna do better in the show ring this year?  Check out your last year’s show season test scores and comments.  Start by putting last year’s tests in date order and review your paper trail.   Looking back reminds you of how far you have come, and what you should focus on for the coming show season.

Here is what I saw when I looked back over my Second Level Tests

The learning curve is steep when starting a new level.  Low scores don’t mean you suck.  They mean that you have not yet captured the essence of the test.  The outset of a show season is usually a period of uncertainty.  This is to be expected because you simply don’t know what you don’t know!  Judges want to award good scores, but they need to see that riders understand the requirements of the tests. 

It’s not about the tricks and it’s not enough to just “do” movements.  Each movement in a test has a directive, or what the judge is looking for. The rider must know how to execute a movement according to the directive, which is noted next to each movement on your test.  Improve meeting the directive–improve your score.

It’s about basics. At the beginning of the season for me, judges commented that I needed to show prompt transitions, true collection, mediums that don’t fade, more engagement, consistent activity, and proper bending, balance, and suppleness. The judges asked to see better preparation and accuracy. Collective remarks help riders see how they stack up against the test requirements, overall.

Second Level is a beauty and a beast kind of test.  It’s a big jump from First Level, but it offers places to demonstrate artistry—a well-executed three loop serpentine is a sight to see. The test has great flow and there are many opportunities to show nice, crisp, and collected transitions.  I learned that judges want to see a horse that is much more uphill than in First Level, and are looking for straightness, collection, balance, proper bending, suppleness, thoroughness, and self-carriage.

No timeline:  I needed two show seasons to learn the essence of my test.  I learned thatprogress, success, and confidence do not come on a prescribed schedule.  It takes training, time, practice, and many times down centerline to grasp what the judges want to see and how to offer that.  I had to be okay with this truth, be patient, and not give up.  It’s fine if you spend several years on a particular level. No one cares what level you are riding!  I know that people often ask, “what level are you riding?” but I think that is like asking you “how’s the weather?” or “how are you?”  They are just making conversation—that’s all! The actual level you are competing in does not really matter–what matters is that you are at the level where you can competently demonstrate the skills of the test. There is nothing like having command of your test and showing that!

The training foundation needed to progress is only offered to us when we take the time to know and perform the test well. Rushing through the levels results in the rider quickly reaching a level where they become stumped or stuck, unable to advance further, which is frustrating.  The rule of thumb is not to move up to the next level until you are consistently scoring 65 and above, or that you are riding all of the movements moderately well.

From survive to thrive.  At the beginning of each season, my rides were tense and rushed. I worried my way through them, just wanting to get the test over with.  As the seasons progressed, I became bolder, braver, and more capable in the dressage arena.  With practice and experience I started to get over myself and was more able to be in the moment.

Mastering the art of riding a clean, accurate, and well-performed test is a skill in itself.  FEI 5* Judge Janet Foy said in a workshop for professionals, last November, that riders need to “Sell their Test” to the judges.  After all, the rider is performing in a SHOW. By this, I think she meant that it is up to the rider to present confidence and a touch of swagger.  Have a “look at me” attitude.  Judges want to see a rider that sits tall, with their chin up, and smiling.  Look like you own the place and that you, God-forbid, are having fun!

Competition is not a means to an end.  It’s not about scores, other competitors, or ribbons. In the end, competing is intended to help the rider grow and improve.  Progress is personal, as every horse and rider combination is unique.  Taking the time to review your performance experience will set you up well for the upcoming season, and help you to avoid any rookie moves you may have made last year. View the judge’s comments as reminders of what you need to work on and set some goals for yourself.  Learn what your tests are telling you and see progress.

Hope you can learn something new from your old tests. Good luck in the show ring.

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