Top Dressage Tips for Competing in your First Show
You’ve put in the hard yards. The hours and hours of practice and training, the falls, the tears, the money spent on the horse show clothes. And now you’re taking the plunge and about to compete in your first dressage show. It’s daunting, we know. So here are some top dressage tips for beginners competing in your first show.
Read more: What are the essential women’s clothes for horse shows?
You can sit in the stands or watch videos as many times as you like, but nothing will quite prepare you for when you trot out on your trusty steed for the first time. But don’t worry, we’ve spoken with some dressage riders and equestrian experts for some of their top dressage tips for beginners competing in their first show. Don’t miss this invaluable advice from those in the know! Here’s what they had to say…
2014 US Young Rider National Champion; 2016 Under 25 Grand Prix National Champion & reserve Champion
- Prepare well and be early for everything. Have your entries, numbers and horse equipment in order so all you have to worry about is your performance.
- Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect. At home is where the competition is won.
- Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Their thoughts have no control over you or how you perform when in the ring.
- Invite your friends and family. You only get your first show one, so make it memorable!
- Control your nerves. Instead of getting anxious, go over your course or read your test, groom your horse, check your gear or talk to your trainer. Getting nervous is normal but controlling your nerves is when you are able to do well.
- Have normal expectations. Don’t go in thinking it’s going to be perfect, but also don’t think it’s going to be a disaster. If you put the work in, it will be a good experience.
- Have a good attitude and always be grateful that you have the opportunity to show!
- Expect the unexpected. Stay flexible and don’t be shocked when things don’t go quite as planned.
- Praise your horse A LOT. They try so hard for us and love our approval.
- Enjoy the experience! You only get one first horse show and it goes by so fast!
Freelance equestrian journalist
- Learning your dressage test thoroughly allows you to ride positively rather than worrying about where you’re going – learn it even if you’re thinking of having a caller, as all it takes is a windy day and you may not be able to hear them.
- Ride through the test with your instructor in your lessons leading up to the competition – your development work can then be targeted to problem areas well in advance.
- Ride in your competition kit at home, as you need to feel ‘normal’ in it. Also, always test out something ‘new’ before your competition – a change in tack, new boots, saddle pads, etc. This way you’ll be sure it will all work fine on the day.
- If you’ve not braided before, practice beforehand and time yourself to stop any panic on the day.
- Have a plan for competition day. Work back from what time you’re in the arena and figure out a ‘warm up’ time, ‘getting ready by’ time, ‘contingency time’ and then a ‘leave home’ time. This may seem over the top, but the less you have to think about the better.
- If you’re nervous of the venue, a good tip is to hire it beforehand and either have a lesson or just let your horse have a good look around – especially helpful with young or easily spooked horses.
- If you don’t know what to expect, watch a similar competition at the same venue and see how it runs. Check out parking, the arenas, where the secretary lives, the scoreboards and bathrooms, etc.
- Remember that travelling is stressful, so take your horse off the box in plenty of time, lead him round to let him breathe, take in the surroundings and have a nibble of hay.
- The best results come from good preparation so make your warm up time count. Remember, you’re not teaching your horse something new in this key time, you’re getting him physically warm and mentally hot – in other words, the pair of you are physically prepared and mentally tuned into each other. And don’t be thinking ‘I’m only doing a first level test’. You deserve to give yourself the best possible chance of succeeding on the day, and ‘success’ needs to be measured as simply as you ending the day with a smile and a happy horse.
- Enlist a supportive buddy to help you get ready, support you when needed and be there to celebrate.
International Grand Prix dressage rider, British dressage trainer and BHS registered instructor
- Do a dry run at home. Try out all your competition gear at least once at home before the big day to make sure you and your horse are comfortable and used to anything you might not normally ride in. Competition day is not the best day to discover you can’t feel your feet in your tall boots, that your breeches could really use a belt or that your horse doesn’t like the bling-y ear protectors you wanted them to wear.
- Visit the venue in advance, preferably on a day when they are running a competition. This means you both know for sure where you are going (finding places is always harder when you are stressed or under time pressure). You can also find out where to park, and where important things like bathrooms and warm up and competition rings are, if there is a whipper in to help keep you on time. This also gives you a chance to more accurately visualise yourself riding though your test at the site, and good mental rehearsal ahead of time can help keep the day as fun and successful as possible.
- Get someone you trust to help you on the day. It is especially useful to have someone who has groomed or competed before, or is at least comfortable holding your horse for you. Experience has taught me that it is very likely that you will not be acting like your normal self on the day, so have a good chat with that person in advance about what you think you would like them to do and not do, and make sure you thank them for their help. The same applies to any cheering section you might be lucky enough to bring along – if they know in advance when you will be available to see them and have their input, they are less likely to get underfoot with well-intentioned support as you are getting ready.
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- Have a check list and prepare your gear the day before.
- Go with an experienced assistant – shows are much more enjoyable if you have a good support team.
- Positive support – ask your trainer or a positive friend who has competition experience to accompany you, as this will help you to relax in your warm up.
- Control the controllables – focus on what you can control – arrival time, tacking up time, warm up time, etc. These are all important and by planning ahead will help you stay relaxed and give you focus on the day.
- Dress code – check that you and your horse have the appropriate attire by finding out if the show is run under an association with rules.
- Know your test or have it read – Learn your test with plenty of time and be confident about riding it. If you feel more comfortable, have it read to you so you can concentrate on riding the test.
- Create a positive mindset – view the day as a positive experience and an opportunity to show off your horse.
- Goals – work out with your trainer what you want to achieve and concentrate on those goals.
- Don’t be competitive – instead use this first experience as an opportunity to evaluate your training, and how you and your horse perform under pressure.
- Warm up etiquette – look up, ride left to left and give your horse plenty of space, this will help to minimise interruptions to your warm-up. Remove any tack in a safe area of the warm up or go outside. Do this with plenty of time before your test, helping to avoid any unnecessary rushing.
- Time keeping – Make a note of the combination due in before you – keep an eye on them or preferably have your helper watch out for when you need to be heading towards the competition arena.
- Entry – Allow the combination before you to finish their test and leave the arena before you enter.
- Before the bell – take your time to show your horse the arena, say hello to the judge and prepare for your entry.
- Focus on your riding – a lot of riders go into the test and forget to ride. Use your corners and ride to the markers.
- The judge has most likely been sitting there all day, so smile! They want you to do well and are looking to help you improve.
- Speak to the judge – if you can, speak to the judge after the class has finished and ask any questions about your test sheet.