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A horse and rider during a dressage competition

10 tips for surviving your first dressage competition

A lot of people see dressage as something ‘fancy’, only reserved for elite riders on expensive horses with expressive movement. However, dressage is for everyone – and riders of all level can got out and have a great time with their horses at dressage competitions (see my earlier post about why should you dressage). The first time for anything can be overwhelming but remember that fortune favours the prepared so here are my 10 tips to help with preparation for your first dressage competition.

Before-before your first dressage competition

1/ Practice loading and travelling your horse

This is particularly useful if you have a young horse or an older horse that tends to get anxious about travelling. Start with loading your horse without going anywhere – maybe just let them have feed on the trailer/lorry or even on a ramp if you only get that far. Repeat this until your horse is calm about going in. Then progress to short trips, ideally with another horse first before travelling your horse alone.

2/ Practice plaiting

If you are not experienced in plaiting, practice lots before the competition day to get an idea about how long it takes you to plait up. This way you will not be running late because plaiting took you longer than you thought. Nobody needs the added stress of running late for their first dressage competition 😉

3/ Familiarise yourself with the venue

If possible, do an arena hire so that you can practice the test in the arena where you will be competing. This can be particularly useful if you have a young or an inexperienced horse. You can also go and watch a dressage show at the same venue prior to your first dressage competition so that you know where the arenas are, where the judges are sitting, etc.

Before your dressage competition

4) Check tack and dress requirements

There are rules for what the rider should wear as well as for tack. You don’t need an expensive jacker or boots. Any plain dark jacket with white shirt with stock and cream or white breeches would do. You will need a riding hat up to the current standards and gloves. Whip is optional.

Make sure you check that the bit you are using is British Dressage permitted and that your horse does not have martingale or boots on (boots are permitted in the warm up). The numnah should be white and remember to attach your number to both sides of the numnah or bridle (each competitor is given a number for the day – this should be available before or on the day of the competition).

5/ Learn your dressage test and practice

Look at the dressage movement that are required at your level and practice them at home. Ride the whole test a few times so that you know where your gaps are and where you can push your marks up.  You can watch videos on Youtube of tests for each level to help you with what the judges are looking for.

Remember to ride without the help of the arena fence. If you only have a small arena, place white boards for poles slightly on the inside track of the arena and ride on the inside of these to test that you are not relying on the wall/arena fence to stay in. If you have a bigger arena, use the poles or white boards to outline a 20x40m arena which is the size that is used during the lower level tests at unaffiliated dressage level

6/ Check travel time and start time

Once you know your time or the class start time, work backwards to add warm up time, tack up time, travel time, plaiting up and grooming of your horses. Allow more time than you think you will need – especially for your first dressage competition!

On the day

7/ Bring a friend! 

They can help you hold your horse, tack up, feed you chocolate or read the test if your mind suddenly goes blank.

8/ Watch a couple of tests

This can help you remember where to go and notice if the horses find any particular part of the arena a bit scary (flower pots, judges’ box…).

9/ Ride accurately

Many marks are lost simple due to inaccurate riding! You can get a really nice score just by riding accurately (watch the size of your circle) and with fluidity. For tips on how to ride better circle (there are a lot of circle in dressage tests!) see my earlier post here.

10/ Breathe, smile and enjoy!

The first dressage competition is always the most terrifying but the more you get out the less nervous you will become. Take a few deep breaths before you enter the arena and smile. You have worked hard to get here so go out and enjoy the time with your horse!

Do you want to give dressage a go? I specialise in teaching ‘practical dressage’ for ‘non-dressage’ riders and dressage for newbies. Get in touch to find out more about how I can help you with dressage training Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and North London area.

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