10 Pro Tips for Dressage Riders!

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Based in the Los Angeles area, Caroline Hoffman, a Swedish native, is a professional dressage rider, trainer, and clinician. She focuses on individualized cross-training that is tailored specifically for each horse and rider. She is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist as well as a certified Gyrotonic instructor. Caroline specializes in training and showing Iberian horses. Keep reading to hear her great advice on putting together the test of your dreams!

(Left) Caroline & Distinquido Trujillo, owned by Marcelino del Real, showing 3rd level at Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Photo credit: Terri Miller
(Right) Caroline and Marcelino del Real’s Armas Inervo having quiet time at the ANCCE** in Santa Barbara, CA. Photo credit: Kevin Kidder


Competing in dressage is challenging! Not only do you have to be at your best, but you have to work to ensure your horse is at his best, too. Here are some tips that can make the competition for both you and your horse a successful and enjoyable experience.

1. The Week Before the Show – Don’t Over-Train
Prepare ahead of time by practicing and finessing your test. Don’t try to squeeze it all in the week of the show. Your horse won’t truly learn anything new in that week. Don’t override or over-school movements from your test. If you do, you might end up with a tired, irritated, and sore horse at the show. Focus more on your normal riding routine so he’ll be fresh for the weekend. It may take a while to figure out what the best pre-show routine is for your horse, as every horse is different. For example, some might need a day off in the middle of the week where others do better being ridden every day and having a lighter day or two.

2 Arrive a Day Ahead at the Showgrounds

Take your horse to the showgrounds the day before so he can settle in and get comfortable with his new environment. Arriving early also gives you the chance to see the “lay of the land” at the facility. The day before your test, ride in the ring you are going to compete in. Even if you don’t ride your test, ride each movement of the test in the correct area of the ring. Every ring rides differently, depending on the footing and how the arena is set up. This pre-ride will help you feel comfortable and know exactly where the letters are placed and how your horse feels in that particular ring. There might be a few things in that particular environment that your horse needs to get used to -- for example stands, flower boxes, how the judge’s stand is set up, or the proximity to other show rings.

3. Take Quiet Time
Be physically and mentally ready before you get on your horse the day of the show. Look at the arena and go over the test a few hours before you start to get ready. For me, it is very helpful to sit down quietly and have a calm moment to visualize myself riding the test. Before you get on, make sure you are connected with your body. I have a series of stretches and exercises I do to open up and to get connected. By bringing awareness to my core and body, I’m able to communicate better with my horse.


Marcelino Del Real’s Armas Inervo and Caroline at the ANCC**, Santa Barbara. Photo credit: Lori Ovanessian

4. Before Your Ride – Build In Time
Have plenty of time before your time to show. I find it very helpful to calculate exactly how much time I might need. For example, if I groom and get my horse ready myself, I plan for at least an hour for that. I also allow extra time since I might need to get something from my car, or change some equipment – there’s always something unexpected that comes up! The most stressful situation is not having enough time before you enter the show ring. Feeling rushed prevents you from focusing on your performance and preparing your horse before you get in the saddle.

5. Tack and Equipment – Use It First
Make sure you have used all your tack and rider equipment before the show. There is nothing more stressful than putting on a new girth and realizing it’s too short, or using a new bridle and realizing in the warm-up that your horse doesn’t like the nose band. Use all the equipment you are going to use for the show at home. As we know, horses are very sensitive. Even a new saddle pad that is cut slightly differently in the withers, or is made from a different material, can make your horse feel and go differently. The same goes for the rider. Make sure you are comfortable in your show outfit before the show. If you have new show boots give them lots of time to break in before the show. Ride in them often to make sure you have a good feel in your leg aids and your horse responds well. Otherwise, you are much better off competing in your old boots and waiting until the new ones feel right!

6. Carefully Plan Your Warm-up
It’s easy to get distracted in a busy warm-up ring, which is why it’s very important to have a good “floor plan” for your warm-up. No matter what everybody else is doing, you have to focus on you, your horse, and your test. It doesn’t matter if the horse next to you turns into a flying dragon, if someone accidentally cuts you off, or if there are way too many riders in the warm-up -- all of the above will most likely happen at some point! Always keep the focus on your horse and your performance. Know what your horse needs in the warm-up to give his best in the test. At some point in the warm-up, I like to ride through the movements I have in the test but spread them out. Allow extra time for walk breaks, getting cleaned up before you go in the ring, and if your horse is going to be the flying dragon in the warm-up, that you have enough time to get his attention. At the same time, it’s important not to warm up too long, so you have no horse left for your test. If your horse feels good and you feel ready, just walk and then pick him up a few minutes before going down centerline.

7. Have A Coach
Work with a coach you have a good rapport with – one who helps you reach your goals, guides, and supports you. Working with a coach on a regular basis can make a big difference in your riding in general, and specifically with your show riding. We all need help from the ground and having a coach who is very familiar with you and your horse will help get the best out of both of you. Having your coach help at competitions is a huge asset. However, don’t make the mistake of working with a coach for the first time at a competition. Even an excellent trainer who is unfamiliar with you and your horse could create unnecessary tension and actually interfere with your show performance.


(Left) Christine Stephenson’s Markant and Caroline showing Grand Prix in Temecula, CA.
(Right) Caroline & Distinquido Trujillo, owned by Marcelino del Real, showing 3rd level at Los Angeles Equestrian Center.
Photo credit for both: Terri Miller

8. Know Your Level – And Your Horse’s
Show your horse at a level where you can really show him off, and where the test is easier than what you practice at home. You and your horse will feel much more relaxed and confident - and get a better score! It’s much better to show your horse at a level you both are solid in than to struggle to get through a movement your horse learned the week before the show. After all, it’s a competition and the judge is not going to give you extra points and know your horse learned the changes the day before. Judges judge what you do in your test based to the standard.

9. Learn From Each Experience
To improve at competing you have to compete. Regardless of how you placed in your class, it’s important to take an honest look at your performance and think about what you did well and what could you do better. Perhaps you received high marks on your canter half-pass, but you know that your bend wasn’t very honest and your horse was against your outside leg. Make sure that in your training after the show you work on improving yourself and your horse so next time your mark can be even higher. Also pay attention to how your horse behaves at the show and what he needs while away from home. Perhaps he does better having a hand-walk early in the morning, or if he is hot, perhaps a light ride early in the morning would be beneficial. As your horse gains more show experience, his behavior at shows can change, but it’s extremely important to evaluate at your horse’s individual needs to be show ready.

10. Eat Right -- Your Horse…and You!
We are often more concerned about our horses’ diets than our own nutrition, especially at the show. Be sure to eat right for you, eat the proper amount, and eat what will help you to perform. For me, it’s crucial that I eat enough food and drink plenty of water and electrolytes on a big show day when I compete multiple horses. But, if I eat too much right before riding it’s almost impossible for me to ride well. A few hours before I ride the first horse, I have a protein shake or oatmeal. Half an hour before I get on, I’ll have half of a protein bar and then in between rides I’ll eat the rest of the bar, almonds, bananas, or proteins in small amounts and drink water with electrolytes. This is something that is easy to overlook, but if you have a huge show day in the heat, and don’t take care of your body, you might end up feeling sick and even have to scratch your rides. As for your horse, I always give my horses extra electrolytes at the shows as a precaution, and sometimes a focusing supplement. Be sure to carefully watch their water and food intake and see if they need anything extra to do well at the show grounds.


Caroline riding overall Reserve Champion Danubio de Trujillo owned by Marcelino del Real at ANCC***, Santa Barbara. Photo credit: Alberto Bracero

Have Fun!
Have fun and enjoy it all: the preparation, the show itself, and the work after. We all work very hard and it takes a lot of effort to get to the show ring, so it’s very important to really enjoy the whole process! Even with the best preparation, some days we win and others we lose. Embrace it all…that’s Dressage!

Thanks for reading! For more information on Caroline’s program, check out www.carolinehoffmandressage.com.
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