“Ask the Experts: Memorizing a Dressage Test” (Dressage Today, February 2014)

Several weeks before the show, Read through your test until you can recite it in your head, say it out loud, or write it down, with no mistakes.  You may need to do this in stages, such as once in the morning, once before going to sleep at night, again in the morning, etc. depending on your learning style. 

Now, do some or all of the following, depending on your learning style:

– Recite the test to a friend, having her follow along.

– Stand at the “A” end of the dressage arena and visualize riding your test, start to finish.

– Mark out an area on your living room floor, or use an actual dressage arena, to “ride” through your test on foot, complete with trot, canter, walk, etc. Include the half halts, changes of bend, etc.

– Watch others ride the test (caution: if you watch a rider who goes off course, it may disrupt your memorization, so be careful when choosing this option)

After you have memorized it, letters and all,  practice recalling just the main parts of the test minus the letters, for example, in training level test 3:  say to yourself:  “salute, track left, trot loop, canter, circle, trot, walk”, then: ”trot loop, canter, circle, trot, stretchy circle, centerline, halt”. This simplifies the test in your head, especially since by now, you know at which letter to perform each movement.

Whether you recite your test in your head, out loud, on paper, while looking at the arena, or while “riding” the test on foot, be sure to include your preparations for movements and figures. In other words, picture riding the preparatory half halts, changes of bend, etc. For example, you might say to yourself: “Trot loop is next.  Check impulsion, half-halt, change the bend, re-balance, change bend again”, etc. If you include this in your visualization, you are more likely to ride it that way on show day.

Practice, practice, practice! Ride through the test on your horse multiple times, several weeks before the show so that you can almost do it in your sleep!

If your horse is clever and anticipates the movements/figures, don’t ride through the test every day, but ride short sections of it at a time. You could also borrow a friend’s horse to get even more practice.

While riding your test, think ahead to the next movement while riding the current one. For example, in First Level, test 3, while starting the trot loop, tell yourself: “Canter depart and circle are next”, then focus immediately on the present movement, such as the quality of the trot, accuracy of the loop, quality of the bend, etc.  Some people need to mentally look ahead by one movement, some by two or more.   You must experiment to find the right formula which works for you.

Keep in mind that many entry-level riders usually do one of two things: They ride accurately but mechanically from movement to movement, forgetting about the quality, such as impulsion, connection, “thoroughness”, bend, etc.

Or, riders focus on the quality, but then ride inaccurately or forget the test. The goal is to do both!

I remember riding a test in which my horse felt so wonderful, I actually said to myself, “wow! This is going really well!” As you can probably guess, I lost my focus and nearly went off course in the next movement!


Day of the show:

1 – Review your test again, using one or more of these methods.

2 – Keep a copy of the test in your pocket, in case you need to check it again before riding it.

3 – Keep a test-reader “on call”, and use her during your test if you are still unsure.  The judge will not penalize you for this. Many riders employ a caller as a “safety net”, only listening if they are lost.

4 – Review the basic pattern one more time, while putting on your coat or while your horse is relaxing at a walk, while the rider ahead of you is entering the space around the show arena. Then relax and take some slow, deep breaths.  Pat your horse.  You are ready!

5 – While riding your test, look up at the arena and the letters.  Look ahead, and not at your horse’s ears. 

6 – Remember: find a balance between knowing where you are going, and riding quality into each movement! This is how you will do well!

7 – If you DO get lost during your test, don’t panic! Just head towards the judge at C and she/he will direct you back on course.  Make sure you clearly understand where you need to go before calmly resuming. 

At the end of your test: salute, smile, pat your horse, and rejoice.  You did it!

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