By Jennifer Klitzke
Interested in riding a gaited dressage test but not sure what to expect? Here are a few tips to help riders who are interested in giving gaited dressage a try.
Schooling dressage shows are a friendly environment to receive constructive feedback from an experience dressage professional on where the horse and rider are at in their training—what’s working and what needs improvement.
I love riding dressage tests because they force me to train all of the required movements in both directions. Invariably, there is one way that is more difficult for the horse and some exercises that I would rather avoid, but a test makes me address them. The test itself challenges me to be a precise communicator to my horse to prepare and perform each movement at the letter, ride my horse in the correct frame through an effective use of aids and riding position.
Gaited Dressage Tests
There are many gaited dressage tests to choose from of varying levels of difficulty created by FOSH, Western Dressage, Cowboy Dressage, and the NWHA. The introductory tests are two gait tests for those not ready to tackle the canter.
What to Wear
Schooling shows require 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 for English gaited dressage or jeans and a cowboy shirt for western gaited dressage. 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 that is selected. Formal riding attire and braiding the horse’s mane are optional. I often wear my formal riding 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 to show your gaited horse in dressage is at USDF schooling dressage shows. Whenever I see a USDF open schooling dressage show in my area that I would like to ride at, I contact the show secretary and ask if I can enter my gaited horse and ride a gaited dressage test. If the show manager agrees, then I mail a copy of my tests with a copy of my current Coggins, completed entry form and fees by the closing date.
The show posts a schedule of ride times 24 to 48 hours before the show, so I can plan my arrival and warm up accordingly. When I get to the show I ask the show manager if the arena is open to school my horse 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 their confidence.
Arriving at the Show
When I get to the show grounds, I get my horse settled and go to the show office to obtain my number and ask if the show is running on time. Sometimes there are scratches. Many times I’ve been asked to ride earlier. Although I am not required to, I will accommodate this if I am able. Other times the show may be running behind schedule. This is really important for me to know so that I can pace my warm up and not wear out my horse before our tests.
Riding the Test
When the rider before me completes their final halt and salute, that’s my cue to enter the outside of the arena to school my horse before my 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, I like to talk to my horse, but as soon as I enter the arena voice or clucking is not permitted during the test without penalty.
As soon as I hear the judge sound the bell or whistle (or sometimes the ‘toot’ of a car horn), it is my signal that I have 45 seconds to enter the arena and begin my test.
I like to position my horse to ride in straight at “A” down the center line to the halt and salute (remaining immobile for three seconds) before proceeding forward.
I try to remember to smile as I ride toward the judge and ride my horse into the corners to show a nice bend. Judges like to see the horse being ridden close to the rail without jumping out of the arena (which means elimination).
Most shows permit a ‘reader,’ someone who reads the test for the rider as they ride the test. Normally the reader stands at “E” or “B”. I rode with a reader for many years, and it has only been recently that I began memorizing my tests mainly because I show solo. (I’m hoping this will have an 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 the horse has become ambidextrous because of its training.
After the final halt salute, I ride my horse forward toward the judge at a free walk on a long rein. Sometimes the judge offers verbal feedback in addition to the written comments on the test so I’ll stop and take it all in. Then turn right or left to exit the arena at a free walk on a long rein.
While a test is being ridden, 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 riders to take home.
I try not to get discouraged when my horse doesn’t show all of my hard work during my test. It is common that horses perform better at home than when in a strange environment. I hold onto the magic moments that made it a positive experience for me and my horse. We did it!
When picking up my tests from the show office and returning my number, I like to thank everyone who helped organize the show and for accommodating gaited dressage.
Video: Tips on Riding a Gaited Dressage Test