Remembering Dressage Arena Letters

It’s easy to remember the position of the dressage letters when they’re right in front of you, but not so easy when they aren’t.
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margaret freeman dressage letters

I really enjoy going to the annual U.S. Dressage Federation convention, mostly because I get to have long discussions about any topics related to dressage and horses, with people from all over the country. Everyone is pretty much relaxed and wearing civilian clothes, not rushing off to ride in another class.

One conversational moment stood out at the recent convention in Lexington, KY. I was talking with a group of judges. Somehow the topic of remembering the ring letters came up. Everyone there admitted that they could sometimes have a brain freeze bringing the letters quickly to mind. I was relieved that others had this small problem and admitted sheepishly that I, too, sometimes had to think hard for a moment before I could list the letter positions. After judging thousands and thousands and thousands of tests, I still don’t just always rattle them off, and that’s because, really, I don’t need to.

When I’m judging, the letters are out there in front of my eyes. I can refer to them quickly because I can easily see them. When I ride a test, on the other hand, I don’t try to remember the actual letters. Instead, I memorize the movements relative to the judge’s box—for example: left at the judge, 10-meter circle in the middle of the ring, go past the gate and lengthen across the diagonal. That system is a lot easier for me, and a lot less confusing, than remembering the letters, which can also sound a lot alike. The only time I really need the specific letters is when I am learning or reviewing a test pattern on paper.

Everyone seems to have their own system for remembering tests, for better or worse. There are those who are perfectly happy reciting the letters. Once, however, I ran into a problem when I wanted to reverse the letters in our ring to improve the locations of the judge at C and the gate at A, and one rider there absolutely refused. She said she’d never be able to remember the letters if the ring was now backwards—the letters weren’t backwards, however, the ring was just being entered from a different direction

I remember when I did my very first test, several decades ago. The day was memorable in how bad the test was and, being at a combined training event, by my fall at the second fence of the stadium course. What I remember the most, however, was that the first movement after the turn at C was across the diagonal at M-X-K. Those letters have stuck in my mind ever since, and I get a flashback when riding that diagonal ever since, like meeting up with an old friend. I’ve never been so comfortable with H-X-F (or is it F-X-H?).

Every time I start a judging day, I do a quick mental trip around the ring to make sure the letters are all in the correct position (All King Elephants Have . . . . plus RSVP). Once or twice a year I find that they aren’t—and very often A simply isn’t where it belongs, usually because it wasn’t replaced after the ring was raked. Onc time, I realized that K, H, M, and F were way too close to the corners—and this was a championship show, so it could have caused real problems if not caught before the rides started. I do find myself reciting the letters often—I just think about it for a moment before I do.  

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