By Jennifer Klitzke
Interested in riding a gaited dressage test but not sure what to expect? Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Schooling dressage shows are a friendly environment to receive constructive feedback from an experience dressage professional on where you and your horse are at in your training—what’s working and what needs improvement.
I love riding dressage tests because they force me to train all of the required movement in both directions. Invariably, there is one direction that is more difficult and there are some movement that I would rather avoid, but a test forces me to face them. The test itself challenges me to be a precise communicator to my horse to perform each movement at the letter, ride my horse in the correct frame through effective use of aids and riding position.
There are many gaited dressage tests to choose from of varying levels of difficulty created by FOSH, Western Dressage, Cowboy Dressage, and the NWHA. If you’re not ready to show canter, don’t worry as many of the introductory tests are two gait tests.
What to Wear
Schooling shows required riders to wear an approved helmet with a chin strap and boots with a heel. Informal riding attire is acceptable such as breeches and a polo shirt or jeans and a cowboy shirt. The horse must be ridden in a mild snaffle bit and a dressage or all-purpose English saddle or western saddle depending upon the test you’ve selected. Formal attire and braiding the horse’s mane are optional. I often wear my formal attire since I don’t show at recognized shows and it makes for nicer photos.
Where to Show
Some breed shows offer gaited dressage classes. Another opportunity is when you see a USDF open schooling dressage show in your area that you’d like to ride at, contact the show secretary and ask if you can enter your gaited horse and ride a gaited dressage test. If the show manager agrees, then mail a copy of your test(s) with a copy of your current Coggins, completed entry form and fees by the closing date.
The show will post a schedule of ride times 24 to 48 hours before the show, so you can plan your arrival and warm up accordingly. Ask the show manager if the arena is open to school your horse before the show or during break times. Recognized shows do not permit this, but many schooling shows do. This helps nervous horses get acclimated to the strange surroundings and build confidence.
Arriving at the Show
When you get to the show grounds, go to the show office to obtain your number, and ask if the show is running on time. Sometimes there are scratches and you may be asked to ride earlier. You are not required to, but it is courtesy to do so if you are able. Other times the show may be running behind schedule, and you’ll want to know this to pace your warm up. If you have a horse like mine, you won’t want to wear out your horse before your test.
Riding your Test
When the rider before you completes their final halt and salute, you may enter the outside of the arena to school your horse before your test. Relaxation for the horse is key. In the short couple minutes I have, I like to ride my horse by anything that might spook her, like the judging area, flower boxes along the rail, or bushes that are swaying in the breeze.
While warming up, you are permitted to talk to your horse, but as soon as you enter the arena you’ll get penalized for using your voice or clucking during your test.
When you hear the judge sound the bell or whistle, you have 45 seconds to enter the arena and begin your test.
Position your horse to ride in straight at “A”. Ride your horse straight down the center line to the halt and salute. Teach your horse to halt square and remain immobile for three seconds before proceeding forward (if called for in your test).
Remember to smile as you ride toward the judge and riding your horse into the corners by showing a nice bend. Ride as close to the rail as you’re able without jumping out of the arena as that will eliminate you.
Most shows permit you to have someone read your test as you ride. Normally the reader will stand at “E” or “B”. I memorize my tests only because I show solo. (I’m hoping this has the added benefit of prolonging my grandma brain!)
Each test has required movements that are evaluated on a score from 0 to 10. Among the judging criteria are rhythm, balance, bend, relaxation, impulsion, precision, gaits, rider’s use of aids and riding position. Dressage tests movements mirror each other to show that you’ve trained an ambidextrous horse.
After your final halt salute, ride your horse forward toward the judge at a free walk on a long rein. Sometimes the judge will offer verbal feedback in addition to the written comments on the test so you may stop an take it all in. Then turn right or left to exit the arena at a free walk on a long rein.
While you are riding your test, the judge verbalizes feedback to a scribe who writes down the comments on a test sheet. The tests are given to the show office and added for the final percentage. Sometimes gaited dressage is placed in its own category and other times gaited dressage is scored with the trotting horses of the same level. Scores are usually posted for placings and the test will be available at the show office for you to take home.
Don’t get discouraged if your horse doesn’t show all your hard work during your test. It is common that horses perform better at home than in a strange environment. Just hold onto the magic moments that made it a positive experience for you and your horse. You did it!
When picking up your tests from the show office, remember to return your number and that everyone who helped organize the show and accommodate gaited dressage.
Video: Tips on Riding a Gaited Dressage Test