How to Ride A Dressage Test... Mentally

Sports psychologist Jenny Susser, PhD, explains that developing the mental strategy of test-riding is a skill of successful riders that is often overlooked.
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As I’m sure you know, having the physical skills to ride a test is undoubtedly important—but developing the mental strategy of test-riding is a skill of successful riders that is often overlooked.

Step 1: Pick a test. Now this might sound silly, but you want to choose to compete at a level that is right for you and your horse—not your trainer and your horse, not your friend and her horse, not your fantasy and your unicorn. What’s so wrong with starting at a lower level than necessary? As my grandmother would say, “What’s the rush? Is something on fire?” Our dressage world has become incredibly competitive and this is a blessing and a curse. It’s easy to buy a horse that is better than we are, but remember that jumping over steps takes lots of energy and makes you winded by the top. Confidence is something sport psychologists talk about a lot! And we talk about it a lot because most of the calls we get include the sentence, “I need more confidence.” No one ever became more confident overfacing themselves in a competitive situation. Slow down, ride at your level and nurture your confidence by making it a little easier instead of a little harder. Yes, you should push yourself, but I think we have lost sight of what a healthy push looks like and we end up losing confidence instead.

Step 2: Prepare. If you have read anything I have written, it usually includes the word “preparation.” There is no substitute for preparation in anything you want to do well. Riding a dressage test takes a great deal of preparation in many areas. Think about layers of prep work to help you organize. The actual six minutes in the ring is really the culmination of hours and hours of pre-work. And in terms of confidence, feeling prepared creates confidence better than anything else in the world. When you enter the ring, imagine knowing your test. And not just knowing the pattern of the test, but knowing the nuances of the transitions because you have ridden them so many times you lost count. Imagine practicing your test enough times that you forget to worry about remembering the test. Now that is confidence!

One thing we fail to prepare for adequately is our expectations. See if you can figure out what you truly expect of yourself and your horse and see if that is fair and possible. Disappointment is a by-product of expectation. Now, this is human nature so we can’t really avoid having some kind of expectation, but left unchecked, it can wreak havoc on an actually decent outcome and kill any happiness that could have resulted from a good ride. Try to set your expectations intentionally, giving yourself the best chance possible to succeed. 

Step 3: Focus! This is the key to executing a quality performance. Focus is a muscle that you need to continually develop. The first thing is to pick what to focus on. This is where a dressage test makes it easy for you. If all you ever focused on was what the test book says, you would have a great ride. But the problem comes when we start to worry: “My horse isn’t this enough, I’m not doing that enough, I don’t feel good enough,” etc. It’s the negative distractions that cost us time and give us trouble with focus. That leads to the second part of focus: be prepared to lose your focus because you will. The key is to waste as little time as possible while returning your focus to the test and your execution. Great test riders don’t ride perfect tests. They make plenty of mistakes, but they just recover from them faster. Work to recover your focus during your training rides and you will find that will help you strengthen your focus muscle. 

Step 4: Repeat. 

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Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year all-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with athletes of all sports and ages—collegiate, professional, international and amateur. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a performance coach with Human Performance. 

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