Directive Dressage: Test Riding Tips

I was reading my issue of Dressage Today and came upon an article about test riding with three world class judges.  Of the ones that they spoke about in the article the idea of ‘riding the directive ideas’ struck me as particularly meaningful since these are the exact things that the judges is looking for and scoring on.

Unanimously, the judges agreed that if a rider meet the ideals presented they would score higher and, lets face it, we all want to score higher (eventers aside 😉 ).

As a loyal devotee to Whinny Widgets I was momentarily confounded when I flipped open my book of tests and found nothing called the ‘directive ideas’.


Remembering that Whinny Widgets are for quick reference, not in depth study, I popped on over to the USEF and USDF websites to download and print off copies of each of the four tests that I needed for this year’s show season: First Level 3, Second Level 1, Second Level 3, and First Level Rider.

USEF- Training through Fourth Level and Rider Tests

USDF- Intro, Freestyle, and Group Tests

Since I’m hoping to qualify for Regional Championships at First Level lets breakdown test 3 to see what the directive ideas are really looking for and what I should be focusing on, especially in the new movements: 10m Trot circles, changes of lead through trot, and counter canter.  Technically the halt in the middle of the test is new but I should have a square halt already in my bag of tricks since we need 2 every test.

directive, dressage, test, riding, tips, lower, levels, horse, team, sea, star, equestrian, cecelia, conway




10 Meter Trot Circles

The two ten meter trot circles occur during movements 6 and 8, about a third of the way into the test, and the directive idea reads “regularity and quality of the trot; shape and size of circle; bend; balance.”

This seems fairly straightforward since it address the basics of the training scale and the stated purpose for first level.

First Level Purpose: To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and thoroughness and to maintain a more consistent contact with the bit.

If you look at the larger circles included in every test before this one you’ll see fairly similar ideas emphasizing quality of gait, quality of geometry, and bend/balance.

Change of Lead Through Trot

The change of lead through trot, over X, is movement 16 in Test 3: MXK Change Rein, X Change of Lead Through Trot.

The directive idea is, “willing, calm transitions; regularity and quality of gaits; straightness.”

In the article the judges specifically pointed out that they were looking for a centered transition over X and that there should be approximately four distinct trot strides. They also pointed out that the downward transitions in the lower levels universally needed improvement.

So working backwards through the directive idea I should focus on maintaining straightness (since this is a change of rein) and maintaining the quality of the canter in both leads and having a distinct working trot with the transitions being calm and well prepared so that they appear willing.

I know the biggest problem I’ve had while schooling is the downward transition, which tends to become runny and uncollected.  Since I also usually get bounced around a bit the quality definitively declines and the willingness runs out the arena.

So if I want to impress the judges and stand out from the competition this is something that I definitely need to keep practicing.

Counter Canter

Last but not least is the counter canter as part of the canter loops in movements 15 and 20.

dressage loop

**Double Coefficient Alert!!**

The directive states, “regularity and quality of canter; shape and size of loop; positioning; balance.”

Remember that the trot loops, which first appeared back in Training Level Test 3, are meant to highlight changes of bend.  I’m assuming, since it’s not specifically stated, that the canter loop has the same purpose.

I struggled mightily with this movement at a trot, usually zipping over X with no distinct stride of straightness, so I wasn’t surprised when I had issues at a canter as well. Bubba, Le Handy Horse de Comfortable,  would rather pop in a lead change at X than do the harder work of maintaining his counter canter for all of the 4-6 strides it’ll take to get us back to the wall.  Me being me, usually doesn’t think fast enough to catch him before it happens.

What made a difference in my approach was thinking about it not in terms of making a loopy line through the arena but in showing off our changes of bend by starting a stride after the first letter and really moving forward until a stride before X where I would straighten and reverse the process, straightening a stride before the last letter on the line.  This gave me a little less room to screw around and it helped reinforce in my mind the need to make an actual change, the kind a judge could see and score.

Getting the idea?

I would go on but I want you to practice for yourself.  Print off your tests, get a pen and paper, and sit down someplace quiet.  Practice writing the directive ideas into the movements for each test you’re going to need.

And yes I need you to physically write it down.  The act of slowing your mind down, focusing on your task, and linking the ideas to a physical action will help cement them in your mind. If you need a little more help, teach it to someone.  Research has proven that teaching is one of the best ways to plant ideas in the teacher’s head for the long haul.

Here’s an example of a rewritten movement.

First Level Test 3, Movement One:

-Test: A Enter Working trot, X Halt, salute, Proceed Working Trot

-Directive Idea: Regularity and quality of trot; willing, calm transitions; straight, attentive halt; immobile (min. 3 seconds)

-Test/Directive Idea Blend:

  • A: Enter in a Straight Working Trot down the center line (Emphasis on the Quality and Regularity of the trot)
  • X: Halt and Salute with a calm transition downwards, squarely centered at X for at LEAST 3 seconds remaining attentive while not squirming from side to side (sorry, my coach’s voice butted in on that last part)
  • Proceed Working Trot straight toward C, stare at the judge, but not too long, that’s weird.

Did some of those things sound familiar?

If you break down Test 3 you’ll see that EVERY SINGLE MOVEMENT’s directive idea yells quality and regularity  of the gait as one of the main judging points so focus your schooling on the gaits, develop the gaits, improve the gaits, love the gaits.

That’s what dressage is isn’t it?



For the beautiful images many thanks go to:

Dimitar Hristov