Three Steps to Maximize Success in the Dressage Show Ring with Janet Foy

Janet Foy explains how to get the most from your dressage show and also shares tips for dressage riders who choose not to compete.

By now the summer show season has pretty much wrapped up. Fall is here and it’s time to plan your and your horse’s training schedule for the next six to eight months. Here are a few tips for you, whether you plan on competing soon at year-end championships, are taking a quick break before the winter season or hope to focus more on training before moving up next year. Even if you do not want to show, this clear plan will help bring you success.

Careful planning is the key to success in the arena. (Credit: Anya Crane)

For Those Who Show

Step One: Identify the holes in your training. My first suggestion is to gather all of your tests together in one place. This would include schooling shows, ride-a-test clinics or recognized shows. Put them first in a pile according to the level. So if you had shown Training and First Level in 2013, you would have two piles, one for Training Level and one for First Level. Then put the tests in order of scores, with the lowest score first.

Next, get a notebook and go through each test, and each time you had a 5 or below you will put this movement on one page. Keep it simple. If you had four tests with a 5 on the stretchy circle in trot, then you would have the movement once, followed by four check marks. Do the same thing for movements with scores of 8 or above. Then you will have a page for the score of 6 and one page for the score of 7.

Take a highlighter and mark those movements where you have more than three check marks. If you have only one 4 for the stretchy circle, and the other scores are all 7, then this is not a hole in your training, but one unfortunate test. However, if you have six check marks on the stretchy circle for a score of 5 or below, then you know you have a hole in the training.

At the end of this exercise it should be fairly obvious to you where you need to concentrate your homework. If you always get a 9 on the entry and halt, good. You do not need to keep drilling this movement. 

Step Two: Use the comments to guide you. The next exercise is to make a page for judges’ comments. Again, use the check-mark system. If you have 10 check marks mentioning accuracy, then you know you better get with it. 

I always encourage riders to diagram an arena, making sure the dimensions are on the diagram between all the letters. Then draw in the exercises to scale, so you know exactly where the movement should start and end. I remember putting dressage letters in my living room and walking around and around, making sure I knew exactly where to go. Not all you do needs to be done on your horse. Cones are a wonderful help, and you can put them around the arena to remind you where your points of reference need to be.

There may be a lot of comments regarding lateral suppleness. If so, concentrate on getting the horse to bend more equally to both sides. If there are a lot of contact comments, then you need to also check your rider scores and see if the judges thought there was a correlation or a flaw in your position that might be negatively influencing the suppleness and elasticity of the contact. If so, work on you, not the horse. Longe lessons are a must.

Be sure to look at the end comments as well, as there are often little nuggets of wisdom in those.

Step Three: Should you move up? The last exercise is to put all of your scores down in order and find your median average (the one in the middle). If that score is a 64 percent or above, then, in my opinion, you should have the tools to begin to think about moving up to the next level. I think it is important that you have several scores over 64 percent at the highest test of the level before you move up. For example, if you are showing Training and First Level and your median score is 67 percent at First Level with at least three rides of 64 percent or above at First Level, Test 3, then I believe you could start focusing on collection and the more difficult lateral movements required in the Second Level tests. 

Be sure to notice how your position and aids are influencing the performance. If you have been doing the posting trot all season at First Level, I suggest some work on the longe line in your quest for Second Level. The score for your rider position is telling. Legs need work? Seat? Hands? If you are getting 7 or above on how you look, but no more than 6 on effectiveness, then perhaps you need to learn how to begin and end each movement. For example, are you bending the wrong direction in the corners? 

Read the USEF Rulebook and read all the definitions of the movements you are going to train for any level. Even if you can’t quite master them yet, it is important to understand what you are trying to do. I am always amazed at how many riders do not bend the horse in the direction of the turn for a turn on the haunches. This is very clear in the definition. This is free information.

If You Don’t Want to Show

Many of you do not want to show for either financial reasons or perhaps nerves. Maybe you are too far away from the showgrounds. You can still have a great plan and work within the Training Scale without the “report cards” from the horse shows. Not everyone enjoys the showing experience, but don’t let that interfere with your training enjoyment. 

One of the best ways I know to test your training is to ask your trainer to have you ride through the tests in a lesson situation. Sometimes in our training, we wait until the perfect moment to perform an exercise. In the show ring this is impossible. By riding a test or two, you will see how quickly you can or cannot prepare the horse.

There are also great websites (like, for example) where you can video a ride and then post it and have one of their judges send you an evaluation of the ride. This type of “showing” is great, as it allows the judge to give you more training tips than are really allowed at a recognized show.

See if there is a USDF “L” Education Program graduate in your area. If so, perhaps you and some of your friends could ask her to come do a personal ride-a-test for you. This is a great way to learn. You would ride the test of your choosing which would be judged. Then the judge will give you a short lesson on how to improve your scores.

Things to Do While Not In the Barn

Go online: Since there will be days that the weather will prohibit your riding, be sure to check out all of the wonderful education available on the Internet. USDF now has a great e-TRAK program that is available for all USDF members. Check with your local GMO to see what the education schedule will be for the winter. If there are any USDF “L” Education Programs running in your area, be sure to audit—there is an amazing amount of information to be had. You can join several of the online training sites (just use Google) and find lessons specific to the movements you are working on or perhaps enjoy one of the symposiums that I have done with Steffen Peters or Debbie McDonald. 

The power of print media: Books and magazines are great. Nothing like a good book or article in front of a roaring fire in the winter. There are many choices out there, but finding a magazine that offers you a lot of advice and training articles, is important. If you are an amateur, Facebook has several groups that share a lot of training advice and information.

Join a gym: I can’t tell you how important your physical fitness is to your riding. You cannot expect the horse to be sensitive and alert to your aids if you are having position issues. 

I suggest getting a personal trainer for a few sessions. If she can come to the barn and watch you ride, that is best. She needs to know which muscle groups you will be using. Learn the workout and get going. Pilates classes are also a great alternative. Get fit and get going.

Plan for next year’s show season: The last part of your plan should be to think about what your show season will be like in the upcoming year. Do you want to start early? Weather could be an issue, of course. Shows are held on traditional dates, so you should be able to plan a schedule from the previous year’s calendar. Be sure to choose good footing and good stabling if you are going overnight. Friendly show management helps in case you want to change a class or fill a scratch. 

Plan your budget: How many clinics will you be able to ride in and still show? Maybe those who don’t want to show can ride in more clinics. The main thing is to have a plan and make a budget. Before you sign up for USDF/USEF Qualifying classes and incur the extra qualifying cost, find out where the 2014 Regionals for your area will be held. Can you get there? If you have no intention of attending, then save that money for something else. Be sure to visit the USDF website once a month and see what educational opportunities are in your area. Join your local GMO or at least sign up for the newsletter. This newsletter will also have a message from your USDF Regional Director every month that will tell you about upcoming events in your region. 

Take advantage of schooling shows, audit clinics and do everything you can to keep learning. 

Janet Foy is an FEI 4* and USEF “S” dressage judge and an “R” sporthorse breed judge. A member of the USEF international High Performance Dressage Committee, she also teaches judges’ training programs nationwide. Author of the book Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse, she is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 






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