The Show Life – How to Become a Dressage Spectator

Show season is upon us, and those of us used to the chaos and excitement of it already have our show faces on.  But there are a lot of people out there (new riders, parents new to the show scene, and people new to the specifics of a dressage show) who aren’t so seasoned.  This post is for them.  Share this primer with all your friends and family to get them acquainted with the dressage scene and prep them for all those shows this year!


show crowdHorse shows.  Early mornings and long days full of braids and warm ups and ribbons and breakdowns.  They take a bit of getting used to, and if you’re new to it, there is a rather steep learning curve.  If you’re a rider, there’s a certain amount of excitement, but as a spectator and supporter, there’s less nerves and more confusion about what it is you’re supposed to be doing.  This post is meant to introduce you to what a dressage horse show is, and how you can participate in it and support your rider.

Scoring and Test Levels
Dressage is mainly an individual sport, like most horse-related sports.  But more specifically, dressage shows are a test of movements.  Each horse and rider combination must complete a certain pattern of movements that show the skills at a certain level of dressage.  As the levels get higher, the skills required get more difficult. Scores are given on a 0-10 scale for each movement during the test (0 being “not executed” and 10 being “excellent”).  Scores are based on the execution of the movements as well as the rider’s skills and the horse’s willingness.

dressage-score-sheetTests are judged against an ideal 100% score.  Ribbons are awarded for scoring highest against the ideal compared to the other riders in the class (which is why ribbons are not a good measure of a dressage rider’s skills).  Generally speaking, scores above 60% are good, above 65% are very good, and anything above 70% shows a solid proficiency of that level’s requirements.   The horse and rider combo can move up to the next level once they have consistently shown they can score at these percentages.  There are six lower levels: Introductory, Training, First, Second, Third, and Fourth. Above this is FEI (Federation Equestrian International) levels: Prix St. Georges, Intermediare I, Intermediare II, and Grand Prix.

The tests usually consist of the three main gaits (walk, trot, canter), and use shapes (like circles or serpentines) and lateral work (the horse moving sideways) to demonstrate the horse’s athletic ability. At the higher levels, new movements like pirouettes, passage, and piaffe are added to test the horse’s acrobatic skills.  Each test typically takes about 5-7 minutes to finish.  The show schedule starts early in the morning, usually with lower level riders starting earlier, though that often depends on the riders that have come to the show that day.  Scores and ribbons are distributed once every rider in each individual level class finishes the test.  It can often take an hour or more to get through all riders in a class.

Appreciating a Dressage Test
Dressage is a difficult sport to understand.  First, there aren’t any flashy jumps, or crazy races, so it can seem a bit…boring.  And to add to that trouble, good dressage should look effortless, which means you basically just watch a lovely but not particularly exciting example of a horse ride.  There are a lot of people who have said that dressage is like horse ballet, and while there are a number of things you can say against this comparison, it lends itself well to analogy in this case.


Arabesque–obviously difficult.

Dressage is meant to be an athletic and acrobatic exercise for horse and rider.  If done well, it looks streamlined and easy, with controlled and elegant angles, just like ballet.  Of course, the issue there in appreciating dressage is that most people don’t have the same reference point that they do for appreciating ballet.  If you see a prima ballerina smiling through a beautiful en pointe arabesque, you have a place to judge that movement.  You have trouble touching your toes, let alone standing on your big toe and sticking your leg out at a right angle to your body.  Even though she makes it look effortless, you know how much work that would take for you to do it, and so your appreciation of it comes naturally.

Passage--not so obviously difficult.

Passage–not so obviously difficult.

Dressage works similarly, but many people don’t have the background to understand exactly how difficult it can be to get a horse to willingly and quietly do some of the movements asked of them.  Most horses are capable of basic dressage moves, but it takes years, usually more than a decade, to get an FEI level horse, and they typically need to be exceptionally bred, trained, and ridden to get there.  While most horses you’ll see at competitions aren’t FEI level, don’t be fooled–many of those riders and horses have been working for years to get where they are, and it is DEFINITELY not as easy as it looks.

Becoming a Dressage Spectator
So, how can you support your loved one that’s riding a dressage test? First, be there.  This seems simple, but it means a lot to have a friend or family member (even they couldn’t care less about horses or dressage) cheering you on.  Showing up and being willing to endure a bit of horse mania and excitement is worth your weight in gold.  Bring snacks and something to read for the down time.

Next, get interested.  Find out which test they’ll be riding and spend a few minutes with some YouTube clips of the test being ridden.  You can just type in the test (“dressage training level test 2” for example yields about 28,000 results) and pick a couple to watch.  Then, you’ll have a little bit of background to go on and support your rider, and you’ll be less bored by all the horse stuff happening around you now that you kind of know what’s going on.

show crowd 2Finally, be prepared to soothe nerves and reinforce calm energy.  Riders get nervous and with a focus on perfection, the stress can be overwhelming.  And unfortunately, the nerves can infect the horses, who start to act up as well.  A show day is all about finding the calmness and keeping elegant, and a good support crew is always a part of that.

We hope to see you out supporting your Edgewood Equestrian rider this year at all our shows!

Special thanks to Haley Meadows Photography for many of the photos in today’s post.  A talented rider and photographer!  Check her out on Facebook.

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