It’s time for your dressage debut!

How to have a great experience at your first dressage show.


Your circles are fairly round, your halts are sometimes square and your horse usually picks up the correct lead when you ask him to canter–could it be time to send in an entry for your first dressage show? We say yes!

Dressage is just a fancy French word for “training” and at a dressage show you ride a test of riding movements in front of a judge. Some of the movements include trotting in a circle, crossing the diagonal and halting. The arena has markers (A, K, E, H, C, M, B and F) which tell you where you should be doing a particular movement. The judge gives you scores for each movement. If you do a movement accurately, you might get a nine or a 10. If you perform a movement badly, you could get a one or a two. Your scores are added up and the competitor with the highest score wins the class.



The easiest tests to do are called “Introductory” tests. There are three of them. Intro Tests A and B are walk trot tests and Intro Test C includes cantering. If you don’t feel comfortable cantering at a show, sign up for A and B. If you enjoy cantering your horse, challenge yourself by doing Intro Test C. These three tests are free to download and you can find them under “Competitions” on the United States Dressage Federation’s (USDF) website at

Once you’ve decided what test you’d like to do, start looking for local shows. Unlike hunter shows, you need to sign up for a dressage show a few weeks in advance. This is because the organizers will give you an exact time to perform your test. Once you know this time, you can plan when you’ll arrive at the show grounds and you can decide how much time you need to warm up before you enter the ring.

So where do you find a show? Look in local horse magazines and on tack room bulletin boards for show bills. Your state probably has a dressage association and it should list shows on its website. And finally, if you ride with a trainer ask her to recommend a low-key show for you to enter.

Start Studying

Once you’ve sent in your entry form, learn the test. Although in pure dressage (not eventing dressage) you can have a “caller” read the test to you, lower level tests are pretty easy and you should remember them without a problem. A professional rider may use a caller because she may ride four or five tests a day, and can be difficult to remember different tests. If you’re only learning one, study it until you know it by heart. If you have trouble remember the test, practice it in an arena a few times on foot, without your horse.

Set up an arena with dressage letters. Make your own letters with poster board and tape them to the fence or paint letters on small white garbage cans and place them on the ground around the arena.

When you practice, don’t do the test over and over because your horse will learn to anticipate the movements and do them early. Just practice the different movements and then put them all together once in your schooling session.

What You Wear

At lower level shows, you can wear a black or blue show coat and a ratcatcher shirt. Some riders wear stock ties; you can buy a pre-tied one at a tack shop. You should wear beige or white breeches, black gloves at the lower levels and tall riding boots if you are 13 or older. Paddock boots and jodhpurs are fine if you’re younger than 13. Your helmet should be black and have a safety harness. If you use a schooling helmet that’s a loud color, hide it with a black cover. Some riders use long dressage whips, but you might find it easier to carry a shorter, black crop if you need it.

What Your Horse Wears

At upper levels, horses usually wear black tack, but you’ll be OK with a brown saddle, bridle and girth. Your saddle pad should be white or black. Your horse must wear a snaffle bit. Martingales are not allowed in dressage, but you can use a breastplate. Protective leg boots are prohibited in dressage, so take them off before you enter the arena or you’ll get eliminated.

Make the effort to braid your horse for a dressage show. Button braids are a quick and easy way to make him look beautiful. Don’t braid his tail.

Show Day

Arrive about two hours before your test. After you find a nice place to park (look for a shady area on a hot day), head to the show office to pick up your number. Then, unload your horse and give him a quick grooming.

About 45 minutes before your test, tack up your horse, attach your number to his bridle on the opposite side of the braids, and hop on. Walk to the warm up area and mosey around the perimeter to let your horse get a look at all the activity.

There will probably be a bit checker and a ring steward in the warm up area. Hunt them down. The bit checker will look in your horse’s mouth to make sure he’s wearing a snaffle. The ring steward should keep an eye on you to let you know when your test time is approaching. Figure out who is doing the test before you and keep an eye on her. When you see her enter the arena, stay close.

When she does her final halt, begin riding around the outside of the arena. Walk or trot by the judge’s hut, car or tent so your horse looks at it. Some horses act like the judge’s hut is the scariest thing on earth. If your horse is spooky, ride him by the judge a few times.

The judge will have a scribe sitting next to her; a person who writes down her scores and comments. The scribe may ask you your number.

The judge will usually ring a bell, toot the car horn or blow a whistle to let you know that you can enter the arena. You have 60 seconds to enter the arena after you get the signal. If you dilly-dally, you could get penalty points that could knock you out of the ribbons.

Don’t Forget to Salute!

In pure dressage tests, you always salute when you halt after entering the arena. Simply put both reins in your left hand, lower your straightened right arm next to your leg and nod at the judge. Once you see the judge nod back at you, pick up both reins and begin the test.

The Test

While riding your test, there are a few things to remember. If you mess up a movement, don’t get flustered. You’ll only be marked down for that one movement, so move on to the next one and make it good!

If you forget the test and do an incorrect movement, the judge will ring a bell. This means you have gone off course. Most judges are nice and will tell you what movement you should be doing so you can get going again.

Don’t talk or cluck to your horse—doing this will earn you penalties.

When you reach the end of your test, remember to halt and salute again. Walk toward the judge and say “thank you,” turn near C and walk around the arena to the exit.

Waiting for Results

The results of the class are not posted until after the last rider has completed her test. Then it can take up to an hour or so for the scores to be added up and the results tacked up on a wall near the show office.

>Once you see how you did in the class, you can go to the show office and request your ribbon–if you won one–and your test. Spend a little time reviewing your test. It’s sometimes difficult to read the judge’s comments because they might be messy—scribes have to write really quickly!

The judge’s comments should give you an idea about what you need to work on at home before your next dressage show. And now that you’ve survived your first show, the next time you trot down the centerline you’ll be more prepared.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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