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The difference between Test Riding and Training

This topic may seem obvious, test riding is running through a test and training is what you do on a daily basis right? Wrong! There is so much more to test riding than just running through a test and in this training article we are going to talk about what the difference is between training your horse and test riding your horse as well as why its important to combine both types of riding into your training sessions.


What is the difference between 'training' and 'test riding'

Training is about improving your horse and your riding. Its about making your horse 'feel' better. Making them more reactive, stronger, more supple and so on. Every horse will have weaknesses when we look at how they feel and this is what we aim to improve. When we improve something the general rule of thumb is

1. You come across a problem or issue

2. You work our how to fix it using a method, technique or exercise

3. You see improvement by using this exercise

4. The improvements become consistent

This whole process takes time. It doesn't happen in the space of a few seconds or minutes. It takes days, weeks and months (even years depending on what you are doing). Training a horse is about finding their weaknesses and working on them. During the process the horse might make mistakes, you might have to correct them, you might have to show them how you want them to do it. You might go through a messy stage where the horse isn't strong enough to do as you want or doesn't quite understand what you want. When making your horse 'feel' better you might not know how it should feel or you might not know how to achieve the 'feel' that you want and this is what our trainer is for, to give us the tools so we know what feel e are aiming for and how to get that feeling. For example, lets say your horses weakness is their suppleness, you might use leg yields to improve this; but in training your aim is that the leg yield creates a more supple horse and you reward the horse when it becomes more soft and supple. Its about making your horse 'feel' better. You're less fussed about when you're starting the leg yield and when you're finishing it and that it is a leg yield suitable for a test. If it makes your horse more supple then you've achieved your goal. But, if you want to be able to go out and ride an Elementary test you also need to make sure that you can ride a leg yield that 'looks' good too, can you start and finish a leg yield when you want and that that leg yield is of a good test quality that the judges will be looking for.

And this is where your test riding comes in. Its all very well and good you being able to do a beautiful transition or canter pirouette or leg yield when everything feels great and your horse feels 'set up' for it. But, are you able to 'set up' your horse yourself and do the movement when you want, how you want, not just when everything clicks into place. Test riding is about riding your horse through a movement or series of movements where you set them up and ride them as you would in a test at a competition. By this i mean, no waiting around until the way of going feels 'just right' and no coming out of the movement when it doesn't feel great. You need to ride the movement at the marker and either learn to set the horse up to be able to do that movement or learn how to deal with it when you cant. Preferably an ability to do both is ideal.

Now, obviously we need to be able to do both, we use our training to make our horses to 'feel' good and rideable, strong and supple and so on, and this will no doubt help us in our test riding to allow us to be more accurate and our transitions reactive and accurate and so on. But test riding is about making our horses look good, it doesn't matter how it feels, there are no marks in a test for how it feels, its about making it look effortless and easy and accurate. Now some people say you should be able to do both at the same time. that you should use the leg yield to improve your horses suppleness whilst also making sure that you are selecting when you will start and finish the leg yield and that it is of good quality. too much to think about and end up doing none of it. your focus on accuracy will mean you don't get the suppleness and by not getting the suppleness you wont be able to have a rideable horse that you can control so you wont get a good quality leg yield

What are the benefits of each?

Test riding teaches you how to set your horse up for a movement, it teaches you how much time you need and also helps you learn what you need to do if your horse isn't set up and you still have to ride that movement. It teaches the rider a real awareness of their riding and their horse, it teaches them to think 'why did that transition go so well' or 'what did i do differently there that meant i lost the way of going'. By being so analytical about it, we become better at knowing what we need to do when, what works and what doesn't work. Test riding is a real skill; yes its about preparation and setting your horse up and working out what you need to do when to make sure each movement pays off. But its also about damage control, when things go wrong how do you get it back as quickly as possible? Everyone can ride a good halt transition when the horse is set up for it, whether that's naturally (for example if the trot is a bit slow or collected) or if the horse has been set up through an exercise. But as soon as we start saying we want to halt at a specific point, it then becomes the riders job to set that horse up for the transition and they cant rely on waiting for the right time or an exercise to do the job for them. And this is why test riding is so important, because it teaches the rider when they do it for the first time, that they actually don't have the ability they thought they did to set the horse up for the movement, but it also gives them practice and the ability to then, with practice, be able to set the horse up themselves without relying on an exercise or just waiting for the right moment. And ideally, that moment where the rider thinks 'actually i cant set my horse up for this movement', we want that realisation to happen at home not in a test. By test riding, you'll have loads of practice so when you do get in those white boards you're a pro at setting your horse up to perform best movement they can possibly do.

Having said all this, training is still really important. I always think of training as the messy part of dressage and test riding as the perfecting pretty part. When i train, my main goal is just to get my horse to try and give it a go, yes they might not get it right or they may get confused or they might not be strong enough yet to do it to a test quality but that's fine. The aim for a training session is for the horse to leave that arena feeling easier and better to ride than before. Whether that's they're more reactive or more supple or understand a bit more about how to step sideways in a leg yield or push a bit more form the hindleg in the half pass.

I always think training is the first step. You train the horse how to do a circle or a transition, you show them how you want them to go, you correct mistakes and you get them confident in the movement or way of going. They you test ride it and that's the second step. You find out what you need to do to set that horse up and how much time you need to be able to do that. You practice being able to ask for it at a marker and to stop it at another marker. You practice your ability to control the movement and your horse in that movement. In other words, you need both test riding and training.

What is the problem most riders have with test riding and training?

I think every rider will prefer riding their horse one way or the other. Some love to train and progress their horses, they like teaching them and showing them how they want them to go. If they dont get the reaction they want, they come back and repeat. These riders tend to avoid test riding, they will ride a half pass and come out of it to regroup before trying again. What they don't do is carry on in that half pass as if they were in a test and try to figure out how to fix it.

On the other end of the scale, are the riders who love test riding. They are always working on the accuracy of their transitions being at the right marker and their circles being the exact right size and shape and their centre lines being dead straight and so on. What they avoid is training their horse, introducing new movements or improving the way of going which, when you start can be messy and awkward until it is established.

Generally, if you dont test ride at home you will be better at training. Test riding is a skill that comes with practice and if you dont test ride at home the only practice you will get is at a competition. So lets say you compete every weekend for a month. You will get 4 practices in to test ride. But then you probably train 2,3,4 times a week so you will get, at the least, twice as much practice at training your horse than test riding, if not triple or quadruple the practice. This is why its really important that we incorporate test riding into our schedule with our horses

How to incorporate training and test riding into your schooling sessions

Like we've said there are pros and cons to both which is why it is so important to be able to do both. The easiest way to do this is to have dedicated 'training' sessions and dedicated 'test riding' sessions. In the training sessions you work on you and your horse, the way of going, learning new movements or generally improving your horse and your riding. In your 'test riding' sessions you can run through specific parts of a test or a whole test but the focus is on accuracy, straightness, keeping the same walk trot and canter rhythm throughout the test, your control to be able to ask for the movement, to set your horse up so they are able to perform that movement at that marker. Take a part of the test you next have to do and run through it, you can then zero in on the weaker areas and ask yourself these questions:

  • What movements were inaccurate or lacking in quality?

  • Did i set my horse up correctly/with enough time for these movements?

  • What movements were accurate and good quality?

  • What did i do in my 'set up' that worked well?

You come away then with far more knowledge about what you need to do to set your horse up in the best possible way for the best possible quality of movement. So, when you come to do it in a test, you know exactly what to do when/ If you come across a specific movement you have trouble with, take that movement out of the test and focus on it alone in an independent training session. This is where you train it, find the weakness or the thing thats stopping the movement from being good, improve it. And then go back to the test riding to work out horse to set it up and get it back when it goes wrong.

The other option is for you to switch between test riding and training within one session. So for example, if we stick with the half pass them, you start by training the half pass and work on the way of going in it, the suppleness, the rhythm and you do whatever you need to do to show your horse how you want them to go whether that is by using an exercise or two or by coming out of the half pass when you lose the quality, re0 establishing the way of going, and then going back into the half pass. You spend time improving the quality of the half pass and the horse comes away feeling confident about what they are supposed to do. Then you test ride the half pass. You ride a test line. Pick a point where you want to start the half pass and a point you want to end it. If it goes wrong, you practise being able to fix it in the half pass, you practice having to ride whatever you've got at that moment in time.

Both test riding and training are super important, and they both have theyre strengths and weaknesses. But it is important that you used them both. They are both skills that are needed to be a great rider and trainer of your horse and, by not doing one of these as much as you should, you will be hugely limiting your progress both in training and in the competition arena.

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