What is a dressage judge looking for when judging Preliminary and Novice dressage tests?

We asked a List Five judge to give us a few tips.
dressage judge

The horse's way of going
  1. Your horse should be relaxed, working actively forwards over a soft, supple back through to a steady, even contact.
  2. Your horse should be straight, with the hind feet following in the line of the front feet.
  3. He or she should work with an even bend on circles and turns.
  4. The horse should react to the aids in a calm, responsive manner.
  5. He should maintain the correct rhythm and a suitable tempo.
  6. Your horse should be in balance.

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Points to note

  1. Transitions may be progressive i.e. a couple of steps, not strides. At this level it is far better for the transition to be in balance without tension.
  2. Aim to produce half a dozen good steps of medium trot rather than 'firing off' as soon as you are on the diagonal, causing the horse to run and pushing the horse out of balance. Make sure your horse is straight before asking for the medium steps. Remember there should be a clear difference - once you have ridden the medium steps the judge should see a definite return to working trot.
  3. Stretching - the purpose of showing a horse stretching is to demonstrate the horse remaining relaxed over the back. The horse should seek the contact forwards and down, not curl towards the chest. The rein should become longer (e.g. as in free walk on a long rein) but you must still have a contact at the end of the rein. A loose rein is when you give it all away, with no contact, which you may do when cooling off - but this does not appear in any dressage test!

When allowing your horse to stretch you should maintain a contact on the rein.
  1. Give and retake the rein - the judge needs to see a clear release of the rein so the hands should be pushed forwards towards the horse's mouth, not simply lifted without any release. The object of this movement is to demonstrate that the horse is in balance and there should be no change of tempo and/or outline - in other words the horse should carry both itself and its rider.
  2. Rein back - the rider's shoulder should be in line with the marker in halt. The horse should remain soft to the contact and step back in diagonal pairs. The move off should be immediate to show that the horse has stayed in front of the leg.

Reinback - Ensure you practice all the movements in a test well before you have to perform them before a judge.
  1. Walk - this needs to be a clear four-time walk. A lateral walk, where the legs appear to be moving in lateral pairs, will be penalized quite severely as it is a serious fault.
  2. Medium strides need to cover more ground without a change in tempo.
  3. Counter canter - the canter should stay balanced (the tempo should not change) and be a clear three-time, with the flexion remaining over the leading leg.

Practising counter canter exercises at home - everything needed for your test should be part of your usual schooling.
  1. Movements should have a beginning, middle and end. A good example is riding circles, which should not have straight sides. The circle starts and finishes at the required letter; on returning to the letter you should ride straight and then ride a corner. Many marks are lost when the rider just continues as if on the circle. Make sure the horse is uniformly bent without too much neck bend.
  2. Ensure you establish your halt.

 You should aim to make every halt as square as possible.
  1. Whips should be carried in the rein hand when saluting.
  2. Carry your whip where needed, it is not necessary to swop from side to side and can upset the horse's way of going if the rider is not proficient at changing the whip.

 Points for the rider to consider

  1. If you are not sitting straight or are collapsing to one side or the other, you will be having an impact on your horse, as he will not be able to travel straight.
  2. An unsteady rein contact from you causes problems for your horse.
  3. Many marks are lost as a result of inaccurate riding e.g. badly ridden turns, circles and corners.
  4. Poor preparation results in the horse losing balance, movements being ridden inaccurately and marks being lost.
  5. Do not get cross with your horse! Horses tend to go as riders ride them!
  6. Do not mistake speed for impulsion.
  7. Resist the temptation to ride too quickly and push your horse out of his natural balance. If you do this, your horse's steps become hurried and lose their natural quality. A horse should work at the optimum speed, which shows off their paces to the best advantage.
  8. Do I rise or sit to the trot? There is no requirement for riders to sit in the trot work in either preliminary or novice tests. If you choose to sit and this interferes with your horse's fluency or suppleness then marks will be unnecessarily lost.


Tips to improve your test riding

  1. Always ride movements correctly at home so that it becomes instinctive rather than deliberate.
  2. If something does not happen as planned during your test, don't panic! It is only one movement - don't carry your anxiety forward otherwise you'll lose more marks.
  3. Practise riding centre lines, as it's the first and last impression the judge gets. Once on the centre line keep C between your horse's ears. Don't forget to smile!
  4. Work in at the competition exactly as you would at home. Don't suddenly start trying something different.
  5. If you are riding a young or a stiff horse, avoid riding too deep into the corners. If you do ride too deep you will make it more difficult for your horse, highlight the stiffness, affect the quality of the steps and may cause some loss of balance. The exception should be movements in walk - in which case virtually all combinations should be able to ride a good corner in walk.
  6. There is nothing more pleasing than judging a harmonious partnership. Your horse should be submissive, not subservient.
  7. If you don't understand your mark/comments take time to speak with the judge, as it is their job to judge what they see in front of them on the day. They should highlight any areas in your training that need more work but also comment on what is pleasing, based on the Scales of Training.
  8. Check the rules thoroughly as it is your responsibility to ensure you are wearing the correct clothing and have the correct equipment on your horse. Some competitions do not run strictly to British Dressage rules e.g. in Trailblazers competitions you can use a grackle noseband but this is not allowed under BD. So always check before the competition.
  9. Many competitions do not have the luxury of a steward and it is your responsibility to ensure you are ready to go at the allotted time. Always check that your class is running to time and in order. Make sure the judge knows who you are and the writer can see your number if you are wearing one.
  10. Remember that if you are late, unless you are last to go in the class, your behaviour may have a detrimental effect on another competitor who was ready to go at their allotted time.
  11. You have 45 seconds from the bell/horn going to enter the arena.
  12. Do not enter the arena before the bell (in cases where you can ride around the arena) as this will result in elimination.

Working in tips
  1. When working in, remember the etiquette rules i.e. you should pass other horses left to left, you should not halt or walk on the track and if someone is obviously riding a movement or lateral work, it is courteous to give way to them.
  2. Remember your behaviour may have an adverse effect upon another horse or rider.
  3. Look up and watch where you are going, apologise if you find yourself in someone's way as a smile and an apology goes a long way (even if you are not always in the wrong). Remember that not everyone is 'nerve free' and other competitors may be riding nervous or young horses.
  4. Arrive in good time, especially if you have never been to the venue before. Check out where the facilities are, remember to declare and just generally find out where things are and how they work.