Questions About Dressage
With Amy McElroy
Amy McElroy is a USEF R judge, qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fairlane Farm in Aiken and judges about a dozen dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers' questions about dressage.
I recently competed in a recognized horse trials. I closely watched the rider in front of me perform her dressage test. Her horse broke gait several times during her ride. I performed my test error free. I was so surprised to see that she placed ahead of me in the class. How is that possible?
It is wonderful that you had an error free test. In answer to your question, it is quite possible that the rider ahead of you deserved a better score. A mistake free test is a great thing, but to earn a high score you need much more than that.
First, I think you might not be clear on what the word "error" means in a dressage test. An error is not just a mistake. An error is when you perform something that is not prescribed by the test. For example, if you make a wrong turn, if you perform a movement at the wrong letter or you lose your place, that would be an error. An error will cost you a 2-point deduction for the first one, a 4-point deduction for the second one, and elimination for the third.
If, on the other hand, your horse simply breaks gait during a movement that you are performing in accordance with the test, this is not considered an error. This kind of mistake does not have a specific point dudction, but it will affect the score for the movement. Even if the horse breaks gait several times in one movement, this will only affect the score for that one scoring box on the test. If the horse breaks gait in more than one movement in a test, the score for each movement would be affected. Several breaks in gait should also be taken into consideration in the scores for the collective marks.
There are four collective marks: gaits, impulsion, submission and rider position. Breaking gait might affect the collective marks for submission and possibly for rider position and impulsion. The submission score might be lowered by a point or more. Many breaks in gait would show that your horse ahs issues with attention, ease and harmony, which are part of the directives for the submission score. The rider position score could be affected by a point or more as well, if the breaks in gait seem to have been caused by the rider: the effectiveness of the aids is part of the rider position score. The impulsion score might also be lowered by a point or more, since breaks in gait can indicate a loss of engagement, which is part of the directives for the impulsion score.
As with any dressage test, the whole picture tells the story. In each movement, the judge is observing how well the horse is able to use the training scale, as well as the accuracy and correct geometry of the test, and the ability of the horse to perform the prescribed movement. Judges are looking for clear rhythm with energy and tempo, relaxation with elasticity and suppleness, steady connection to the bit, acceptance of aids, lively impulsion with energy and thrust, straightness with alignment and balance, and (at higher levels) collection.
So, if you test was mistake free, you are halfway there. To learn more, it is important to read the comments that your judge gives on your test. You can pick up your copy of your test after your class has been scored and posted. You copy is often available at the show office, so look for it there. Tests are always avialable to riders, so check with the show manager if you don't find it. The test is yours to keep, but you have to know to pick it up. Be sure to read the collective marks and the "further remarks" section. Most judges take a few words to say what they enjoyed most about your ride and what they think your ride still needs to improve. This can be very helpful feedback, and should give you a better understanding of how your test was evaluated. For example, maybe your test was very accurate and you looked beautiful on your horse, but he was too unsteady in his connection to the bit and could have been moving more freely forward. These issues would definitely affect your score, even if the test was perfectly accurate with no breaks in gait and no errors.
Perhaps the horse in front of you had a break in gait (not an error) in one or two movements. That would warrant low scores in those two movements, maybe only a 4 in each. If the remainder of the test was performed well and consistent with the training scale, it is quite possible for that horse and rider combination to have a better overall score than you did.
So before your next show, I encourage you to try to improve by reading the scores and remarks on your last test and start working on those areas that need continued improvement. When you ride a test, you should always be striving for a picture of harmony and ease. Your judge wants to see a horse and rider that are working together and are reliable and solid at the level in which they are performing. Keep practicing and try to wow your judge with your performance at your next show.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.