The time has finally come. After all the packing, travel, braiding, and warm up, the moment has arrived — it’s time to head to the ring for your dressage test. You leave the schooling area feeling confident, as you spent the last 15 minutes putting on the finishing touches. You’re ushered into the show ring by the ring steward. This is it! Your time to shine.
And then — it isn’t. The judge’s bell rings, breaking you from your reverie filled with triumphant salutes, blue ribbons, and a standing ovation. Suddenly, your body tenses up. You glance around frantically. The entrance seems miles away, and time is ticking!
Quickly, you gather your reins — a little too quickly, as your horse flicks an ear back, uncertain at your sudden haste. You try to take a deep breath, but your heart rate increases and your arms stiffen, communicating the nerves down the reins to your horse. A quick, tight circle by the letter A and in you go. The test goes by in a blur, and by the time you’re walking out of the arena, you have trouble even remembering what test you did.
If this situation sounds familiar, don’t despair! You’ve come to the right place. Believe it or not, you can actually do a lot within the 45 seconds you are allotted between the sound of the judge’s bell and entering the arena.
Don’t believe me? Try to sit in silence for 45 seconds without doing anything. Ready? Go.
It’s longer than you thought, right? So, now that we know exactly how much time there is before you have to enter the little white box, let’s talk with some top riders about how to avoid the grip of panic and, instead, maximize those final few seconds before you head into the ring.
Dressage Rider Lauren Sprieser Practices Her Warmup at Home
The secret to warming up is to practice your warmup at home. I come up with a plan at home and I practice it, even down to those final minutes before my test. I like to know what each horse needs to warm up properly, so some may need more time than others.
I don’t just flop around at home and then go up centerline to run through the test. Take the time at home to replicate that feeling of being at a show, even practicing the final warmup as you go around the outside of the dressage ring.
For around the outside of the ring, it’s usually the rider who causes the nerves. The horse feeds off of the rider’s energy, so find something to focus your own energy on instead of just panicking.
Slow down! You have time after the bell rings — you do not need to head straight in. If you find yourself at the other end of the ring when the bell sounds, you still have time. Take a breath, plan a way to make a half circle to turn around, or finish your lap around and then go in.
Transitions are your friend. They help both the horse and the rider take a deep breath and relax, and if the horse is feeling a bit uninspired, transitions are good to keep them sharp.
Eventer Laine Ashker Values First Impressions
The most important thing here is not your test, and it’s not even your warmup. It’s those 45 seconds before you go in. How many riders do you hear say in interviews that they warmed up perfectly, only to lose it in the ring?
If you watch a lot of riders going around the ring, you really only see them trotting around with no plan. Remember: the judge is watching you. Sure, they may not be judging you on paper, but they’re getting a first impression. And first impressions matter. If your horse is going around with his head straight in the air, the judge is going to notice.
So my strategy is always the same: transitions. If my horse is behind the leg and looking around, I’ll do a medium trot to a 10-meter circle to get their attention back on me and get them back out in front of my leg. For me, horses that are more forward thinking, I want them listening to me at all times. I’ll do a lot of walk to trot and back to walk transitions, or some shoulder-in and shoulder-fore.
The main idea here is to have the horse’s attention on you, not everything else. Your job is to stay focused on keeping your horse’s attention on you. Focus on this, and your nerves will be a secondary thought!
Similar concepts can be applied to jumping rounds, too! Jumper trainer Missy Clark weighs in:
One thing you can do to maximize the time before you cross the timers or start your round is to focus on something you want to “practice.” For example, if there is a turn that looks like it may be a bit tougher, go in and do a bit of practice on that line before the bell rings. I will tell my students to go in and practice that turn or to go into that corner that looks tough, to think of it as a mini dress rehearsal.
Read this next: Roll Call: Who Else Has Nerves?
Photography by Sophie Harris/SEH Photography for NoelleFloyd.com.
Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.