Making Up New Dressage Tests

Having a sense of humor makes dressage much more fun
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Having a sense of humor makes dressage much more fun
At the end of every test, you halt facing the judge at C and salute. Sometimes it’s at G, as seen here, but more usually it’s at X.

At the end of every test, you halt facing the judge at C and salute. Sometimes it’s at G, as seen here, but more usually it’s at X.

In my judging career, I estimate that I’ve judged more than 30,000 tests. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never say that I have seen it all. Something new always comes along. And sometimes the oddball moment leads to hilarity.

Last weekend I judged a schooling show with more than 70 rides, for a lovely group at Foothills Riding Club here near Tryon, North Carolina – really nice people and great volunteers! Late in the very long day came an Intro A class, which ends with the rider walking down the centerline at A and halting at X. This particular rider had a fairly steady, pleasant test and indeed started to turn at A for the last movement but then headed toward H on a diagonal line, a pattern unlike any I know of. At first I thought she was just drifting, but then I realized she was marching toward H with a seeming sense of purpose.

I’ve never before seen someone get truly lost at the end of a test, no matter how young (or old) or how new to dressage shows. They may overshoot A and not really find the centerline, or the horse may not really stop and halt, but they at least try to point themselves toward the judge. I was so agog, it took me a moment to fish my bell from among my papers.

I stopped the rider near H and told her that she needed to be on the centerline to finish her test – not enough information, as it turned out. Her response had me rolling off my chair since I was laughing so hard: “I just thought I’d make up a new test.” She then turned at C, and I thought she would eventually reverse so she could find her way to X and salute. She found X and saluted all right – facing A.

Again, gasping for air, I explained what she needed to do, and she finally finished her test. Really, I’m not sure where she ended up, just that she was pointed in the right direction. When I got a break soon after, I looked around to see if she was still nearby, and there she was with her horse, hanging with friends near the in gate. I went and gave her a hug and told her how much I appreciated her aplomb. She said she was having a wonderful time at the show, and again I told her how much I loved her cheery attitude.

A week later, I ran into a friend of the rider at a social occasion, and we were laughing about it all over again. She told me how nervous the rider had been. I figured THAT, but I also told her how impressed I was that the rider could keep her sense of humor in a difficult situation.

Intro test patterns may look easy to ride, but they are never easy to judge, mostly because the riders are usually new to showing and often have trouble with nerves and navigation. The most unusual Intro test I’ve judged was when the rider disappeared completely. It was funny to hear the scribe describe it later: “The test was going along fine, and I was writing everything down, and then I realized you hadn’t said anything for a while. I looked up and you were gone! Completely gone! And the rider was gone!

The ring was set up next to a corn field – picture “corn as high as an elephant’s eye” as the song from “Oklahoma!” goes. The rider looked to be about 5 years old. Suddenly her equally tiny pony just decided to leave, jumped out of the ring and ran into the corn, completely melting out of sight, much like the baseball players in “Field of Dreams.” I had to move fast and go retrieve her. As I recall, we let her “finish” her test with someone leading her.

Years ago, I came close once to ending a test similarly to the rider above, but it wasn’t all my fault. Early in the test – it was Second Level in Richmond, Virginia, as I recall, and I could tell you the judge but to be diplomatic, maybe not – I made a bad turn and ended up riding the test in a mirror image, doing all the correct movements but in the wrong direction. It took me several movements to realize I was profoundly off course and then several more movements to try to decide what to do about it because I kept waiting to hear a bell from the judge.

I finally stopped and told the judge what was happening, much to his amazement. We sorted it out and I re-started the test. When I saluted at the end, he and the scribe were howling in laughter. He gasped to me that a rider should never tell the judge when he’s done something wrong. Yes, I said (and I was grinning, too), but at the end, when you would have been looking at my back instead of my face you would have figured it out. Since he’d muddled it so much, he didn’t give me an error, although I deserved it. And we all got a great laugh.