How To Be Less Shit at Dressage… Lessons I have learnt from the tests I forgot!


We have all been there… trotting up the centre line… halt, salute… lets go… then the next bit… left or right at A… OMG… where am I heading, I can’t phone a friend… or ask the judge (insert inner monologue including many swear words here)…

I don’t think there is a rider out there who hasn’t had a ‘blip’ (or a brain fart) during a dressage test or even a round of show jumping for that matter. That awful moment where you are basking in the glow of an amazing medium trot to forget the next circle, cantering round and the arena thinking this feels so good… only to forget the next transition. This is on a good day… not taking into account the days where your horse has a meltdown over flowerpots, banners, flags, flying crisp packets, sheep in the next-door field. The moments you are firefighting to keep your composure, let alone remember what direction to go in.

I am a pro at forgetting tests… and then getting in a flat spin when I realise that I’ve screwed up. The moment you hear the judge’s bell ring… is it for me, is it the next-door arena, shit… shit… shit.

Sadly, forgetting tests became a bit of a habit, and the more times I forgot my way, the more I’d get stressed, and so the spiral of worry began. I was losing decent placings on the basis of what I considered silly mistakes, letting my horse down, wasting my entry / time …(insert self-depreciating comments here!). I got to the point where I had enough, so I set about working out why I was having memory issues, with a view to riding more competitively and not throwing away marks. I read so many posts on social media where people are worried about test riding and memory blips, so I thought it was worth writing a blog about my experiences. If it helps anyone along the way, then it’s all good!

So Why Was I forgetting tests?

To get to the ‘how to fix it’ I first thought about ‘why’ I was forgetting tests…and came up with a whole load of reasons. Not learning the tests thoroughly enough in the first place (no shit sherlock!), not being able to multitask – by this I mean concentrate on how the horse was going and how tidily I was riding, not practicing the test as a whole, or even in separate parts, and finally competition nerves. I am lucky as apart from the odd blip both my horses are well behaved.  Wanda can be a minx on occasion, but both horses behave pretty well, so I couldn’t factor this into my memory issues.

I decided to go back to basics, if I learnt the tests thoroughly enough would this mean I could remember them under ‘competition conditions’ or would I still get brain blips? I’m a former teacher and educational researcher, so with this ‘hat’ on I tried to work out the best way to ‘learn’ my tests and came up with a method. Bear in mind what works for some might not work for others. I’ve never been one for remembering things ‘parrot fashion’ but have a more visual way of learning so this was my starting point.

How I learnt to learn tests…

Read through the tests – I underline the things I might forget, for example, give and retakes & rein backs or halts at X (not G). I then look at things like the medium changes of rein. For example, are they from corner marker to corner marker, H to P, long diagonal or short diagonal? Basically, I get familiar with what the test is about and the main components. It does help to buy test sheets with diagrams as I think looking at the pictures helps to impart the route into my brain!

Draw it up – this doesn’t work for everyone, and I used to rely on it solely as a learning method, however drawing isn’t like riding a test, so I don’t rely on it as the only way of learning things thoroughly. On some paper I draw a mini arena, with the letters, and draw the route I need to take, reading off the sheet at first and then without the sheet when I’m sure of the route. I will start to read aloud the letters and start to think about where the shapes are placed, how they fit into the arena, to develop an idea of the general flow of the test. For example, do you do a set of movements in trot on one rein, then on the other rein or is there a free walk or a rein back in between. Basically, I start to learn the sequences and order of the parts.

Visualisation – probably the key part of the learning for me. I spend a lot of time just running through the test in my head. I ‘ride’ a perfect test in my imagination, think about how it will feel, what I need to remember, where I will be going. I even visualise myself in the arena I will be competing in. I also test myself, for example, I might be hoovering and challenge myself to run through the test while doing this activity. Sometimes I visualise tests while hacking out or while in the collecting ring at a competition. I can recite the movements while visualising, but the main thing is I can ride it ‘in my minds eye’. Id say this way of learning has made a massive difference to the way I learn and recall tests. It helps with confidence, quickfire memory recall when I am stressed at a competition and generally it imparts a test ‘blueprint’ into my brain.

Test practice – if I’m organised (not always), I will break down the test with my trainer, Ruth Hurst, practice sequences of movements, such as the trot work or sets of shapes. This really helps impart the ‘flow’ and helps me pick up on areas of improvement, things that we are good at or need thinking about in more detail, where I can gain marks and where it is easy to throw them away. We do practice tests all the way through and have sessions where the focus is on learning new things, and lessons where we work through tests pre competition. I think its too much to try to do both in one session. I know a few people aren’t so keen on running through a whole test as they feel their horse can begin to predict movements. In my case, I find this isn’t an issue and helps me really understand the test as a whole. Its really down to personal preference and how you know your horse. Confidence wise, I feel more prepared which then helps with nerves on the day.

Identifying areas of strength and weakness – adopting mantras. The last bit of learning (or planning) I run through is based on areas of strengths and weaknesses and what I can do to squeeze those extra marks. Its about learning the test but also thinking about how each horse needs to be ridden. So, for example, Wanda can get quite tight and fixed in her neck.  So, my mantra, or question to myself, before transitions, during shapes, when going up and then down from working to medium is ‘does Wanda feel soft in the jaw?’ Quite a simple question but if its something I consider and do well it has a large impact on our test riding, quality of work and how well I remember the test. I have mantras to remember the best way to ride leg yields, shoulder in, mediums, rein back. It’s the ‘value added’ to my test learning and has helped me to engage my brain when I’m riding and seek the ‘feel’ I want from the horse , it’s the connecting the dots part.

Ditching a caller – another thing I have learnt to work without is a test caller. This means I’m not relying on someone else (fact is I usually compete alone and don’t have a helper), but I also find when I’ve then moved onto festivals and regionals (where you can’t have a caller) I am not relying on someone else to remind me where to go. Id agree sometimes when you are riding 4 different tests on 2 horses then needs must, but in the main I feel more confident now being able to learn and manage test riding without an aide memoir.

So that is my BIG 6… the main steps I go through to learn tests as well as I can. Granted there are still the moments when things do not go to plan – that’s dressage – but I do find this system works for me. I’d be really interested to know if people use any other methods. I did go through a stage of giving the letters word associations, Salt to Pepper change the rein… you get me? But now I just tend to remember the order of movements and the shapes, no more H-P sauce medium trot!

British Dressage have a new app to help you understand and learn tests – has anyone used it? How did you find it? It could be useful when you are out competing, but personally I like paper sheets with diagrams. There’s a link here for anyone wanting to check it out.

I am off tomorrow with the Swatchman to ride two Elementary tests at Keysoe… Now I just hope I don’t end up forgetting these tests! Practice what I write, right?

Next time I think I’m going to write a bit about competition nerves, how I’ve gotten over them and about being in the zone – or not. A suitable follow on from the test learning and again, I hope this is useful for riders who have found coming back to competing after lockdown stressful. Enjoy your horses, remember those tests – by whatever means works!

xx Team BW

3 Thoughts

  1. Very helpful, my minds eye is great for me too and then walk round living room with the vision of the test, but the day arrives and its the oh shit it’s all back to front and l should be trotting that oposit way to how l am facing? Glad to hear the experts struggle too!!

  2. I have an app on my phone called ES dressage, pretty useful as a diagrammatic aid – I also used to watch loads of You Tube videos of different riders doing the same test, to learn the route!

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