How to Judge and Ride the “Rider Tests”

Learn how to judge and ride the new "rider tests."

Here’s some history: In dressage tests, it is the horse who receives a score. Tests that score riders were first discussed as part of the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Dressage Committee’s performance standards proposal. The goal of the committee was to promote good riding and training throughout all of the levels. Most of the proposal was not very popular with the U.S. Dressage Federation’s (USDF) board of governors. However, everyone at the USDF annual meeting seemed to be in favor of a rider test. A sample rider test was shown to the membership at this meeting. The USDF and USEF formed a joint sub-committee to begin work on finalizing the tests.

Credit: Anya Crane

So the Performance Standards subcommittee—led by Lisa Goretta and including Anne Guptill, Dr. Hilary Clayton, Sandy Howard, Allison Head, Marianne Ludwig, Jayne Ayers and myself—moved forward. Over the past two years, we have developed three riders tests that will be offered in the 2013 competition year. These tests have been ridden and reridden by a variety of riders on a variety of types and breeds of horses. The biggest discussion within the committee was whether or not to add the turn on the forehand. Most of us agreed that since this movement is such a basic training tool, it should be in one of our tests. 

The goal of the subcommittee has been to create tests that will allow the judges to determine the riding skills of the competitor. The movements are placed so that the judge at “C” will have a clear view of every transition. There is no emphasis in these tests on the quality of the horse’s gaits, only on the quality of the training. The hope of the subcommittee is that these tests will give all riders another way in which to demonstrate their knowledge of the movements and riding skills.

Judging the New Rider Tests 

These tests will be addressed in all future judges’ forums. There will not be movement-by-movement scores as there are in the regular dressage tests. Rather, the format will be much like the Young Horse tests, where the judge observes the ride and then gives five scores at the end.

The judge should be very knowledgeable about the new test’s Directive ideas because they describe the principles that need to be demonstrated. Here are examples from each of the levels. 

Training Level. In the trot-walk-trot transitions on half circles, the Directive ideas are: “Rider maintains posture and alignment in turns and transitions. Horse is bent on half circle; shows smooth, forward transitions with a few well-defined walk steps.”

First Level. In the halt and half turn on the forehand (a new movement for our tests!), the Directive Ideas are: “Rider maintains posture, balance and steady rein contact in transitions. Horse responds willingly to the aids; turns with balanced lateral steps that have a forward inclination.” 

Second Level. In the three-loop serpentine with a simple change each time crossing centerline, the Directives state: “Rider sits centered and vertical; shows correct mechanics in canter and walk; prepares well for each transition and bends the horse appropriately on each loop. Horse performs clear, balanced, straight transitions without trot steps. Correct geometry of serpentine and accurate placement of transitions.”

All three tests are slightly more difficult than Test 3 of each level. They require more transitions and quicker preparation. The tests average about five minutes, which is shorter than the regular tests, and movements are not always shown in both directions.


All the Collective Marks for Training and First Levels have a coefficient of 2. Here are the Directives for each mark: 

Rider’s Position. “The rider’s ear, shoulder, hip and heel are aligned vertically when sitting at all gaits. The trunk is slightly in front of the vertical when posting the trot. When seen from in front or behind, the rider is straight and symmetrical with even shoulders, hips and stirrups. The rider sits in harmony with the mechanics of each gait. The hands maintain a steady, elastic contact with the horse’s mouth.”

Rider’s Correct and Effective Use of the Aids. “The rider prepares for and performs the movements using subtle, tactful and effective aids. The horse is appropriately bent through the turns and on circles and is straight when moving on straight lines. The horse responds willingly by giving the impression of clear communication between rider and horse.” 

Horse’s Response and Performance. “The horse’s training appears to be following the principles established by the Pyramid of Training. The horse moves actively forward with a consistent tempo in each gait and reaches confidently to the bit. The transitions are performed willingly and smoothly. Rider demonstrates horse’s clear reactivity to both lateral and longitudinal aid influence.”

Accuracy of the Exercises. “The geometry of the movements is correct in terms of their size, shape and placement in the arena. The circles and half circles are round, have the correct diameter and they originate and terminate at the correct place. The corners are performed as one quarter of a 10-meter circle.” 

Harmony between Rider and Horse. “Both horse and rider appear calm, focused and confident. They perform competently at the level and are pleasant to watch.”

Some of the Directives change slightly for the Second Level Test: 

Rider’s Position. “The rider’s ear, shoulder, hip and heel are aligned vertically when sitting at all gaits. When seen from in front or behind, the rider is straight and symmetrical with even shoulders, hips and stirrups. The rider sits in harmony with the mechanics of each gait.”

Horse’s Response and Performance. “In addition to the Training/First Level wording, this is also required: The transitions are performed willingly, maintaining an uphill balance. The stride and frame are lengthened and shortened while maintaining the activity and consistent tempo.” 

Accuracy of the Exercises. In addition, “Shoulder-in and Travers are performed with an appropriate angle and bend.”

Riding the New Tests

Think of these tests as equitation classes with movements. Here’s what to do: 

• Focus first on equitation. Perhaps working on the longe line for a while would be a good way to prepare. 

• Use corners and ride accurate figures. 

• Clearly prepare for all movements. 

• The rider must demonstrate clear knowledge of the movements. I suggest reading the definitions of each movement in the USEF Rulebook so you are really clear about the requirements. For example, in Second Level, many riders counter bend their horses in the turn on the haunches.

There were several judges on the committee that wrote these tests, and we discussed at length what goes wrong at each level and tried to address these issues. For example, we felt the majority of riders cut their corners, which is now addressed in the final scoring. Being able to ride these tests well and with good preparation should also improve your score in the other technical tests. 

Developing a good seat and a correct position and then working on the mechanics of the movements will allow you to have much success in these new tests. Remember, you do not need an “expensive trot” to do well because the gaits and quality of the horse are not paramount in these tests. Rather, the rider needs to show good equitation and the correct development of the training scale pertaining to the level being shown.

Test patterns are now available from USEF ( This article is just a preview of what will be required. The first opportunity to ride the new tests will be with the official start of the 2013 competition year. The subcommittee plans to develop rider tests for Third and Fourth Level at a later date. USDF Awards Chair Peggy Klump has also been in discussion with the USEF and USDF to work out a way to reward riders who do well in these tests.

Credit: Nan Rawlins

Janet Foy is a dressage judge—an FEI 4* and USEF “S”— as well as a USEF Sport Horse “R” breed judge. As a rider, she has earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals. A former member of the USDF Executive Board and USEF Board of Directors, she is currently a member of the USEF International High Performance Dressage Committee. She is also on the USDF “L” Education Program faculty and instructs judges’ training programs throughout the United States. The author of a new book, Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse, she is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.






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