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As winter starts to close in we all start to think about taking the opportunity to educate our young horses or perfect our skills with the more established horses and deal with any issues that may have reared (hopefully not literally!) their ugly head during the competition season. This is the ideal time to go back to basics and try to experiment a bit with how to gain more marks when a test entry costs under £20! Of course as soon as their hooves hit the grass in the spring you may have to sit tight. This article will be split into two sections to cater for each end of the spectrum. The first section will be on taking young horses out and what to expect and work on in their first tests. The second section will be more geared to established horses and the most common basic faults seen in tests of all levels that just chuck marks out of the window. When deciding when to take your youngster out there are a few thing to consider. First, are you in reasonable control at home? Add in the factor of other horses, a strange environment and having to go into the arena on their own and if they are not reasonably responsive on the aids and trusting you then it may end in disaster. If in doubt it might be a good idea to hire a strange arena and go and ride them away from home. At least if you do this you still have the option to lunge them, but this is very rare at winter venues to be able to do this on a competition day. Keep your expectations realistic too. It’s also important when the ground is good enough to work them on the grass within the white boards without a school fence around them. Says Tina “At home we have an arena with markers and ‘judges’ set up during Spring – Autumn to train in”. It is not uncommon to lose a bit of quality
of work when you take them away from home. They may have ‘goldfish’ moments where they totally forget what you asked for or become ‘tourists’ where they are so overwhelmed they just look around and lose concentration. Be patient and try to teach them to concentrate. Don’t do this by working them into the ground – you will only make them tired and sore and then they may associate going out with feeling rubbish. Do short bits of work with lots of transitions and circles / movements to get them listening. Try to ride them giving them things to do rather than telling them what not to do all the time.

You are trying to teach them to enjoy themselves and try for you. Praise them lots when they try – even if they get it a bit wrong, then they will not be afraid to keep trying. You may choose just to do a walk trot test to start. These are very good for keeping them in the boards and educating them just to tick round in a rhythm, especially if your young horses has a huge canter. Always enter two tests, as often the second time in they will relax more. Tina says “I always ride the youngsters (and the older horses’ first time out) with a neck strap. This just means if they perform any acrobatics that you’ll have something to grab other than their mouths. For older ‘hot’ horses I may ride 3 tests, just to try to get them so they are not excited and giddy. They get too used to the fact that the jumping comes next.” When test riding on more established horses there are many varied and interesting ways that riders throw away marks. If you have the time it is always worth volunteering to dressage write as it gives you a whole new insight into what the judge can see and how riders present themselves.

Sometimes from the car it is difficult to see what some movements are supposed to be. Square, eggshaped or wonky circles are common. Incorrectly sized circles are unforgivable and sometimes straight lines are non- existent, as for corners – some people are allergic to them. Lets start from the beginning. The first thing the judge sees is the centre line. Make sure your stirrups are level and that you are sat square. First impressions count. Tina says “I have one shoulder that is much lower than the other due to an injury – so in all my show jackets I have extra shoulder pads in that side to make sure I don’t look wonky”. If doing the test in rising trot, try to enter the arena on the rein that you will be turning onto at the end of the centre line, this then stops you having to change your diagonal and potentially disrupting the rhythm, or even worse forgetting to do it and riding on the wrong one. Ride positively forwards and be sure that you keep your hands still. Wiggly heads or tilting is very obvious when you are riding towards the judge. Be sure to go into your first corner – utilise half halts to balance your horse and then you’ve also prepared for the next movement. When riding to markers be sure that it is you that is on the marker – not your horses head or tail. Again, use half halts wisely to be able to time transitions and turns and judge how on your aids your horse is. Circles must be the correct size and shape – no excuses. There are no corners or straight lines in them so be sure to keep turning. It is very common to see horses being ridden in a ‘quarters in’ position. This is usually due to riders trying to keep them out on the track with their outside hand rather than the inside leg. Practice riding in a slightly shoulder fore position in your training at home and then try it in the arena. You will be amazed at the difference and you will suddenly find corners easier.

Try to look ahead where you are going throughout the test. If you do struggle to remember them and it makes you anxious, have a reader for a couple of outings so you can concentrate on test riding. Don’t get to rely on this though as they are not allowed in Eventing or at Championships for dressage. Remember that tests are not against the clock. A lot of riders look like they are rushing through to get it over and done with. Try to let you and your horse have time to balance and think. Finally, and most importantly, don’t forget to breath, and a smile at the judge goes a long way.

Get the full 'Testing times' article here