Nailing Your Dressage Test with Peter Gray
By Erin Lassere
Love it or hate it, dressage is imperative. Putting scores aside, striving to build harmony with your horse will enhance all areas of training and competition. No matter what level a rider is, there is always room for improvement in the sport (or, let’s face it, the art) of dressage. So, how do you begin the elusive task of going from “getting through” your dressage test to mastering it?
Ride iQ spoke with renowned dressage judge Peter Gray in Episode 28 of Office Hours for guidance on this topic. Gray knows his way around the arena better than anyone—he was an Olympic event rider and team coach, a judge at many of the top events in the country and world including the 2022 World Eventing Championships in Italy, and he’s a USEA ICP Level IV certified instructor.
Quality Before Accuracy
You have probably been told that perfect geometry is a key to bettering your dressage scores. However, while flawless 20-meter circles and deep corners are ideal, they may not be the answer to your achieving the best scores you can.
Your top priorities should be showing freedom of the gait, harmony, and suppleness. If you feel the need to slow down to get deep into the corners, round off the corners instead. Showing off your horse’s trot and canter is more important.
If you have a horse that tends to get tense in the ring, focus on lowering their poll and exaggerating the bend through the corners. Find small ways for decreasing your horse’s tension, even if this means compromising accuracy. Harmony will be rewarded over tension.
“Happy horse equals happy judge.”
Perfect the Extended Gaits
Picture it: you’re trotting through the corner in your dressage test, about to perform an extended trot across the diagonal. You collect your horse as much as possible and then hit the gas pedal once you reach the diagonal. This, while commonly taught, is not the answer to scoring well on the extended trot.
Don’t just floor it; doing so will create short, quick steps. Accelerating too quickly into the extended trot or canter can negatively affect engagement. An ideal extended trot is steady with maximum ground cover.
Take 4 – 6 strides to build up to the extended canter, and up to 6 strides to come back. For the trot, 4 and 4.
Some horses perform well by beginning the lengthening in the corner, while others are best suited to beginning on the straightaway. Find out what works best for you and your horse.
There are also several exercises you can do in your training to work on this movement. These include:
- Leg yield across the diagonal with a leading forehand to X. At X, build the extended gait for the remainder of the diagonal. The leg yield helps to increase engagement, which will improve balance.
- Use trot poles in the corners to help with balance in the downward transition from extended trot to working trot.
Get yourself and your horse in the zone
In the dressage ring, the stakes can feel very high. The atmosphere is electric, you feel pressure to perform well, and your horse is aware of it all.
You need to find the best way to lower your anxiety and tension before competing. This could be, for example, taking time alone to mentally go over your test (a method Gray uses), speaking with a sports psychologist or trusted mentor, or listening to your pre-riding playlist. Once you find the method that works for you, stick with it.
You should also find out what type of coaching best suits you in the warmup. Some riders want a lot of chit-chat, and others prefer quiet eyes on the ground. Tackle this with your coach.
You need to have this same approach with your horse. Just like people, horses can get anxious from the buzzing atmosphere. This is especially true for horses that are new to competing. Just one negative outing can spoil your horse’s confidence.
Bring your horse to shows just to watch, and compete at schooling shows in a low-stress environment. Ensure that you are mindful about moving up the levels, too; never move up until you and your horse are 100% comfortable meeting the demands.
“It’s better to upgrade a year too late than one day too early.”
Leave Training for Outside the Ring
Everyone has had less-than perfect moments in the dressage ring. Maybe your horse decided to rear rather than halt at X, or maybe he showed his Kentucky Derby potential in the extended canter.
While these moments may warrant correction at home, the dressage ring is generally not a place to be teaching. Your 5 or 6 minutes in front of the judge are for performing, while training is best done at home. When you’re in the dressage ring, do the best you can to show harmony between you and your horse and move on from imperfect moments. Show the judge confidence, softness, and the lightest aids you can manage.
Watch the Full Conversation With Peter:
Want more help improving your dressage scores?
In addition to over 50 Office Hours episodes on important topics like this one, the Ride iQ mobile app also includes Dressage Test Playbooks (Peter Gray goes movement-by-movement through every eventing test and describes how to achieve the best score possible on each), Dressage Test Ride Alongs (top coaches ride the test alongside you and share tips and guidance along the way), and Dressage Test Read-Throughs (a reader calls out the test in the time it takes to ride it – great to help with memorization!).
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What are Ride iQ Office Hours?
Office Hours are weekly, live virtual events with a guest expert who takes attendees on a deep dive of a timely and important equestrian topic. Past topics have included things like “Green Horses 101” with a Grand Prix dressage rider, “Ask-A-Vet” with a US team veterinarian, and “Conquering Nerves” with a sports psychology coach.
Every week, Ride iQ members are invited to tune-in live to join the conversation and ask questions. All Office Hours episodes are recorded and shared on the Ride iQ mobile app.