How should I prepare for a dressage test?

Joanna Fisher

Professional advice from Joanna Fisher, International Grand Prix Dressage Rider and Trainer 

How should I prepare for a dressage test?

This is something I get asked by all riders at all levels, and to be honest I don’t think age, level or experience would change the preparation required.  The first thing to remember is, dressage is basically obedience, schooling and precision. You are given a set of movements in a designated order within a bordered arena, where a judge, or judges, depending on the level, mark you for the above points.

So let’s say for example you enter a Novice Dressage test. This test combines circles, diagonals, straight lines and transitions.
I generally wouldn’t advise riding through the test over and over as horses are far too clever and start to memorise the test, this is not what you want, as they need to be concentrating and listening in the arena, not taking you around the test!!

I do suggest though that you take individual movements from the test and practise these, for example the centre line and halt. This is the start and the end, where you are showing the judge how well you are prepared, they are looking for straightness and direct transitions. It’s so important to practise transitions so they are clean, smooth and precise. Smile on your halt, no judge wants to look up to a miserable or petrified face!
Another point is to use the arena, ride into the corners and practise this at home. There is no point cutting off corners, you have to make the most of every inch of the arena. Try to practise the transitions on the marker… so if it requires canter to trot on A for example or B, practise this. Aim to make the transition a stride before so it will be as close as possible, I believe accuracy is a major player, and can be the difference between a placing or not.
Rhythm is super important, regardless of the pace, count it in your mind, feel it through your seat and try to maintain the same rhythm throughout the test. Your seat and position is important. Try to ride as quiet as possible and be proud! It’s far nicer to watch a quiet rider who is not interfering with the horse but more part of the horse, equally sitting up and sitting proud during the test. It’s a show, so show the judge how well you can ride!

Moving onto the horse, presentation is also a key player, so be sure if the weather is nice to perhaps give your horse a bath, plait the mane and clean your boots and tack. If you turn up looking scruffy the overall general appearance is brought down and no one wants to stare at that for 5mins non stop, always think from the judges perspective.
Each mark is given for each movement, so ride each movement for the potential full mark, don’t think of the test as one collection. If you make a mistake- it doesn’t matter- there are more than enough movements to earn those points back. Always think and look for the next movement in the test.
It’s also goes without saying, the test needs to be learnt well. Once you are in the arena the time goes by at warp speed, so you don’t want to be having to concentrate on where you have to go next! If in doubt ask a friend to call for you, but I think it looks far more professional to have learnt the test.
The final and key point on this question is HAVE FUN! It’s designed to show how well you have been schooling at home, enjoy it and the experience! Take away the positive from each test and go home to work on the areas that you felt might have been better. There is always another show on another day!

Cover image credit: Hilary Rock


Joanna has written a collection of children’s books based on her horses over the years.
It has been published by award winning Candy Jar books and currently available in Waterstones and being read in schools. Click here to link to her website:

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