Dressage newbie tips

After lots of life changes, I’m exploring what it might be like to do some dressage (both schooling and rated) with my ponies this year.

What tips and suggested reading might you offer for someone new-ish to the discipline? What organizations would you suggest joining?
I’m planning to lesson several times a month, but will not be boarding/showing with a trainer and keep and ride my ponies at home.

A little background, I was(am?) a h/j trainer that made a career change and moved the ponies home. They are both larges that I’d like to show myself, and am trying to figure out what organizations to join and where to start. I had shown some local dressage way about 10 years ago and evented a little, and scribed at a couple of local shows, but that is about the extent of my experience.

I’m already a USEF member and the ponies are both lifetime registered with USEF and welsh, and I plan to join our local dressage association, but they seem to be done for the season and won’t be picking up again until about March.


Check the calendar of your local GMO. That’s the local dressage organization.

They may not be showing but they may have clinics or meetings you may be interested in attending.

You don’t say where you are located, but if you are in a more temperate climate they may have small schooling shows .

Don’t forget to look at the eventing calendar as well. With your background in jumping you may be interested in schooling cross country. If the course isn’t 6 ft deep in snow or mud, that is .

There are some really good resources on the web for dressage videos. There are a few that you can join that allow you to download videos and you may even be able upload videos of yourself and have someone evaluate your ride or have a lesson.

Good luck and welcome to dressage!


USDF is the national organization and if you like wandering through lots of info they have lots on their site.Google is your friend, current tests are from 2019. Since you have a breed that has national rankings it might be interesting to follow that (on USDF). Lots depends on how much time and money you want to invest.Youtube has clinic-like videos done by CDS (California Dessage Society) where they have all the (new, 2019)tests ridden and scored out loud by a judge who also comments on what you should be doing at that level. And as A.B. noted above, find your local GMO and see what they have going on.

Most of all enjoy the journey as this is a slow sport.


If you dabble in rated dressage shows, check for Opportunity Classes as they have lower requirements of membership for the owner/rider and horse.

If you do go to USDF shows and sign up for regular classes, you’ll need to be a USDF member and get your ponies registered as well.

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Forget about showing for a while. Take some time to try out different trainers and look at different schools of thought. There are some very big differences between the classical dressage enthusiasts and those more oriented to showing. The practices and results can be very different depending upon whether the focus is on developing the rider, developing the horse, or developing both in partnership.


i know very little about dressage, but in my very limited experience this comment seems right.

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Stacy Westfall has a great podcast. Her latest episode 157 she told a very interesting story about a judges comment on a dressage test. She chose to interpret the comment a certain way. Other people chose to take a less charitable view of the feedback. The episode is titled “What ‘they’ say… and what I make it mean about me as a rider.” I thought she did a pretty good job of explaining some of the issues (between people) present in the sport.

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I switched to dressage in early 2020. My horse is my daughter’s former Hanoverian hunter who was imported from Germany in 2008. He definitely has all the buttons for dressage even though he spent most of his life jumping. He has lifetime recordings with USEF, USDF and USHJA. I only had to register myself with USEF, and USDF along with my GMO. I am currently just doing training and am averaging 67%. The hardest thing for me was learning to sit upright and sit the canter. My horse is lazy and lofty, so this is my struggle. My friend received qualifying scores at both first and second this year on him, but she is a younger and a more effective rider. The right tack has also made a huge difference. I am really enjoying my lessons and showing. I love the scoring and receiving feedback at shows. I am hoping to qualify for our GMO’s Regional Adult Amateur Championships in 2022. Here is info on USDF registration. https://www.usdf.org/join/HRFees.pdf


Think of using your seat like you’re trying to get the hind end engaged for a very large oxer- you don’t want fast and flat, but rubber ball bouncy energy, and have to put your seat in the saddle to get it! I had a very hard time sitting up straight with a neutral pelvis, and some days that is still the only image which gets me there.
Learn to bend your elbows if you don’t currently. The elastic contact for dressage is very hard if your elbows aren’t bent and thumbs on top. (My hands go to my lap and shoulders to my ears to enable straight arms… it’s a different experience than when I get my $^÷@ing arms bent!)
Don’t grip with your legs! This is still a challenge for me well over a decade after making the switch. When in doubt, my legs hang on like I’m about to jump a course without stirrups. If they grip like that, trying to aid will be hard. And in general, learn to use the lightest possible aids and teach your ponies to do the same.
I personally would wait to join USDF and USEF until you’re going to rated shows. If you join your local organization you will end up with a USDF membership, too. Hopefully you have a good local organization - we’re lucky to have a lot of fun events here, so I’ve been able to learn a lot.

First off, get some lessons from an instructor who will help you find the positioion you need and to maintain it while using it effectively, and how to use it. Netg gives some very important tips on hands and arms. They must be soft and following.

Sitting both the trot and the canter in dressage can be very different from hunt seat, but are very important skills especially when moving to the upper levels where engagement is necessary.

If your first instructor can’t help, keep looking. Not all instructors are created equal.