Silly mistakes can spoil your chances of dressage success. Here judges tell us their pet hates – so you can avoid them.
If there’s something guaranteed to see your dressage scores take a tumble, it’s stupid mistakes that annoy the judges and throw away marks. Sloppy riding, lack of preparation, poor turnout, failing to ride your corners correctly – these will all knock you down the order faster than you can say shoulder-in.
The good news is that such faults are easily avoided, provided you train correctly, plan ahead and gain a little insider knowledge into what makes dressage judges tick.
To help you on your way to dressage success, we’ve asked judges to share their pet hates. Read on – and make a mental note never to repeat the same mistakes that get them grumbling and that they see again and again.
For top rider, trainer and British Dressage (BD) List 3A judge John Lassetter, there’s one mistake that immediately irritates when he’s judging – and that’s corners, or rather the lack of them.
“Competitors often don’t ride them correctly or deep enough,” says John. “Instead, you should always ride deep into the corner, maintaining your horse’s rhythm and balance. This way it gives you more time to prepare for the next movement, whatever that is.
“I perpetually see riders doing a half circle between H and M, instead of riding a correct corner. They don’t have time to set the horse up correctly and so maybe overshoot the centre line, or make another mistake. Watch the Anky van Grunsvens of this world and see how they ride a corner – that’s how it should be done.
“Poor position is another of my gripes when I’m judging. So often you see riders who look as though they’re on a motorbike rather than a horse – leaning in around the corners in a wall-of-death style. Riders should always aim to keep their upper body level with the shoulders and hips of their horse, so that he or she can stay in an upright mode.”
Apply the brakes
Sonia Berry, a BD List 6 judge who rides at Grand Prix level, would like to see competitors take their feet off the accelerator during a test.
“My pet hate is riders going too fast, thinking that speed equates to energy,” she says. “They’re told their horse should come through from behind but mistake this for speed and start rushing everywhere at 90 miles an hour.
“Another bugbear is riders fiddling with the bit. I hate to see lots of movement through the hands, and there seems to be a trend for this at the moment. However, on a positive note, I have to say the level of dressage tests in horse trials has improved no end in the past couple of years.
“I’ve judged classes where horses have bucked, pranced and even left the arena during their test! But I now find the standard much higher, with horses going more confidently – so the riders and trainers are doing something right.”
Elizabeth Roberts, a BD trainee judge, agrees that judging can have its lighter moments, often thanks to cheeky ponies and their riders.
“I’ve had some funny moments, especially with younger riders at the salutes,” she says. “Having not been told, or not read the rule book, you suddenly have a small child with a cheeky grin saluting you as if they are in the army! However, I’ve also had an adult do that, too.
“On a more serious note, certain dressage tests often throw up a mistake that’s repeated or poorly ridden time and time again. One of the things I always look out for is how riders prepare for transitions or turns. At the lower levels it’s common to see a surprised expression on a horse’s face when the rider suddenly either makes a sharp turn or a ‘trot now/canter now’ aid, rather than the ‘prepare, give an indication to the horse that something might be happening’ (half-halt) and then the aid. Sometimes you see a horse looking rather shocked as he or she is surprised into the transition.”
Do your homework
“My pet hate is those riders who throw marks away through lack of preparation,” says Alison Woulds, a BD List 5 judge who rides at Grand Prix level. “A common example is when they’re asked to ride down the centre line but they don’t actually go on the centre line, instead they overshoot it. Or they attempt to ride a 15- or 20-metre circle and it isn’t accurate.
“If you’ve got 25 competitors in a class you’ll always see the odd one or two who haven’t prepared well enough. I feel like shouting at them: ‘You could have won if you’d only trained harder and spent more time preparing for this test!’
“With regards to turnout, most of the horses and riders I judge are turned out well, but there is one thing I hate to see and that’s riders with long hair in a pony tail instead of in a hairnet or bun, it really annoys me!”
“I try not to be distracted by turnout,” says BD List 6 judge and our resident Horse Answers riding expert Claire Lilley. “Whether I’m looking at a smart warmblood or a hairy native pony, I try to see beyond appearance and instead look for correct work.
“I find it’s much harder to judge at unaffiliated level because of the variety of horses and riders you see. You constantly have to keep your eye on the ball and look for a horse-and-rider combination who are going correctly above all else.
“Of course, I’ve had some funny moments. I’ve seen a pony come in down the centre line, graze at X, then divert to the car park! But it’s also rewarding at unaffiliated level to see riders develop.”
Why the basics are so vital
“The most common problem I see when I’m judging is people riding their horses over-bent,” adds Claire. “They’re obviously confused about what’s right and what’s wrong with regards to their horse’s outline, and I regularly see horses with their chin on their chest, but their back end trailing behind.
“A lot of riders, especially at the lower levels, seem to get away with riding like this at competitions, and it simply shouldn’t be allowed – the rules should be consistent. I think a large number of riders obviously aren’t being taught the correct way to ride into a contact, but on the Continent it’s common for Advanced level judges to judge at the lower levels, because they appreciate how important it is to get the basics right from the very start.
“Above all, riders need to think of their horse as a whole and learn how to hold a contact. Of course, anyone can have a momentary slip where their horse loses the contact, but your aim shouldbe to have your horse on the bit, whileholding an even contact.
“If I see someone riding their horse over-bent I will say something. And if they’re riding a couple of horses in the same competition and don’t take heed of my comments, then I’ll start getting tough on their marks. I’ve been known to get out of the judges’ car before now and go up to a rider to make my point!
“Another gripe of mine is carelessness. Accuracy is important in a horse’s training, and if you don’t ride each movement accurately then your horse isn’t going to develop the correct degree of suppleness and flexibility.
“A tatty test is due to rider error andoften it’s down to little mistakes that could be corrected with good training – leaving the rider in the placings as opposed to way down the leaderboard.
“Whenever I’m judging I want to see riders riding between the movements, as well as riding the actual movements. Above all, they need to understand each movement in a test and ride each as correctly as possible, with suppleness and flexibility.”
If you’re feeling a touch paranoid that you’ve committed one or two of the sins our judges have mentioned here, then take heart because even experienced riders can get it wrong.
“I always halt too early,” admits Grand Prix dressage rider Beverley Brightman. “I think it’s because I’m anxious to get thefirst bit of the test right, so I concentrate hard, but then the horses start to anticipate what’s next, maybe aren’t as in front of the leg as they should be, and halt too early. Then I think: ‘Ooh, I’d better salvage this and make it look as though I wanted to halt, even though I didn’t’.”
So, as you begin training for the 2010 season, remember to take on board these judges’ comments. Ironing out any niggles and concentrating on the basics with the help of a good instructor will boost your confidence – and your dressage marks – no end.
Of course, whatever level you ride at, there’s no getting away from the fact that horses have minds of their own. So don’t beat yourself up if, in spite of all your preparations, yours decides to gawk at the judges’ car or busy goings-on in the collecting ring. If you look great, ride correctly and enjoy each class, the judges will be watching – and hopefully smiling – as they write up your test sheet.
In case you were wondering..
Affiliated dressage judges are listed according to the level of classes they’re qualified to judge. List 1 judges can judge tests of all levels, up to Grand Prix. At the lowest level – List 6 – they’re qualified to judge Preliminary classes, with varying levels in between. For more information on the British Dressage judging system, visit www.britishdressage.co.uk or call 02476 698830