How to prepare for a Dressage Test

Does the idea of riding a dressage test fill you with fear? I would get tense the minute I imagine riding a dressage test!! Anyone else with me here?

We all know that practise makes perfect as the saying goes, but do we really know how to actually practise for a dressage test. Sounds obvious right? Well…. after a great clinic I attended recently I have thought a lot differently on how to practise and ride the test.

I wrote in my last blog about investing in a great coach to help me progress with my riding. Well…. she held a dressage clinic recently with a twist. Named “Conversations that count” we spent the first part of the session discussing our approach to a test.

Work out the positives

I was asked, what were my strengths and what were my challenges with the test I had in mind?

Yup, I could come up with a zillion challenges/weaknesses, but the strengths… well that I found trickier. I don’t tend to blow my own trumpet, and my old habit of negative thinking loves to criticize. But, I reflected on what I was pleased with on from my previous test, which was the centre line. Yup, that’s right, we got a straight line in trot. For me riding a four year old, I’m pretty chuffed with that…. (wobbly babies and all that!)

So for once, I could actually praise myself for my riding. This has given me more confidence to tackle that movement again.

Then work out the challenges….

For the challenges, well that did come a lot easier. (Aren’t we just our worst critique!)

With the help of some reframing, my coach got me to see the negatives/challenges in a different light. Rather than focusing on what I can’t do, she reframed the question. She asked “what I could do that would impact my riding to get a better mark in the dressage test?” Once I remove the can’t frame of mind, I was able to be more proactive with my approach. An example of this for me was giving and retaking the rein on a circle. Contact is something we are new to and the idea of throwing it away was scary!

My coach asked me questions to get me thinking on what I could do to work on this. Prepare Prepare Prepare! After taking the negative hat off, I realised I could aim to set myself up for success. I could ride my give and retake the rein just after I have set up the bend! (Sounds obvious but I didn’t see it at first) That way I wouldn’t have to panic about giving my rein away and riding the bend.

Warming up for your dressage test

I used to think that I needed to run through my test a zillion times, but the reality is you don’t! Pick some moves that you want to work on and practise them enough to be prepared, but not too much!! You don’t want your horse to learn about halting every time you ride the centre line or second guessing your next move.


You may not always have an arena to ride in but that doesn’t mean you can’t set one up for yourself in a field or flat soft area.

You can purchase arena cones here or make some yourself. I printed out the letters and stuck them on some old yellow cones, now painted white! I also paced out the right distance between each marker, see below for the dimensions on both the larger and smaller arenas.

Film Your Test – then watch it back!

Once I had my arena set up I could get on and practise tests, meaning I could ride them at home.

A goal of mine is to go out to local competitions. By doing this, it means tackling a few of my anxieties. As I mentioned in my last blog post I have learnt to break my goals done into bitesize chunks. One of these bitesize chunks is to carry out an online dressage test. I used DressageAnywhere as recommended by my coach and it has been such a positive experience. I definitely recommend giving them a go if you are a little nervous like me when it comes to competing. (It’s super easy to set up a profile and just upload your filmed test, I did it all via my iphone)

Get someone to film your test. Don’t be afraid to ask for someone to call the test out for you too. There is no shame in having a caller, even if you know the test, it can give you peace of mind whilst riding the test.

Once you have filmed it, watch it back! That’s right, take a look and think about what went well and what you need to work on. (Trust me I hate watching videos of me riding, but it really helped)

As part of the clinic, we went through feedback of the test, but not in the usual fashion. We quite often rely on our trainers/instructors/coaches to supply the feedback for us. Doing this part myself made a real difference. By me taking ownership of the feedback it made me understand what I needed to work on, but also realise what went well. It seemed to stick in my brain for longer when I did the hard work of doing the feedback myself too!

Reflecting on a session with the right frame of mind can really put you in good stead for the next ride. In this case, it was the next dressage test.

Seeing the difference

This was the second set of online dressage tests that I have completed. For my first one, I practised a little bit but didn’t put a lot of thought into it, I just rode it! Which is fine, although I can’t truly expect to reap the rewards of our hard work if I haven’t planned it so well.

The second test I used as a basis to work from in the clinic. Using all the tips and questioning/reframing from the clinic I was able to work on making a better effort to improve. When riding the second test I was much more present, able to think about each element of the test rather than panic and ride as quick as possible. What a difference this made to the outcome of the test. The comments from my first test were to work on more suppleness and bend. The comments on my second test showed I accurately rode circles and serpentine with good changes of bend! What a reward that was to see that I had put the hard work in and got some results!

At first, I naturally focused on the marks and percentage. (Please tell me it is not just me!) Regardless of if there was an increase, it was the comments that showed my real progress. For future tests I will now always make much more effort to really read and reflect on the comments rather than marks.

I highly recommend giving the above a go with your next test whether it is at home or venturing out. Ask your trainer to spend a session with you doing the above, it really does help!

Do you have any upcoming tests to practise? I would love to hear your thoughts on how it went! Best of luck!

Jen x o x o

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