Understanding the Dressage Test with Event and Dressage trainer Carylyn Daughters

So you made it through your dressage test in one piece and felt like you did fairly well. However, you placed in the middle of the pack and would like to boost your test scores the next time around.So you made it through your dressage test in one piece and felt like you did fairly well. However, you placed in the middle of the pack and would like to boost your test scores the next time around.

Story originally posted by: Lara BrickerHorseCity.com Free-Lance Writer

So you made it through your dressage test in one piece and felt like you did fairly well. However, you placed in the middle of the pack and would like to boost your test scores the next time around. But aside from the brief remarks the judge scrawled on the bottom of your test, you are not sure which areas you have the best chance of fixing the next time out.

We asked Event trainer Carolyn Daughters, of Pinecroft Sport Horses in Middleburg, Virginia, what tips she gives her students about interpreting their tests. Daughters is a USDF Bronze Medalist and offers Dressage Fix-A-Test clinics. She is USDF "L" graduate, meaning she is going for her USDF judge’s license. She frequently judges schooling or unrecognized dressage shows.

Daughters advises riders to read the purpose of the test first.

"A dressage test’s purpose summarizes the quality of training that is expected to be demonstrated at each level," Daughters explains. "When a rider receives extremely low, or high scores, it is advisable to determine whether the rider is choosing to ride at a level appropriate to his or her current ability."

The following purposes are listed for the introductory through first level tests:

1996 USDF Introductory Level: "This unique series of tests provides an opportunity for the horse and/or rider new to dressage to demonstrate elementary skills. Test geometry has been designed to encourage correct performance. The collective marks place slightly less emphasis on the gaits of the horse and more emphasis on rider’s effectiveness."

"Horses should be ridden on a light but steady contact. Greater importance should be placed upon preparation, correctness and quality of the movements, rather than the gaits of the horse and exact execution of the movements at a specific marker."

1999 AHSA Training Level: "To confirm that the horse’s muscles are supple and loose, and that it moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit."

Horse and rider pairs are also scored for collective marks and it is important to understand what characteristics are considered in the scores. In the USDF Introductory Level tests, the horse’s gaits are judged for freedom and regularity. At this level, impulsion is scored based on the horse’s desire to move forward and the relaxation of the back. The submission marks are based on the horse’s attention and confidence; lightness and ease of movements and acceptance of the bit. The rider is scored on the correctness of their position and use of the aids.

In training level tests, horses are rated on three additional factors for impulsion, including the elasticity of the steps, suppleness of the back and engagement of the hindquarters.

When you read your collective marks and start thinking about your next ride, how do you know which areas have the best chance for improvement. In the long run, Daughters feels that the collective marks for the rider have the most ability to improve, followed by submission then impulsion. Short-term areas with the most chance for change include accuracy, bending, roundness of the horse and the desire to move forward.

Scores for submission can be improved in most horses through correct riding.

"If a horse is generally stiff physically or sluggish, without naturally wonderful gaits, but has a willing attitude, it is likely that correct training and riding can lead to a high submission score more easily than a high impulsion or gaits score," Daughters points out. However, a horse that has naturally nice gaits and is willing to put forth energy under saddle but is not very supple laterally, may have a more difficult time improving the marks for submission.

When looking at the actual test, patterns in certain areas can be helpful to recognize. For instance a test may reveal glitches with transitions, accuracy or within specific gaits.

"One always needs to go "back to the basics" to determine what is lacking within the test movements to improve a slew of 5’s to 7’s or 8’s," Daughters says.

Keeping old tests from several years back can be a means of documenting progress in certain areas.

"Hopefully one could go back to tests of 5, or even 3 or 2, years ago and see changes for the better," Daughters says. "But if not, don’t despair; go with whether or not you can experience a deeper understanding of how the past scores came about based on how the ride felt back then as compared to today."
And it is important to remember that a judge’s job is different from that of a trainer or instructor.

"The judge that sees your ride is judging just that- what is seen during the 6 or so minutes that it takes for you to ride your test,’ Daughters says. "Even though feedback may come to the rider, particularly at a schooling show, in the form of verbal or written suggestions for improvement, the judge’s primary job is to assess, not to teach; to comment on what is needed or is missing or is well done, not necessarily to tell how to do it."