One of the greatest sources of anxiety for a dressage rider is the possibility that you will forget the test.

The main reason is that once you go off course four times in a single test, you are excused. Don’t worry! Going off course happens to everybody. I’ve seen pros at recognized shows do it.  I’ve seen fellow amateurs suffer its indignities.  I even saw it happen at Rolex this year. So literally, everybody has had this happen to them at some point. So don’t think you’re the only one.

Have a Reader

The first virtual Valium I have to offer is the fact that up to 4th level, you can have your test read to you at the show — even recognized shows. I have read for other people, and they have read for me. But please don’t consider this to be your primary method of getting through the test. Use it more like your little security blanket to get you over having the test you know really well suddenly vaporize the from conscious memory as you enter the ring.

Practice to Help You Memorize

The second concession I can provide is that you will have practiced these tests interminably, or seemingly so. Doing the component parts of the test won’t help with the test in total so much.  And there’s a fine line to over-practicing the test to the point your horse starts anticipating the next movement.  But you still need to practice the test and memorize it cold. But by the time you get to the show arena, you will have done these tests so many times that it will seem much more automatic to ride them.

Figure Out the Pattern in the Test

Remember too that dressage tests tend to be a bit repetitious. At the very least, they follow a pattern. Whatever you show you can do on the right rein, you will be asked to show you can do on the left rein. So as you look at the test, figure out the pattern, and get your arms around how the pattern repeats.

Read the Test

Read the tests and the descriptions of each move repeatedly. Know what the judge is looking for, and understand how each move will be judged. You can use the USDF sheets, available on their website. I have chosen to subscribe to They include both USDF and eventing tests, so I’m not chasing around to find them. And their graphics are so descriptive that I almost don’t need to read the words for each move because I understand their shorthand.  And I can save the PDF to iBooks on my iPhone and iPad, so taking them with me is easy, even without WiFi access.

Write Out the Test

Write out the tests on a dry erase board, or a blank sheet of paper. You will need three colors — one for each gait. Also use different strokes to show working walk versus free walk, or leg yields, etc. Consider making a mark where the transitions should occur. And think about where half-halts should be done before each of those transitions.

Walk the Test

If you have a place with the space (in the parking lot, in the driveway, even in the empty 20×60 arena) walk through the entire test unmounted, including mimicking the gaits. Yes, you’ll look a little silly, but it helps to fix the patterns and paces in your head. While you’re at it, you can also practice looking in the right direction, the lead on your canter, and where to put your half-halts.


At a schooling show, you can often do a Fix-a-Test. That means you ride a test, get commentary from the judge, and then go school for a while. Then, you re-ride the test, and get a new score from the judge. Sometimes that bit of schooling is all it takes to knock the fog out of your head, and get you and your horse going better, including remembering what to do next.

Crank Up the Tunes!

If you really want to get into the sports psychology of it all, put together a playlist of music that is at the same tempo as your ride should be. That will get you to feel things a little more fluidly. I tend to listen to Nina Simone because it has a definite rhythm, without being a driving beat (since I tend to over-drive).

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