Improving Your Dressage Basics

Keep improving your dressage basics and gain an understanding of what the judges are looking for at each level of your dressage test.

I have certainly ridden my share of dressage tests and the last couple of seasons since being back competing with my young dressage horse I have learnt a lot about the dressage basics and really gone back to building this foundation first. So today I wanting to share why improving your dressage basics is really important and how you can do just that.

You see in order for me to really improve, I have taken the time to get a solid understanding of the sport of dressage today and be a student. This was to really understand what it is that we are actually trying to do when training horses to do the dressage movements and improving our horse’s way of going.

So I wanted to share with you what I have learnt and how I have improved our marks as the season has gone on.


Improving Your Dressage Basics

When you start out on your dressage journey, the first thing you really focus on is remembering your test. I definitely have had my fair share of course errors and most of them were simply nerves related. In some cases my only goal of the competition was to simply get on, ride and come home again. That was a win.

However as the seasons progressed and my relationship built with my young horse, remembering the test got easier and I was then able to start to fine tune things a little bit more and think about riding a good test…..not just completing it and staying in the arena and crossing my fingers he would load onto float the way home again.

Before you understand how to get a better score, it makes sense to start with understanding how dressage scores work and what the judges are looking for.


Improving Your Dressage Basics

Understanding how dressage scores work and why the dressage basics matter

What is a good dressage score?

On average overall scores of 70% or over for a dressage test are considered very good, scores of 60-70% are considered good and if a horse and rider are consistently scoring 60%+ at a level of dressage competition this indicates they may be ready to move onto the next level.


How do dressage scores work?

The higher the percentage, the higher the score in dressage. However, in eventing dressage, the score is calculated by dividing the number of points achieved by the total possible points, then multiplied by 100 (rounded to 2 decimal points) and subtracted from 100. Thus, a lower score is better than a higher score.

Each movement within a dressage test is scored out of 10 with a 10 being excellent. There are also movements within a test that have coefficients meaning the score is doubled. So before you do your test understanding which movements count more than others is a worthwhile thing to know. Often it is movements like free walk which show how relaxed the horse is.


Understanding what the dressage judges are looking for

Another part of improving your dressage basics is understanding the purpose. Within each level of dressage, there is a purpose from level one through to Grand Prix. It is this purpose that the judges are basing their impressions on. Then each movement has a directive of what the judges are looking for with that specific movement. See here in the Dressage New Zealand Offical Test book 2013, beside each movement there is a directive comment. Understanding these will help you with your test riding and how you ride each movement.

How To Improve Your Dressage Basics

So once you have mastered the art of memorising your test look into the finer details of each movement and work on what the judges are actually looking for from horse and rider and basing their marks off.

For example movement 1 of level 1, entering your dressage arena isn’t just about doing a straight line, the judges are looking for “the quality of the trot. The straightness on centreline. The bend and balance of the turn.” You see, the judges are looking at the horse’s body and how it is moving, not just the movement itself.


The purpose of dressage and improving at each level

The other part of each level is a purpose and again often overlooked when your goal is just to remember your test. It is, however, a very useful paragraph to read and really understand what the goal of your level is and what the judges are looking for and what to aim for when looking at fine-tuning your test and horses way of going. These outlines are usually sitting at the front of your test book. Or visit website of USDF (united states dressage federation) FEI, British Dressage or NZ equestrian for Dressage NZ information.


Purpose of the Level 1 dressage tests

“to confirm the horse has developed and maintains a rounded natural outline without restriction, moves freely forward without collection but with active hindquarters whilst maintaining a steady rhythm and contact with the bit without tension or resistance.”


Purpose of Level 2 dressage tests

“to confirm that the horse has developed an established rounded outline without restriction, moves freely forward without collection but with active hindquarter and achieved a degree of balance, straightness and throughness. The horse should be in steady light contact with the bit without tension or resistance.”


Purpose of Level 3 dressage tests

“to confirm that the horse, having demonstrated that it has achieved through correct training the suppleness and muscular development so that it accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection), shows a higher more rounded outline and the uphill tendency required at the medium gaits and is reliably on the bit and therefore able to show sufficient engagement to carry out the movements with necessary amount of collection required.”


Purpose of Level 4 dressage tests

“to confirm the hrose has now developed the increased rhythm, suppleness and impulsion to collect and extend its paces, maintain a light, uphill outline enabling it to show a dress of cadenced paces and perform direct transitions smoothly and with precision”


Purpose of Level 5 dressage tests

“to confirm the horse has now developed and can maintain the increased rhythm, suppleness and impulsion to collect and extend its paces, maintains a light, uphill outline thus enabling it to show a greater degree of quality and cadence in its paces enabling it to perform with greater engagement and collection.”


Purpose of Level 6 & 7 dressage tests

“the horse now has the increased rhythm, suppleness, straightness, throughness and impulsion to collect and extend its paces, maintain a light, uphill outline enabling it to maintain cadenced paces necessary to perform the more difficult movements of FEI tests.”


So now when you look at each movement directive like movement 1 of level 1, also think about the purpose of level one. The centre line movement needs to show the horse moving freely forward with active hind leg and no resistance.  The horse needs to be in front of your leg and there is no lack of balance with all three paces of walk, trot and canter and a nice rhythm and balance.


Improving the accuracy of your dressage test by improving your dressage basics

Next comes mastering the art of accurate tests through practice and understanding the shapes and where they all sit within a dressage arena. One thing I have found incredibly useful is the diagrams as part of the Dressage test book. Looking at where each movement starts, finishes and the shape of the movement as well as the bend.

See here an example from the Dressage New Zealand 2013 Official test book, but you can also find these all over the internet if you are having trouble.

Learn how to Improving Your Dressage Basics

Assuming a circle goes from marker to marker is one of the first mistakes I used to always make. So before I do any new test I make sure I have a real understanding of where it should be and the exact size and placement in the arena.

You can lose so many marks by not riding accurately and this really is an art to practice and something you can easily fine tune if you put the focus into it. Plus you can do a lot of this off your horse by really studying each movement and its position in the arena.

Don’t underestimate the power of accurate lines that are in a correct rhythm and balance with the right bend (easier said than done). This is what will help you score those higher marks in your dressage test. So practising these when your schooling and putting attention into the details at home really does pay dividends.


I have found that the more I pay attention to the finer details the more my tests have improved. These finer details are all things that you can spend time doing off your horse as well as on. It is essentially homework and studing your test movements by looking for those hidden gems of purpose and directive that are provided with your tests.

So to summarise here are my top tips on how you can improve your dressage score.


Top tips on how to keep improving your dressage basics

Learn your dressage test well

This includes the purpose of the level, the directives of each movement and where the coefficients are.


Improve your basic accuracy

Be accurate, understand where the movement falls within the arena layout. Make sure 10m circle are 10m and your 20 circles hit the sides of the arena where they should.


Never stop learning

Understand the basics of each level, study the tests and be a student hunting out ways to grow. Read your test results and feedback the judges are given you.


Enjoy yourself

Remember to smile, enjoy yourself and stay kind to your horse. Even if you’re full of nerves and smile can go a long way.


Practice, Practice + Practice

This goes without saying but practice how you wish to ride the test off the horse as well as on. Video yourself doing the test, watch yourself through the judges eye and see if you are meeting the purpose and directives. Score yourself and work on improving each score.


I hope you have found this useful, I believe there is so much we can learn along the way and one of the biggest mistakes is stopping that learning and growing process. So even if you have been competing for years or maybe you have hit a roadblock. Have a real read of your test book, video yourself, get guidance and start to put together the pieces of the puzzle that are missing.

The more you do this, the more you will find those little hidden marks that can make all the difference in your final score.

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