The First Timer’s Guide to Competing Dressage from a First Timer

Tim Russell, March 10, 2017

I’m no expert rider. But I am an expert at being a beginner rider. I’ve been a beginner for about four years now, which makes me uniquely qualified to dispense expert advice on how to be a beginner.

I just completed my first dressage competition, and yes, I won the blue ribbon. The fact that I won first out of a field of two, is beside the point. Everybody has to start somewhere. And like many things in life, it doesn’t matter how well you do but that you just do it. Like Nike says.

So with the first one done and under my belt, here are some wisdom-inspired experiences and tips for those considering or about to go through their first dressage test.

Like you, I admit to having been a bit nervous. I was riding Eros, my 6yo Lusitano gelding in his (and my) first show. Ever. Eros is a pretty mellow guy and it takes a lot to rattle him. That said, he has blazingly fast reflexes. If he spooks, he can go from Keanu Reeves-mellow to Jim Carey-hyper in about 0.004sec and leave a rider flying through the air if one’s core isn’t fully engaged. So I wasn’t sure how he’d react in such a new experience and environment.

Perhaps he could sense my nervousness, but he was nervous too. During warm ups he struggled to get going, he wasn’t collected and had a few diaharrea episodes (much to the delight and mock-disgust of my 10 year old son). But we eventually got ourselves together and did our stuff, earning a respectable 65.4…just enough to beat out the poor 12 year old who was near tears at having lost.

It wasn’t our finest performance. In fact, I was disappointed afterwards since we had ridden the test much better so many times before. If I was getting a 65 on that test, imagine the glory and adulation had we ridden it the way we did in practice the day before! It would have been a 75 minimum, and then I would have been high-point champion!

I think the judge gave me a few freebies too…but that’s the great thing about the introductory tests, and why I’d recommend you just do it. The judges know it’s your first time out there, and generally appreciate the effort and enthusiasm for the sport. They were judging me on a whole different level than they were judging Natasha on her Level 4 test.

The winner:

Accept going into it that something will go wrong
When it does, remember that it happens to everybody. Charlotte Dujardin ( on Valegro never got a perfect score, Laura Graves on Verdades ( doesn’t. Neither will you, and don’t expect to. Knowing you won’t be perfect takes some of the pressure off.
Memorize your test. It sounds simple, but this is one of the most important things you can do. Ride the test over and over in your mind so that it’s second nature and you don’t have to think about it. This has two benefits:
Horses react to the most imperceptible movements of your body. And even if you don’t know the exact aids and commands yet, your instinctive body movements coming from having memorized the test will lead your horse’s movements.
You have enough to think about during the test- shoulder position, heels, grip, etc that the movements shouldn’t be one of them.
Talk to your horse. A lot. Before the event and during warm ups, leading into the arena, and even during the test…softly, and away from the judge. It will calm him down and you.
Smile. Like talking to your horse, just the act and effort of smiling will help you (and thus your horse) relax. And the judge will notice.
Review the judge’s comments with your trainer. In no other sport do you get such a detailed critique of your performance afterwards, it’s like getting a free lesson. A judge may have a different perspective than your trainer and it’s a good opportunity to learn from a very skilled evaluator. That’s why they’re a judge.
Have fun and enjoy the experience regardless of your score or standing. I know, that’s trite. But the introductory tests are meant to introduce the sport to horse and rider. You’ll have an entire career to be worried about your standings if you choose to pursue the sport. But for now, enjoy the experience and the bond a competition can instill between you and your horse.
Support and cheer for the other riders! You’ll appreciate it when they support and cheer for you when you’re done 🙂

What about you? Any other tips you can share for those about to go through their first test? Leave your suggestions in the comments field. See you at the next Introductory Test B in a couple of weeks! In the meantime, Love Your Horse! (

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