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The most common places riders lose easy marks in a test

We all lose marks in different places but so often i see riders lose easy marks. These are the marks they really didnt need to lose, little things like accuracy, timing and knowing exactly what the judge is looking for can help you avoid making these mistakes. These are probably the 4 most common places i see nearly every rider lose marks and they are all things that are really easily resolved. They don't require you to go away and work for months training your horse to see those marks change, its just little tweaks and understanding exactly what the judge needs to see to give you the marks.


Transitions are in every single dressage test so no matter whether you are competing at Intro or Grand Prix, your transitions matter. And they make up a huge amount of possible marks. In a typical Prelim test you will have transitions from walk to trot, trot to canter and back down again, you may also have transitions from trot to walk for a horses length and back up into trot and your final transition from trot to halt. Go up to Elementary and you will then have your transitions from walk to canter and your simple changes of canter - walk - canter. Head on through the levels and you then get marked on your transitions into and out of your medium and extended paces too. So there are tonnes of transitions you will have to do in your test, if you ride them well it can drastically change your score but ride them badly and you can easily see that score plummet. The most common mistakes when it comes to transitions are lazy or too slow reactions to the riders aids, resistance so hollowing or tightening when the aid goes on or a lack of accuracy with the transitions being done too early or too late.

When a judge marks your transitions they are looking for a few things. They will look at the quality of the pace you start in and finish in. So they'll be looking for both these paces to be regular and rhythmical, to be balanced and for the horse to be relaxed and working well over their backs. When it comes to the actually transition from that first pace into the next, that transition needs to be smooth and fluent, they are going to want to see the horse react quickly and smoothly to the riders aids and they'll be looking out for any signs of tension or resistance to the riders aids like hollowing, coming behind the contact or being too slow to react to the riders aids. And then finally they'll be looking at your accuracy,. If your transition is at the marker, the judge will be looking for you to be taking that first step in your new pace when your body is in line with the marker. If you have a transition that requires a certain number of steps like say a transition to walk for 3 to 5 steps and then a transition to trot, you can lose easy marks for doing too many or too few steps. If you are riding simple changes remember as well that those walk steps need to be between 3 and 5 steps (any more or less and that is easy marks lost too).

So when it comes to transitions it is as much about knowing what the judge needs to see as it is about how you ride them. So many riders i know lose easy marks purely from not knowing how many steps they should do or exactly when they should ask for the transition. The other part is then about your preparation, are you giving your horse enough warning for the transition and preparing and setting them up to do it well. This is where your test riding comes in, practice riding transitions at exactly the marker you want and work out what you need to do to get them accurate and good quality transitions.

Give and Retake

This is probably the second most common place i see riders lose easy marks purely from not knowing exactly how to ride the give and retake. Its there in tests to check that the horse is balanced and carrying themselves and not relying on the riders hand and reins to hold them up or keep them balanced. The most common mistake with these is that the give and retake is not clear enough, its not done for enough steps, its rushed or it highlights a lack of balance or self carriage in the horse or rider.

When you ride your give and retake the judge will be paying attention to 3 things. Firstly, is your give and retake correct. A good give and retake needs the ride to give away the contact, the judge needs to see a loop in the reins. For some riders with long arms that may only require a little push with the hands forward but for others it may be that you might have to really straighten out your arms. Either way you want to aim to follow the line of your horses neck so push your hands forward towards your horses ears. This give with the rein needs to be smooth, you don't want to throw the reins at your horse as this isnt going to help the balance but equally don't take 3 years about it, aim to softly push your hands forward in one stride, then that give and loop in the rein needs to be maintained for, ideally two or three strides and then you can softly retake the reins again. Again we want this to be smooth so be careful not to jab your horse in the mouth as you retake those reins. This give and retake is as much a test of the riders balance and making sure they are not using the reins to keep themselves balanced as much as it is a test of the horses balance.

The next thing the judge will be looking at is what happens when those reins are given. Does this horse hollow or drop his neck, does he tuck his chin into his chest or stick his nose out (these can all be signs of a loss of balance), do they slow down or speed up, if its on a circle does the circle change size or shape? All these things will show that the horse isn't balanced and carrying themselves with the rider using their seat to control their horse with minimal rein.

Thirdly, (and you'll be spotting a trend here), the judge will look for the accuracy of your give and retake. Is it clearly shown with a clear release of the rein contact but also is it done at the correct markers. Usually we see a lot of give and retakes happening over the centre line so make sure it actually is over the centre line. Doing it too early or too late could lose you 1 or 2 easy marks.

The size and shape of your circles

Every test up to and including Inter I include circles in some way shape or form. I get it when people think its obvious, of course your 20m circle needs ot be 20m and a circle but actually riding an accurate circular circle where your horse is turning the same amount every step is actually really hard, and it gets harder when you then have to ride your 15m and 10m circles and know exactly where you should go and how far across or down the arena the circle goes whilst also remembering to keep it an actual circle. And that's before we even talk about the quality of the circle in terms of the quality of the pace, bend and so on. The most common mistakes with circles tend to be the circle being too small or too big (whether that's on the whole circle or half); the circle may not have enough inside bend or the horse may actually be bent to the outside;

So, what is the judge needing to see when you ride your circles. The judge will be looking firstly for that circle shape and the right size so we dont want any circles being too big or too small, the judge will be looking not only for the rider potentially riding this incorrectly but also looking at the horse and seeing if they are falling in or out which will make the circle bigger or smaller than the rider intended it to be. The judge will then look at the bend; we need a nice uniform bend from the tail to the poll coming from the riders inside leg, if the judge sees the rider is pulling a lot on the inside rein, if there is lots of neck bend and not a lot of body bend or not enough bend at all this will have quite a severe effect on your mark. And then finally the judge will be looking at how fluent and smooth the circle looks, we want a regular, rhythmical walk, trot or canter with the same speed maintained all the way around the circle as well as the horse staying softly working in a nice soft outline.

So all in all really circles are quite hard, there's a lot of things that need to come together to get a good mark for them but the most important thing is to know exactly where you should be going. Get really confident knowing where those 15m, 10m and 8m circles go whether you have a look at a diagram (there is loads on google) or you have a lesson with your coach on where you are supposed to go and how you should ride them. Get really confident with this and it will make your life so much easier and help you to not throw away those easy marks.

The turn onto the centre line

The last place where i see most riders lose easy marks is on that turn onto the centre line. We all know our centre lines need to be straight but if you turn onto the centre line and you end up to the left or right of it, you then need to get yourself back onto the centre line before you can focus on riding straight or you end up staying to the left or right of the centre line the whole way down. Both ways are going to end up with you losing marks. So we want to give ourselves the best possible chance of getting the best mark for our centre line and to do this the judges are going to be looking for an accurate turn exactly onto the centre line followed by a straight line all the way down and you may have a half to do too.

Getting that turn onto the centre line is the perfect start to set you up to get a really great mark for your centre line. Generally most horses (and riders too) have a more bendy and supple side and a less bendy and supple side. Most of the time the side that feels more supple and bendy is the side you are more likely to have your horse fall out through the shoulder and this can lead to them continuing to drift as they go down the centre line. The side that feels stiffer usually is the side your horse is more likely to fall in. So i tend to actually suggest that most people enter the arena at the beginning from their stiffer side, the side that feels less supple, because you aren't judged on the quality of the turn onto the centre line at the beginning so it doesnt matter if your horse is a bit stiff or not bending so well around your inside leg,. What you are judged on is from that moment you come through those white boards and we want to make sure from that moment you are bang on that centre line. Once you are on that centre line you can then focus on staying straight and giving the judge a really great first impression of you and your horse to start your test off on a really good mark.

So there you have it, the 4 most common ways i see riders lose easy marks in tests. Hopefully there are a few things here that you think you could do to improve your own scores. All these things are little changes and tweaks that will make a huge different, they don't require you to go and spend 2 or 3 months perfecting. Just knowing and understanding exactly what the judge needs to see to give you the marks is so important for helping you to be able to show the best test you possible can.

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