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What to do when you have a bad test

In this training article we are going to be discussing what you can do after you've had a bad test or a bad competition. This is also something you can do if you've had a training session that you've felt just hasn't gone right.

We will look at what you can do straight after as well as how to reflect on the test or training session and then how to come up with a game plan to make sure . Tests or training sessions that don't go right are the perfect opportunity to learn what doesn't work and, when dealt with correctly, can be hugely beneficial for your training and can be more helpful than the tests that go well.


Before we even get started talking about what to do once you've had a bad test or a bad training session i want to talk about the emotions first. I think we've all felt angry, sad, frustrated or disappointed after a test or training sessions and its so easy to beat ourselves up over it.

When you're feeling frustrated or angry or disappointed or any of those negative feelings there are a few things you can do that might help but this is where its really important to know yourself and how you find it best to deal with things when they go wrong. Do you find it easier to go and sit on your own for a bit and have a cry if you need to (I've had many of those moments!) or do you find it easier to try to forget about it for now and go and watch some tests, grab some food and spend time with your friends. There's no right or wrong way but i think the most important thing is to give yourself some space to process and breathe after all the emotions that we all feel after a bad test.

I think its really important to know that we all have bad tests and bad training sessions. Whilst we all know social media ends up being peoples highlight reels, dont let it make you think that no one ese struggles or has bad days. We all have days where we dont feel like riding or lack motivation, days where we get things wrong, days where we make silly mistakes that we shouldnt have or days where things just dont work and you cant work out why.

Our sport is so different in that we can do everything right, our technique, our aids, our seat can all be correct and the horse doesnt react in the way we expect. We are working with living animals so it is not just a case of training ourselves to be the best riders we can be (which is hard enough in itself) but also training our horses to be the best they can be.

Anyone who knows me knows that i am all about routines but knowing what you need to do for yourself when you have a bad training session or test will help to take the guess work out of it. Thinking about this when you are in the right frame of mind, out of that situation will help you create a routine or a process that is productive and will help you get the most out of a bad session.

There are things you can plan to do before, during and after a bad test or training session that can really help and im going to take you through each part one at a time.

What to do before you have a bad test/training session

I always talk about goal setting and i think it genuinely is so important. For every training session and test i will do i will have a goal. This goal isnt set in stone and i might change it before or during my session depending on how im feeling, how my horse is feeling, what else is going on and so on. But the important thing is to have something that you are working towards. Something to make you know whether you have achieved what you set out to achieve or not. It will help give your training a focus and stop you having those sessions where you know something went wrong because it just didnt feel right, you werent sure what was wrong you just know it didnt feel like it should and how you wanted it to. This happens when you are just aiming for a good session but you arent specific on what you actually want to be good. Then if something doesnt feel 'good' its really hard to find out what it is that is wrong or youre not happy with, Instead, if you have a goal and this could be anything from just enjoying your session to improving the accuracy of your transitions to building your horses confidence in the flying changes; you will be able to check in throughout that session and think 'have i achieved my aim for the session?' and if you havent, you can then think about what you need to do to achieve that goal: what exercises has your trainer given you that really worked to fix that, have you read about anything that might work or you can just play around with a couple of ideas and see what works.

When you get to the end of the session check in again with yourself, it might be you achieved your goal in which case amazing; but if you havent and you tried different things that didnt really work then you know that it might be a good idea to seek the help of a trainer to help with this specific problem or it oculd be that you come out of that training session kicking yourself because you realised exactly what you should have done but didnt realise until too late - in which case thats great you now know exactly what you need to do next time. You then end up with a much more productive training session, a clearer picture of what you need to do if you havent achieved your goal halfway through the session and a very clear next step if you dont achieve your goal. In other words you become a much more effective trainer of your horse, you have a greater awareness of your strengths and weaknesses as a partnership and from this your progress is going to be so much quicker.

Weve talked about goals from a training perspective now we need to look at it from a test or competition perspective. Before you go to a show set yourself a goal in your head. It cant be a percentage and it cant be a placing because you dont have full control over that its also based on the people in your class and the judge you have and so on. Instead, pick a goal that is based on you and your horses performance. It could be that you have really focussed on your horse maintaining a consistent contact or youve been focussing on your transitions or your medium trot. Make this your goal and again, dont link it to a mark. It needs to be a goal where you are able to come out of that test and go 'yes i feel i achieved that' or 'no i didnt achieve that' before you even look at the test sheet or score.

Some examples some of my clients have had this week have been:

'My goal is to have reactive and obedient upwards transitions throughout my test'

'My goal is to maintain the rhythm of the cater within the tempi changes'

'My goal is not to let my horse drop behind my leg in the canter work'

What to do during the test or training session

This part is all about routines. We need to give you something that you do every time you feel things are going wrong and youre not sure whats going on and you start feeling frustrated or upset or disappointed. It doesnt need to be anything big or extravagant; it just needs to be something that calms you down and gets you starting to think rationally and productively about how you could fix the problem.

Every one is different so find what works for you. For me, i always stop and give my horse a walk on the long rein. The stopping is always the hardest bit because i feel like im giving up but over the years ive realised that whatever im doing clearly isnt working and its not like its magically going to work just because im being stubborn and carrying on doing it. What's that saying - the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result. but once i do it i allow myself space and time to calm down and chill out for a second. Then when i feel ready i ask myself these questions:

1. Am i on track to achieve my goal?

2. What is stopping my from achieving my goal?

3. What exercise or changes can i make to get back on track?

Depending on who you are you could ask anyone on the ground who has been watching for their advice or their opinion (you dont necessarily have to take it but it might be helpful to see it from another persons perspective). If theyve been videoing even better, have a look through the video and see what it looks like from the ground. Or, if youre on your own i always like to think 'what would my trainer do? or what would they say to me if i came to them with this problem' (odds are i probably already come to them with that problem before and theyve told me exactly how to fix it i just need to r

All of this you can do in the warm up for your test too. Dont be afraid in the middle of your warm up to stop and give yourself some space to breathe and think through a different approach. The time pressure doesnt help but again youve just got to think that whatever you were doing before clearly isnt working and if you keep going its not going to suddenly work so you need to stop. By doing this youre going to avoid unnecessary confrontation with your horse, losses of harmony, arguments and so on. and then you can think of a different approach.

What to do after a bad training session/test

So, lets say youve either tried everything above and it hasnt worked or you forgot to do it and youve come out of a test or a training session disappointed or angry about how wrong it went. Again, i know im repeating myself but i feel it is so important to mention that we all have these days. Youre not the only one having a bad session or test that day i guarantee. All you can do now is reflect and make the situation as productive as possible so you know what to do if you come across that situation again.

So, give yourself space to breathe first, dont go straight in saying how bad everything was and how awful a rider you are; let everything cool down and then when you feel you have a bit more perspective sit yourself down and think about what happened. Give yourself at least till the end of the class or when you get home to chill and cool off. This next process is always so much easier if your session or test has been videoed; sometimes this isnt always possible but it can be so helpful to be able to watch it back with the test sheet and youll probably find it didnt look as bad as it felt! It can be helpful to include parents or your trainer or your helper or whoever was there with you as another viewpoint.

Talking about your bad tests or training sessions is so important and you can do it with your trainer or your parents or friends. I also do this a lot in the mentor session si do with my clients and my decomplicating dressage hub members. we go through the test and come up with a gameplan to move forward and it can be so beneficial and to be honest usually needs up being far more productive and helpful for that rider than a good test would be.

You can then go through and either annotate the test sheet or just write down the answers to the following questions:

  1. What are 3 things that you are happy with: this could be from your warm up or a certain movement you were happy with or if the judge gave you a good mark for something or even how you dealt with the problems you had.

  2. Did i achieve the goal i set out to achieve?

  3. What 2 things would you do differently if you were able to do the test again with your horse behaving exactly the same as they did: this is so important to make this test or session as productive as possible and make sure you learn as much as you can from the situation.

  4. What is 1 thing you have realised you need to be working on in your training

  5. Give yourself a goal for your next competition

Youll have noticed again, none of these questions involve anything about percentages or scores and i think that is so important. Obviously in our sport the score is important to qualify and so on but i think we put way too much pressure on ourselves to get a certain score when realistically so much of that could be down to the venue, who went in before you, the rest of the riders/horses in that group, the judge you have on the day and so much more. Following these questions every time is going to give you a huge amount of awareness about your performance but its also going to make sure you learn as much as you can from the experience. You may find answering these questions completely changes your mind over whether youve had a successful day or not, but youre also going to make so much more progress when you are constantly looking at both your successful and non successful days and looking at what you can take from each experience. And 100% even if youve had a super successful day, sit and enjoy it but then still go back and answer these questions so you learn to really embed those bits that work really well and still look to improve even further next time.

Every riders dressage journey is full (and i mean really full!) of lots of successes and lots of failures. These failures are always huge learning opportunities for every rider, most people learn far more from the tests or training sessions that go wrong because we want to work out why they went wrong to make sure it doesn't happen again. Whereas when a test or training session goes right its very easy to just enjoy the success and then forget about all the little things that actually still went wrong in the test and need to be improved. Focus on learning as much as you can from every experience and the more you can reflect, keep the good bits and get rid of the bad bits, the quicker and easier you will improve.

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