Saturday, November 24, 2012

Crossing Over Into Dressage

Sometimes it can be beneficial to take your horse to a dressage show as a chance to get off property or as a schooling opportunity. There is a lot of conflicting information available about what from the hunter and jumper rings is and is not allowed in the dressage ring, so this post will attempt to clarify things.

The advice in this post will be for attending schooling or Bronze-level shows, as these are the most likely shows for a hunter or jumper to attend. Keep in mind that the judging is usually more lenient at the lower rated shows and you're likely to be able to get away with more legal "faux pas" that might garner you more dirty looks at a Gold level show. 

Choose Your Level

Check out the tests of the various levels that you're considering showing at (the show should make it clear whose tests are being used; check out Dressage Canada and CADORA for the most commonly-used tests). The horse show's prize list should let you know which tests are being offered. Generally, the more advanced tests for each level are used later in the year while the easier ones will be used at the beginning to allow for an increase in difficulty.

If this is your first dressage show, you'll probably be looking at Walk/Trot or Training Level, or First Level if your horse is very well-schooled on the flat. Walk/Trot is, as the name implies, a test consisting of only walk and trot with the most basic figures. Training Level consists of walk, trot and canter (all working), as well as the basic figures. First Level introduces lengthenings in the trot and canter, as well as leg-yielding, 10m (trot) and 15m (canter) circles, and preparation for the counter canter. Most dressage riders school one level above what they show at, so you shouldn't necessarily choose the level with movements that you're just learning.

Study your test alongside an arena diagram to determine where each movement should be performed, as well as to choose visual markers to help make circles and other figures the correct size and shape.

Tack and Apparel

You will be just fine attending a dressage show (but always double check the rules governing your show series, just in case!) with your brown jumping saddle and beige breeches. Wear your darkest show jacket and a white show shirt, with either a regular choker or a stock tie. Your field boots will also be acceptable, as will be your dark gloves. Check the rule book to confirm that your spurs are acceptable, as well as the length of your dressage whip if you use one.

Most dressage riders put their hair in a bun below the base of the helmet, but hunter hair is also acceptable.

Most dressage riders will use a loose ring snaffle with a flash or regular cavesson, but you are also allowed to use eggbutts (including full cheeks) and D-rings. Check the rule book to find out if your mouthpiece is acceptable. Many dressage riders consider a figure-eight noseband to be a faux pas, but it is allowed and I showed at First Level with one without the judge or steward commenting on it. You may also use rubber reins, webbed reins or leather reins, depending on your personal preference. Most riders will use a square white saddle pad, but you're allowed to use a fitted pad, or another conservative colour, if you wish.

Your horse may be allowed to wear a fly veil (check your local rules), but keep it conservative. Don't stuff the ears or you will get eliminated.

You are allowed to use a running martingale for schooling, but no martingales may be used in the show ring. Many schooling shows will allow the horse to wear conservative boots or bandages in the show ring, but most riders will remove them after the warm-up anyway.

Dressage riders tend to put less emphasis on braiding than do hunters or jumpers (I've seen dressage horses at national shows with four braids total), so whatever you're used to doing as braids, whether with yarn or elastics, is likely to be acceptable as long as the mane is braided and neat.

Numbers are usually worn either on the bridle or on the saddle pad, depending on the type of number given to you. The bridle numbers have a little hook that you put through the browband loop as you would a ribbon, while the saddle pad numbers will come with pins or holes for pins. The number is usually put on the side that the judge will see as you turn left or right at C after your initial halt.


You will be given ride times for your classes, often posted online. Re-check the day before the show because the times can be changed to manage conflicts. Also be aware that the rings can run early or late, so you should always check with the in-gate throughout the day. They should be able to provide you with an estimate of how many minutes you should adjust your time by. If the ring is running early, everyone will appreciate it if you move up and go early, but I don't believe that they can force you to go before your time.

Class Procedure

Plan your warm-up so that you will have a few extra minutes to remove any bandages, put your jacket on, etc. before heading into the show ring.

You will be allowed to enter the area around the show ring when the rider ahead of you has done their final halt and salute. You may work your horse around the outside of the show ring until the judge rings the bell, at which point you will have 45 seconds to get in the ring to begin your test (45 seconds is plenty of time to gather yourself and trot around the entire ring without rushing). If the judge looks up at you while you pass by the booth before your test starts, you should say "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" and confirm your number with the judge and scribe if they ask for it.

If you have a caller with you, they can enter the exterior of the ring at the same time as you and they should position themselves at E or B just outside of the show ring, preferably facing away from any other show rings to avoid disturbing other riders. If the ring is isolated, it's best for the caller to stand on the side that is upwind of you.

To salute, first halt your horse, put both reins in one hand, then drop the other hand (not the one carrying a whip!) down beside your leg, nod your head, and then pick your reins back up.

Once you have completed your final halt, you must leave the ring at the walk on a loose rein. Most riders will continue straight towards the judge before turning back towards A in case he or she wishes to give any verbal comments, and so that the rider can thank the judge. This also teaches the horse to continue moving in a straight line after a halt.

Tack Check

As you exit the ring, refrain from stopping or changing any equipment. Don't let anyone touch you or your horse until you reach the tack check area, where a steward will be waiting to make sure that your equipment, including the mouthpiece of the bit, is all legal. Once the steward has given you the okay, you can start removing tack and apparel if you have time to relax between tests. If the tack check is not performed (provided there is one at a schooling show), you will not be allowed to collect any ribbons or prizes.

Ribbons and Remarks

The awards need to wait until all of the scores have been tabulated and recorded, which can take anywhere from minutes (if computerized) to hours. Many dressage shows simply hand out ribbons from the secretary's office rather than having a formal awards ceremony. You will receive a copy of your test with the judge's remarks at the same time as your ribbon so that you can learn what the judge liked or disliked about each of the various movements and the test as a whole.


- Working gaits: Often more energetic than what we think of as the working gaits of hunters and jumpers, but not a longer stride.
- Free walk: A lengthening of stride and frame in the walk, along with a stretch over the back. Make sure that your horse maintains energy rather than thinking of the walk as a break. The degree of contact desired (light or loose) seems to vary from region to region.
- Stretchy trot circle: Allow the horse to take the reins to really stretch down and out while maintaining just a light contact. Start to pick up your reins with about 1/4 of the circle left to go.
- Half circle: Completing only half the circle to form a semi circle.
- Medium walk: More step than a working walk; they're looking for the horse to really march.
- Loop: Similar to a shallow serpentine in shape, hitting all of the designated letters.