Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Questions About Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor, an a USEF S judge. She is qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized national show at all dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fair Lane Farm in Aiken and judges between 15 and 20 dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers’ questions about dressage. Do you have a question for Amy? Send her an email at, or visit her website:

Dear Amy,

I am an eventer who competes at the Training Level. It was recommended to me to try some dressage shows to help me improve my scores in that phase. Could you give any suggestions, and tell me what differences I might expect between a dressage test in eventing and at a USDF dressage show?

Eventer Chick

Dear Eventer 

Entering a USDF dressage show is a great way to help you concentrate on the dressage portion of your sport. We see many event riders competing at our USDF dressage shows – I have even seen the wellknown Advanced Level event rider Jan Byyny competing at USDF shows in Wellington, Florida.

If you are riding at the Training Level in events, you would be able to compete at First Level in dressage; First Level Test 1 is most similar to Training Level Event test A or B. Let’s look at which things are the same and which things are different between the two sports in these tests.

What is the same; Eventing Training A &B; USDF First Level Test 1: 

1. All trot work may be done rising or sitting unless otherwise stated.
2. All tests include 15-meter circles in the trot and canter.
3. All have trot-canter and canter-trot transitions.
4. All have trot and canter lengthenings.
5. All have a 20-meter “stretchy” circle (a circle in which the rider allows “the horse to stretch forward and down while maintaining light contact.”)
6. In all tests, half points can be used for scoring.
7. In all tests, you are eliminated if you have three errors.
8. All allow 45 seconds to enter the arena once the bell has sounded.
9. In all tests, you are required to wear protective headgear.
10. Your judge will be evaluating your ride in your event test in the same way as in your dressage test. This means that your judge will confirm that your horse demonstrates correct basics and has developed some thrust to achieve improved balance and “thoroughness” while maintaining a more consistent contact with the bit.

What is different: Eventing Training A &B; USDF First Level Test 1: 

1. The eventing test is held in a small (20 meter by 40 meter) arena; the dressage test is held in a large (20 meter by 60 meter) arena.
2. In the eventing test, you always enter down the centerline and start your test immediately. In the dressage test, you always enter down the centerline, halt at X and salute your judge before you continue with your test.
3. In the eventing test the only coefficient (a movement where points count double) is for the free walk. In the dressage test there are three movements with a coefficient of two. These are the free walk, the stretchy circle and the transition from trot to canter going to the left.
4. In the eventing test, the entire test needs to be performed by memory. In the dressage test, you may do your test by memory, or you may have a caller at ringside to read your test aloud, and there is no deduction in points for this.
5. In the eventing test, there are four scoring boxes with collective marks
(gaits, impulsion, submission and rider position.) In the dressage test, there are five boxes with collective marks. There are two boxes for the rider, one for the position and seat, and the other for the correct and effective use of aids. The remaining boxes are the same (gaits, impulsion and submission) except that impulsion and submission each have a coefficient of two.
6. In the eventing tests the average ride time is four minutes. In the dressage test, the average ride time is five minutes.
7. In the eventing test, you are striving for the lowest possible final score which is expressed in penalty points: in the 20s, for instance. In the dressage test you are looking for the highest possible final score, which is expressed as a percentage, in the 70s for instance.
8. In the eventing test, if a horse or a rider falls, the rider will be penalized but will not be eliminated. In the dressage test, if a horse or a rider falls, the rider is eliminated.
9. In an eventing test, you have 45 seconds to enter the arena after the bell has rung: if you enter after 45 seconds but before 90 seconds, you will get a 2-point penalty. In a dressage test, if you don’t enter the arena within 45 seconds after the bell has run, you will be eliminated.
10. You are never allowed to perform a dressage test while your horse is wearing boots or bandages. If you forget to take them off in an eventing test, your judge will stop you and allow you to remove the illegal equipment; you will be penalized 2 points. In a dressage test, if you accidentally ride into the ring with illegal equipment, you will be eliminated immediately.

The good news about dressage shows is that they are often multiday competitions and you can ride the same test once each day. You can enter up to three different dressage tests per day, as long as you are riding under Fourth Level. (In eventing, you only get one chance to do a dressage test per horse, per show.) Even though First Level Test 1 most resembles your Training Level eventing test, you would be qualified to try any of the USDF Training Level Tests, of which there are three. You might want to try First Level Test 2 or 3, which have some movements you might see in your eventing Preliminary Level tests. You are even allowed to compete at two consecutive levels in the same dressage show.

I hope you take advantage of all the dressage shows available here in Aiken and in our neighboring cities and states. All the extra rides down the centerline are sure to give you and your horse much exposure and experience, which are bound to help you achieve your eventing goals. After all, a good dressage score can set the stage for exceptional performances in the jumping phases, giving you a solid boost up the leaderboard.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Ask the Judge

Questions about Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor, a USEF R judge, and a USEF S judge candidate. She is qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fair Lane Farm in Aiken and judges between 15 and 20 dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers’ questions about dressage.

Do you have a question for Amy? Send her an email at, or visit her website:

Dear Amy,

I am showing in Novice Eventing Test B. My question is this: How do you judge the canter departs? It says canter “between A and F” and “between A and K.” Where exactly are you expected to make the departure, and how much does the canter after the departure count? My friend says that the score is for the departure only and that the canter itself does not count because there is no labeled scoring box for it, but this does not sound right to me. Is this true? 

Dear Canter,

This is a great question for all dressage competitors. Everything you do in the arena is being appraised. It is important that all riders understand what the judge is looking for and how he or she arrives at your final score. At the lower levels, including all Novice eventing tests, the canter departs are regularly asked for between the markers rather than at exact letters. This allows the greener horse and/or rider a chance to have more preparation to make their transitions on demand. Before we talk about scoring for this particular movement, let’s review the number scale that dressage judges use. Scoring goes from 0 through 10, including half scores (7.5, for example.) Here are the numerical scores and what they mean:

0 The movement was not executed 
1 Very bad
 2 Bad 
3 Fairly Bad 
4 Insufficient 
5 Marginal 
6 Satisfactory 
7 Fairly Good 
8 Good 
9 Very Good 
10 Excellent

This can be a very difficult scale to understand. If you are getting sixes and sevens, this means you are on the right track and the final score of your test would probably be between 30 and 40 points, which will put you on good footing going into the jumping phases. Scores above 8 are hard to attain; if you are regularly getting 8s, this would make your dressage score in the 20s or below. This would likely put you at the top of the leaderboard before the jumping phases.  

In the canter departs required in Novice Test B, you are permitted to make the transition anywhere between the designated letters. As far as the accuracy goes, you could earn a 10 no matter where between the two letters you pick up the canter. Being centered would be very impressive however, so striving to make the depart exactly midway between the markers is most desirable.

The placement of the departure is only one small part of how your score is determined. In this case, placement would be considered a “modifier.” In the transition, the main criterion is the “essence,” how your horse gets into the canter. Your judge will be looking for willingness, promptness, steady connection to the bit, balance, and, of course, the correct lead. The directives in your test state “calmness and smoothness of depart.” Some problems include your horse speeding up before the departure (running into the canter), getting the wrong lead and not making a correction, not making the depart between the two letters (a very delayed canter depart) or not getting the canter at all.

Your judge will take the training scale into consideration with every score. Once your judge has arrived at the score for the essence of the canter, then the modifiers will come into consideration. These may affect your score from plus or minus .5 to 1 point, or possibly more. Modifiers in this case include the placement of the departure and the quality of the canter on the long side after the canter depart until the point where the next movement begins. On the long side, your judge will be looking to see if you are able to maintain the canter and correct lead while assessing the canter’s quality, balance and tempo. The gait should be a clear three beat and the horse should not fall on his forehand or quicken his pace. The rider needs to keep connection, with the horse remaining steady to the bit and straight from nose to tail. Common faults include the horse overbending its head, neck or forehand to the inside or outside and the haunches swinging in. 

Unless something extreme occurs (bolting, bucking, breaking the gait, strong resistance to the bit) the modifiers should have a minimal effect on your score, but they will have some. The formula your judge uses to derive every score in your test includes: B: Basics: gaits, impulsion and submission C: Criteria: essence: did you get it done? M: Modifiers: the small stuff; the “connecting tissue” between the movements So, to arrive at a number to put in the scoring box, the judge uses this formula: B+C+/-M=Final Score In conclusion, in Novice Test B, you should promptly attain the correct lead as centered between the two letters as you can, keeping in mind that the depart alone will not determine your final score. And yes, to answer your question, the canter down the long side most definitely will be included to determine your final mark for this box, so strive for a cadenced, balanced canter with your horse calm, relaxed and straight from head to tail. I hope this gives you a better understanding of how judges evaluate your performance. Remember, everything you do in the arena is being evaluated and every stride you take will affect your test and score. Doing your best and presenting an impression of harmony and ease no matter what the test or the level will put you in the best position to achieve your dressage goals. Good luck!

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.