How to Maximize Points for Dressage Test Success with Janet Foy

FEI 5* judge Janet Foy explains how attention to detail can earn you those extra points in the show ring—from making a strong first impression to riding each movement with precision, these helpful hints will turn your test from average to great.

Several times a day, I turn to my scribe and say, “Do you see how riders turn 8s into 6s?” To that end, I felt I should write this article and explain how riders turn high scores into low scores over and over again.

(Photo by Amy K. Dragoo)

Let’s start at the beginning: Even though there are no points for dress and presentation, it shows more attention to detail and a more positive attitude to present yourself and your horse in this manner.

For Your Horse

  • Make sure there are no shavings in your horse’s tail.
  • Clip the bridle path, no mohawks.
  • Braiding is not mandatory, but improves the look of the neck.
  • Trim the fetlocks (unless you have a horse whose breed requires flowing fetlocks).
  • Put all bridle pieces and girth billets into their keepers.
  • Polish your bit.
  • Make sure the saddle pad is not dirty or shrunken from many washes.
  • Trimming ears and muzzle is optional. I never trimmed inside the ears, just held them together and trimmed the edges. I also did not trim muzzles, thinking the horses needed the ‘feelers’ in strange stalls.
  • Numbers: I really like the European numbers that you can change with each show. They can be pinned on the pad or used on the bridle and are less annoying to the horse. If you pin the number on the saddle pad, be sure to place it so that your tails don’t cover it. Do not put your number on top of your boot—it ruins the look and length of your leg.

For the Rider

  • Polish your boots. There is no excuse for mud and dirt on a nice sunny day.
  • Make sure you have spurs straps that fit and hold the spurs in a proper position.
  • Hair should be neatly tied up. If you have a bun, pin it down. Nothing is more distracting that a bouncing bun bag.
  • Don’t wear long dangly earrings.
  • Check for missing buttons prior to leaving for the show.
  • Show up on time for your test. If your ride time is 9:00 then you should be at the ring ready to enter at 8:59. Start around the outside of the ring as soon as the rider in front of you has performed their last halt.
  • Prepare the judge/scribe for your test: Once you start around the outside of the ring for your test, go immediately to the judge and give the scribe your number. Don’t be too chatty as the judge is trying to finish the collectives from the rider before you.
  • Make sure your reader is also on time. Remember if you have a reader, they must be there before your test starts. The reader can no longer show up three movements into the test and start reading.
  • Know your test (even if you have a reader). There can be wind, freestyle music from the other arena, trains, etc. that may interfere with your hearing. Remember: RSVPEB can sound a lot alike when there is background noise. The best way to know your test is to practice at home, before show day.

For Riding the Test

Establish the halt before saluting. Many riders are nervous and don’t really halt. Also, accept the halt you have unless you are 100 percent sure you can quickly make it better. Often, in trying to fix a halt, you make it worse.

Be sure to come to C prior to your turn. You should ride the turn like a quarter of a 10-meter circle. Be sure to touch the rail on the short end after your turn.

Diagonals: Whether it is a lengthening, medium or extension be sure to pay attention to the corners. Watch that the haunches don’t fall in or out. Remember the haunches come onto the diagonal line after the shoulders. So, if you start your movement before the horse is really straight, the horse’s haunches will be left or right. This can cause irregularity. Another mistake is that the movement was a high score, but the rider pays no attention to the transition at the end—off comes a point! Remember, there are two transitions, one up and one down. The judge must notice these and take them into account for the score, even where there is no separate transition score.

Circles: If you make them too large you lose a point, because you are making the movement easier than what is required. On 10-meter and smaller circles don’t over bend the horse, this will create a balance issue. At Training Level, not much bend is required, but a horse that is counter-bent will lose points.

Corners: Use them. Period. It doesn’t matter what level you are showing. A good rule of thumb is to go into the corner about 1.5 meters more than the smallest circle in your test. So, at Training Level, your circles are 20 meters. Find that line, and move your corners 1.5 meters more into the corner. Think of a corner as two straight lines connected by a turning aid. Don’t try to leg yield into them as this pushes the energy out. You want to think of keeping the balance on the inside hind leg.

Lateral movements: Most riders are getting pretty good at starting movements. Many don’t remember to finish them, however. If it says shoulder-in from H-E then at E you should straighten the horse, don’t ride through the corner in shoulder-in.

Rising versus sitting trot: Remember that at the lower levels there is an option to rise. If you cannot keep a nice, forward trot sitting, then POST! Judges will not score higher for riders who sit. They will think, “Why are they sitting? The trot is not going anywhere!”

Weak points: Know your horse’s weak points. Not every movement can be a 10, even with Anky or Steffen. If your horse has a talent for a certain movement, then go for it. But, to try to make a high score out of a movement the horse has trouble with will only garner you a lower score. Take the safe 6 and move on.

What level to show at? Show a level below what you are schooling. If you are struggling at home with a movement it will only be worse at the show. Use the 90 percent rule. If the movement happens 90 percent of the time at home, you are ready to show it.

Accuracy: Don’t sacrifice your training for accuracy, but riding an accurate test and using the corners will impress the judge.

The Rulebook: The USEF Rulebook has a lot of free information. For example, if you are riding Third Level, then read the requirements of the movements you are going to perform. Judges often see turns on the haunches that are bending in the wrong direction. You can still make honest mistakes of course, but it is important you have the knowledge about the requirements of each movement. I once had a rider ask the TD to talk to me. The rider said, “You scored my medium trot too low.” I asked her what the requirements of medium were and she said, “Why does that matter?” I tried to explain that if she did not know what she was trying to accomplish, then she could not criticize my mark or comments. I think you see the point I am trying to make.

Free walk: Too many riders are holding the neck down. This inhibits the movement of the topline. The judge will look at the legs and also at the topline. The horse needs complete freedom to lower and stretch his neck. It is not how low the neck goes. If the poll is slightly lower than the withers and relaxed and moving then this is fine.

Read your tests after your ride. Collect your test as soon as the class is placed and read the judge’s comments. If they say, “Needs more accuracy,” then make that your goal in the next ride. Judges do remember past riders. If you can show them that you read the test and are working on their comments, this also creates a more favorable impression.

Stay positive. Remember the judge only sees you for six minutes. They don’t know how much you have improved or they don’t know about your horse’s training issues. They can only give comments based on your performance now and tell you why you did not get all tens. Even if the score is not what you had hoped, if you and your trainer felt the performance was an improvement over the last time you were in the show arena, then you are on the right track.

Janet Foy is an FEI 5* and USEF “S” dressage judge and an “R” sport-horse breed judge. She has officiated worldwide and is a member of the USEF International High-Performance Dressage Committee. A USDF “L” Education Program faculty member, she is a USDF gold medalist and is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

If you would like to see more from Janet Foy, you’ll want to read her books! Click here for more information. 






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