Sticking my head in from H/J land to say, "Hi, I'm going to my first dressage show and I'm terrified!" (Update: post 55!)

After a few months of setbacks and wanting to take my 5-year-old OTTB and RRP entry on his first field trip but not wanting to spend a bazillion dollars at a Hunter/Jumper away show, we are off to his and my first recognized dressage show next Monday!

We are presently entered into Intro A and B tests and have been practicing our tests diligently at home. He’s pretty good - very quiet and has nice transitions, not so accustomed to a ton of contact yet (he’s super lazy, so the forward button has been my focus in our few rides!), but I think he’ll be able to put in a solid test if all goes to plan. :slight_smile: I’ve been studying the bits and attire rulebook, and I think we’ll be quite sharp in our Hunter/Jumper tack with a navy bonnet, navy coat, white shirt, and white breeches, and I’m quite good at button-style braids thanks to my jumper. Our bit of choice is this, which to my understanding, will be legal until December.

I’m pretty good at memorization and think a reader would be a little more confusing, so I’m planning to ride the test from memory. I’m curious as to what your standard warm-up/prep looks like as someone coming over from Hunter/Jumper land. I planned to get to the grounds about 90 minutes before our first test - check-in, give him a quick lunge (he’s pretty quiet, but I suspect a new place will have him a bit more up), tack up, and then a 20-minute or so warm-up before heading in.

Thoughts on our plan or general advice for a newbie? Very much looking forward to it!


You sound like you’re well prepared! I scribed last weekend for an “S” judge and she commented on halts and transitions more than anything else. Smooth, quiet transitions and a quiet halt are important at Intro, as are regular gaits and ACCURACY. You don’t need a lot of contact, but you do need steady contact.

As for your warmup, I find that doing my normal warmup, exactly as I do it at home, can help settle my horse. It’s a familiar routine that he’s comfortable with.

As you’re going around the perimeter before the test, stop at the judge’s booth and tell the scribe your number and what test you’re riding. And remember, when you hear the bell or whistle. you have 45 seconds to enter at A.

Your attire sounds wonderful.

Have fun and remember, the judge is on your side. She wants to give you 10s.


Have fun!

I’m pretty conservative with first shows and would get there a bit earlier to let my horse settle before warm up. You know your horse best - how is he off-site? Personally I’d rather hang a bit than rush with a greenie.

Double-check your bit. I’m not sure it’s currently legal because of the flat center piece. The Annex (link below) has an example on page 25. If it’s not clear you can always email USEF ahead of time.

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I couldn’t find that exact bit, but this is pretty much the same thing (I think) and it’s legal through the end of November this year.

The one on page 25 is a Dr. Bristol; the one Tha_Ridge has is a French link. Main differences are that with the Dr. Bristol, the flat link in the center of the mouthpiece lies at an angle to the bit and the edges of the center link are straight.

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Here’s the example of what’s not permitted. I saw your bit is described as a French link. It’s hard for me to see the difference in the photos, so it may be worth checking before your show.


Correct, the centerpiece is not a Dr. Bristol. :slight_smile: If the consensus is that it’s not legal, I’ll probably use a nathe loose ring.

I explained the differences above. The biggie is the angle of the center link in the Dr. Bristol, which is not at all apparent in the photos.

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Got it! Thanks for clarifying.


Congratulations! It sounds like your turnout will be fantastic and that you’ll be prepared!

I would suggest arriving earlier than 90 min before your first test. You never know if traffic, a long line at check in, or some other issue will come up. I always like to count backward from my test. If my first test is at say 10:00 for an intro class, I’d want to be on by 9:30 walking around the warm-up to familiarize my horse with the area. I’d want to tack up at 9:15. I’d want to say longe at 9 (you say you longe). I’d want to hand walk my horse in this new environment starting at say 8:30 (your horse may not need a half hour but this builds in time for you to, say, go to the bathroom, etc. before your test). I’d want to review my tests at say 8:20. I’d want to have a good 15 minutes to check in and get my number at say 8:05. I’d want to unload, tie, and groom and braid my horse at say 7:15. I’d factor in how long it took to drive there. How long it takes to get, boot and load your horse into a previously packed trailer.

You get the point!!

I’d rather be killing time than rushing at a recognized show so I’d rather err on the side of getting there early than being rushed to prepare for my test.

For Intro A and B, my warmup on a 5-year old QH would be to mostly familiarize him with the environment. I’d be on his back maybe a half hour before your first test, mostly walking him around for 5+ minutes. I’d then do 5+ minutes of “OK, the environment doesn’t matter, my aids do” to get his attention on you. I’d then do minutes of “really, pay attention” walk work and trot work.I’d let him relax more say 10 minutes before the test and then I’d put him to work maybe 2 riders out from you so that he’s on his game at test time. I’d adjust my second warm up depending on how he responded to the first, maybe getting on 15 minutes prior to the second test. Those tests are easy - he shouldn’t be tired that day.

Anyway, that’s how I would think. Good luck and have a great time!


French links are legal until December. I emailed USEF/USDF about the one I used with my TB mare earlier this year, when the rule book was saying “pending review” on them.

As another hunterland crossover, you will LOVE ride times. There should be a steward at warmup letting you know where you’re going in the order (ie, you’re two back behind the grey pony and the chestnut with a blue bonnet).

If you’re planning on lunging, 90 minutes sounds a little tight on time. I don’t lunge, and I usually show up 60-90 minutes before my first ride time, even with my young horse. My routine is something like check in, get myself ready, unload horse & handgraze for 5-10 minutes, get horse ready, get on 20-25 minutes before ride time. If you’ve shown enough that you already have a sort of routine in place regardless of horse, I don’t feel like you need a ton of lead time. If I get there early I just end up sitting in my truck scrolling through my phone–I do enough of that at hunter shows!

Attire sounds like it will fit right in, but know that you don’t have to wear white if you don’t want :wink: Especially if you’re doing everything yourself almost any other color is easier to keep clean.


Awesome post, I am all about timing/planning things out so this was just what I needed to break it all down in my head. Thank you!


Two things to help your score:

  1. Be accurate. “Trot at C” means at C, not a stride afterwards or three strides before. A circle is a circle not an egg shape.
  2. If you are asked for a “Free walk on a long rein” don’t let your horse drop off into a sleepy shuffle: it isn’t a rest period mid-test, rather a time for the horse to stretch down on the bit but the quality of the gait remains the same. Having written for/judged innumerable tests, this is the one movement where probably 80% of riders throw away marks.

One thing to help your mind:

The test is marked on individual movements. I know that is stating the obvious, but in practice it means if you mess up one movement then just forget it and concentrate on the next. Always thinking forward about the next movements stops you worrying about previous mistakes. A 4.0 becomes a 7.5 on the next movement and as you relax and focus, well, 8.0 or 9.0 become possible.


I was in the same boat as you last year and I have to say, after experiencing a dressage show, I never want to go back to barely-controlled chaos of your average H/J show! The ability to control your timings down to the minute, to know exactly which horses are going ahead of you so you can keep track of them in the warmup, and to be able to tell friends/family exactly when you’ll be riding should they wish to spectate - bliss!

I find the warm-up ring to have quite a different vibe than at an H/J show - many people tend to want to school test movements (and are hyperfocused on this), so you need to have your wits about you to avoid being in anyone’s way.

I find helpful to practice riding a warmup at home, then practicing the tests in their entirety, so I know what kind of warmup (and how long) the horse needs to produce their best work - then you can reproduce this at the show.

I echo others in advising you to build in time for handwalking and/or a longer walk warm-up to let both your brains settle in!

When putting on your bridle number, put it where the scribe can see it in your first turn off centre line - so if tracking right, put it on the left.

Remember to really ride forward down your first and last centre lines (as long as your halt is well installed, lol) - gives a good impression to the judge, helps you contain any green wiggling, and gives you a chance to show a little brilliance. Think of it like the gallop down to the single oxer!

Have an amazing time!


If the show is running ahead, don’t rush your warmup. You do not have to go into the ring any earlier than your scheduled time. But, double check the posted ride times when you get to the show and check in.

Here’s a run down of the rules/standards for the actual test, besides the test pattern itself.

  • After the judge rings the bell/blows the whistle, you have enough time (45 sec) to get from one end of the arena to the other to enter at A. However, if they ring the bell as you are heading away from the entrance, you should turn around because you may run out of time going all the way around the ring.

  • If you go off course, wait for the judge to ring the bell, go towards the judge and have him/her tell you where to pick up from, and start that movement. Do not panic; going off course is -2 points, not 2%. You can go off course twice in the same test and will be eliminated on the third.

  • If you leave the ring with all 4 legs you are eliminated but if one leg stays in, you are good to go.

  • If you have an issue such as spooking and the horse won’t go forward, you have 20 seconds to resolve it or will be eliminated. Often the first centerline is where horses get stuck in the halt and won’t continue. You can just take the -2 for off course and turn early/cut off a little bit of that end of the arena if needed.

  • Don’t salute with the hand holding the whip, but you can salute with either hand.

  • No using voice aids (but I have been sneaky and done a very quiet whoa or cluck at the far end from the judge). You will get a -2, so if you need to for safety or to make something work, go ahead and take the -2 points.

  • Make sure you know and follow the rules about posting versus sitting trot, and take advantage of anywhere it says you can walk into and out of the halt. Judges would rather see you walk into the halt and be harmonious than an abrupt halt at your level.

  • No boots on the horse, and make sure your whip and spurs are legal length/type if you use them.

The judge wants you to be successful even if they look grumpy. If you are not having a good day, try to just keep a “schooling opportunity” frame of mind do what you can to make your horse feel successful.


When we converted a hunter to a dressage horse, one of the biggest adjustments was the expected impulsion. The judges expected the working gaits to have much more impulsion than was typical for hunter/jumper flatwork, and I really needed to keep that in mind while riding the tests.

After your final salute, don’t turn around and exit the ring right away. Continue to walk straight forward so that your horse continues to think straight, and in case the judge wants to acknowledge you in some way (I sometimes got a brief verbal comment at the end of the test, but even if i didn’t, it was nice to smile and thank the judge and scribe).


I just remembered another one: bend in the corners.

I’d read lots of things about how, at the lower levels, the horse should barely have any bend in its body on a 20m circle, etc., and so I went into my first dressage show thinking that the judge wouldn’t want to see me bending too much in the corners. Wrong! Bend as much to the inside as you’d like in the corners; compared to hunter flatwork, it won’t be too much.

I also went into my first dressage show trying to ride extra-quiet to have invisible aids. Again, conpared to how you would ride a hunter, you can really RIDE a dressage horse during a test. Obviously the judge doesn’t want to see you cranking the horse and struggling to kick the horse into an upward transition, but they do expect you to actually ride and not give the “look like I’m trying to quietly stay out of the horse’s way and let the horse do its thing” ride that we typically aim for on a hunter.


Ohhh, that’s an excellent point - thank you for that! This horse is so green that it’s hard to be super subtle on him right now and I was concerned about being dinged for that. Good to know that it’s likely the opposite and whatever is effective is correct.


Based on my experience, you can give him the ride he needs and that’s what the judge will expect you to do. If you’re going to lose submission marks on a green horse, you might as well gain some marks on the rider score to make up for it!

The first time I came out of the ring at a dressage show, several people ringside asked why I wasn’t giving a stronger ride than I did. Everything is relative, and aiming for ‘invisible aids’ from a dressage perspective seems (again, from my experience, at least) to mean that you give the lightest aid necessary to get the job done, and not that you as a rider should be looking like you’re not doing anything. It’s a whole different idea from what the hunter ring aims for.


And if you carry a whip, be prepared t use it if you need to. I’m not talking about a big smack, but you say your horse is super lazy, and it’s better to give him a reminder tap than to slog around like you’re dragging through deep mud for the whole test.

I’ve heard often enough when scribing, “She has a whip; she should use it.”