Preparing To Ride An Accurate Dressage Test with Bert Sheffield 

Bert Sheffield and Fairuza at Bishop Burton CPEDI3 2018.

Preparing To Ride An Accurate Dressage Test with Bert Sheffield 

Preparing to ride an accurate dressage test? In this article, HorseHage-sponsored para-equestrian rider, Roberta (Bert) Sheffield, explains the importance of preparing to ride an accurate dressage test. Bert rides for Canada but is based over here in the UK and represented Canada at the Rio Paralympics in 2016 and at two World Equestrian Games in 2014 and 2018. She has also had several successes in international para competitions and is currently working towards being selected with her horse, Fairuza (known as Wonky at home), for Tokyo 2020.

“The great paradox of the dressage test – if nothing else, be accurate, that said, accuracy isn’t everything!”

“To ride a good test at Intro, Prelim or Novice level you need to achieve a balance between the first three scales of training – rhythm, suppleness/relaxation and contact/balance – and accuracy.

“This starts first of all with the test sheet. You need to know the directives of the test as well as the geometry. These tell you what the judge is looking for and marking in each movement. This is where learning the test by watching other riders performing it on YouTube falls down.


“It also helps if you can make sense of the test choreography – how one movement sets you up for the next. Understanding this logical progression through the test helps with riding it fluently.

“I don’t learn my tests as a series of commands as they are written on the sheet either – they always have a pattern of fairly symmetrical movements. I find using meaningful words and chunking together movements that help each other gives the choreography more sticking power in the mind. For example, one of international level Para tests I perform starts ‘centreline, squiggle, medium’.

“Now for the preparations you need to be doing in your daily training to be really nailing that accuracy and making the judges crack out the higher marks:

• In your daily riding and training you can create habits that will make your life a thousand times easier in the competition arena. Practice riding precisely to a line and to markers so you have control of your horse’s lateral balance as a habit. If you and your horse are in the habit of drifting about merrily, suddenly having to be on point feels very restrictive. You’ll also get in the habit of looking up and around you, planning ahead.

Learn the geometry of the arena; most arenas are marked out with 4m white boards so these give you extra clues as where you should be. Most indoor arenas have 6m intervals between the supporting metal uprights.

Work out how best to ride corners with your horse, in each pace, based on his suppleness, balance and stride length. You want to go as deep into the corner as you can without affecting the rhythm or losing his balance. There’s no benefit from going so deep into the corner that the fluency and harmony is compromised.




Bert With Wonky (Credit: Rich Neale)
Bert With Wonky (Credit: Rich Neale)

“Most horses at Intro/Prelim level can manage corners as a quarter of a 10m circle. At Novice level you want to be aiming for quarter of an 8m circle in walk and trot (this means you leave the track for the corner turn one board length from the apex) and maybe be slightly more generous in canter. You want your horse to be able to come into the corner with slight bend and to leave the corner straight and positively.

“Remember that the quarter markers are a misnomer, they are placed at 6m from the short side, not 10m so 20 m circles must not touch them. The judge will be looking for you to clearly meet the track 3 – 4m beyond K/H/M/F for one stride.

“One the hardest movements I find for the less experienced competition rider is the 20m circle from E or B. This only touches the track twice, so the rider is ‘loose’ in space in the middle of the arena. Most initially ride this figure way too shallow. It is a good idea to practice with it marked out on the floor with cones. You cross the centreline 10m from A and C (in a short arena, 2m short of the centreline markers I and L in the long arena) which feels remarkably big. I use the 4m long boards on the other side to find that point 10m from the short side as I cross the centreline.

“Try to ride a slightly flattened half 10m circle to the centreline rather than turn-straight-turn to avoid overshooting.”

“Turns onto the centreline are tricky as the judge can see any balance or steering mishap. Try to ride a slightly flattened half 10m circle to the centreline rather than turn-straight-turn to avoid overshooting. It’s better to ‘slide’ to the centreline than to have to come back to it.

“The dreaded two half 10m circles to change the rein take a little bit of technique too, as you need at least one straight stride on the centreline before starting the second half circle. I usually aim to ride the first half circle a touch deep to give me a little bit more room and then eyeball the judge as I’m turning to the centreline to highlight my straightness.

“Now you have the geometry sharp, it’s time to look at the placement of the transitions. Often in the lower level tests these are between two markers so the rider can, within reason, choose their best stride to get a good transition. It looks lovely if you can do the transition smack bang in the middle but don’t worry if you can’t – use the space to prepare as best you can.

“It’s helpful if you know in advance how many metres it takes for you to balance your horse and have his attention before a transition. Bear in mind, though, that in the distracting atmosphere of a show, this distance may increase quite a lot. The better your horse’s way of going and his throughness to the aids, the less this will be an issue. However, with experience, most horses get more responsive.

Bert riding Wonky at home in Lincolnshire
Bert riding Wonky at home in Lincolnshire

“Spooking is the enemy of accuracy and scuppers the best laid plans! If you have a spooky horse it can feel like an uphill battle. The more relaxation, trust, experience and confidence you can develop in your horse, the easier it will be to stay on your planned line. Don’t be disheartened and tense yourself, just let the spook go, get stuck back into your test. It may sound a little odd but practise keeping your eyes soft and using peripheral vision rather than sharp focus. This can really help with a spooky horse.

“One final thing, when it’s all said and done, try not to overthink the accuracy. You want to be relaxed, consistently balanced and fluently, rhythmically forward.”

For further information from Bert’s sponsor, HorseHage, on feeding your horse or pony, please call the HorseHage Helpline on 01803 527257 or visit

Header Image; Bert and Fairuza at Bishop Burton CPEDI3 2018.

You may also like to read

Related posts