Let’s Ride the 2023 Tests!


A symposium with Jeanne McDonald and Jim Koford

By Ellen Broadhurst

As happens every four years, the National Level Dressage Tests are reviewed by the Test Writing Working Group, where they reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what to update in the patterns of the Introductory through Fourth Level tests. The 2023 Dressage Test cycle began December 1, 2022, and is effective through November 30, 2026. Since the new test cycle began, dressage groups across the country have been diligently working to host educational events to familiarize riders and judges alike with the new tests. Recently, LVDA hosted a symposium-style event with trainer/rider Jim Koford and USEF “S” FEI Level 3/4* judge Jeanne McDonald.

Letting the participants speak for themselves, the “Let’s Ride the 2023 Tests!” Symposium was an enthusiastically received success: 

“The format was awesome – Jeanne’s commentary was so insightful, and it was magical to see Jim make such a great change in every rider/horse pair in just 10 minutes! Please do this again!”

“Very clear explanations of changes to 2023 tests, and what needs to be done to improve scores in each test. Exercise is given for riders to improve – all showed results.”

“What a great opportunity to learn about the new tests, why they changed them, and how to ride them.”

“Nice balance [of] horse/rider abilities, easy to see the difference between each level and its requirements.”

“Every rider was given different feedback and techniques. I highly recommend this format and this team. I would absolutely pay to audit this clinic again!”

LVDA Education Committee members (L to R), Jocelyn Kraenzle, Kim Hirschman, Mo Swanson, and Chris Dickinson

Kudos to the members of the Lehigh Valley Dressage Association (LVDA) Education Committee who conceived of this ambitious program and dedicated months of hard work to bring it to life: Chris Dickenson, Kim Hirschman, Jocelyn Kraenzle, with an extra special thank you to Mo Swanson who had the inspiration to make this symposium a bit different by selecting a judge/trainer combo with whom she and Jocelyn had worked for years. Thanks also go to Taylor Adams at Delaware Valley University who generously offered much of her time, and that of her students, to make their facilities ”work” for the demo riders and auditors who attended.

Read on for details and some of the educational highlights: 

There were a total of twenty-one rides, with two rides for each of the three Training and First Level tests, then three riders for the Second, Third, and Fourth Levels, thus ensuring that all tests at the National Levels were demonstrated.  

Each rider had a 15 minute slot during which they rode their test while Jeanne McDonald “S” gave live scores and commentary as a judge. Once the test ride was complete, Jim Koford gave each rider a mini lesson, offering insights into techniques he thought could improve some of the lower marks given or issues highlighted by Jeanne.

Paige Dolon aboard James Dean

On paper, this might seem like a time-constrained program, and with different clinicians, perhaps it would be. However, the combination of these two extraordinary trainers/riders made it an effective program for riders and auditors alike.  Both Jeanne and Jim have true depth of knowledge, and they were both positive and encouraging, while being quick to provide concrete feedback that helped every single rider throughout the day to show improvement. 

For all of the riders, no matter what the level, there was a recurring theme of bringing their horse’s shoulders up to further engage the hind end. Transitions (both within and between gaits) and correct rider position were key components of making this happen. For auditors, watching horses improve so quickly, and hearing Jim repeat over and over again, “So much better here!” was affirmation that basics are always important. 

While this list is by no means complete, there were a few highlights that were repeated often enough to be useful tenets to add to any dressage rider’s list as he or she prepares for show season:  

  1. Know your test. That doesn’t just mean “know the pattern” – it means understanding the test and researching the patterns to understand where movements are correctly meant to begin and end. 
  1. Horses should be responsive. If a judge can see you working up there, you are working too hard while your horse is not working hard enough. Horses cannot have “selective hearing,” when we ask, they need to respond, and immediately. 
  1. Position matters! When riders get tense, they tend to lean forward. Even a slight tilt of the pelvis forward reduces the effectiveness of the rider’s position. Leaning forward encourages horses to fall more on their forehand, when the goal is to ask them to sit and take more weight on their hind end. 
  1. Study and understand the geometry of the ring. It’s easy for 20-meter circles to be 19-meter ovals, or for 15-meter circles to be 18-meter eggs. That’s poor training for you and your horse, and in a test it will be leaving important points on the table. The best moving horse in the world is going to lose points if the rider doesn’t understand exactly how big a 15-meter circle is, while a rider on an average moving horse is going to get the maximum score possible if they ride a super accurate test. 
Allecia Stiles and Bumber Shoot
  1. Riders have 45 seconds to enter the ring once the judge rings the bell. It takes approximately 55 seconds to go all the way around the ring. Judges don’t have discretion on this rule: if you take more than 45 seconds to get in the ring, you will be eliminated. 
  1. It’s impossible to fake straightness going down centerline towards the judge at C: you are either straight and on the line or you are not. Practice going straight! And a corollary, did you actually halt at X? While it’s not possible for the judge at C to see if you exactly hit X, for the most part, they can see if you missed it by several meters. 
  1. In Training and First Levels, you may post or sit the trot. There are NO brownie points for sitting, particularly if the judge notes that your horse moves more freely when you post in the stretchy circle. Do what is best for your horse!
  1. Collection is a balancing of energy on the hind end. Collection, at any gait, is never “slowing down,” it’s a change in gait that brings the horse’s back up, the hind end under, and builds power. The only way a horse can do true medium gaits and collection is if the hind legs are carrying and the back is coming up underneath the rider. 

Sound bite reminders: 

  • Circles don’t have any straight lines
  • There are NO CORNERS in serpentines
  • The halt requires immobility for three seconds
  • You are not required to salute with your right hand; use the hand not holding the whip
  • Medium walk requires overtrack: it’s not a “slow” gait
  • Shoulder-in should have the same cadence as trot work

Dressage, Jeanne McDonald pointed out, is the relentless pursuit of perfection. Not every horse will have “10” gaits, but if you want to improve your test scores, become a better student: work on your transitions to improve all gaits, and study the geometry of the dressage ring and the tests to be as accurate a rider as you possibly can be.

Emelia Lewis and Ganando

To see sights from this symposium, visit this week’s gallery on YourDressage!

Have you learned your new tests yet? Visit the USDF Online Store for the 2023 Test Booklet and On The Levels, and the Apple App Store or Google Play Store to download the updated TestPro App!


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