More Talk About Eventing Dressage

Hold on to your face, my friend. We're wading back into the deep end.
My post last week seems to have touched off a lot of conversation about the dressage aspect of eventing. While I was ranting about a few things in a rather disjointed fashion, I think it would be interesting to explore of the the ideas my post brought up.

Just a notice, though. I grew up eventing, but have not actively competed in the sport in many years. In the meantime, my experience has been restricted to spectating and working many recognized and schooling events in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. My thoughts are based on my observations and experiences, but I think they are interesting topics of conversation.

I'd also like to address an issue with my previous post. I do not think eventing dressage needs to necessarily become "harder" or weighted more. Instead I was merely suggesting it better reflect the training the level is supposed to be asking of the horse and rider. Eventing dressage never needs to be as collected, supple or obedient as pure dressage. That is counter to the needs of the sport. I am not suggesting that eventing horses all need to be doing upper level dressage, or even demonstrating collection. There is a time and place for those things, and that's fine.
Pictured: Dressage side eye champion.
Okay, that out of the way, let's look at some thoughts I have on this topic:

1. The type of horse typically successful in eventing tends to do better with a more complicated flatwork pattern. (Please note, more complicated does not mean more difficult.) Hotter or more intelligent horses typically enjoy being 'kept busy' when in the ring. Frequent changes of direction, changes of bend, or  transitions help keep their attention and create a more supple and forward thinking horse.

With this in mind, are dressage tests written more simply to be more difficult for your average eventing horse? Or should they include more changes of direction or transitions? Keep in mind that the Intro tests have transitions that come up much quicker than transitions within Novice A/B. It's not as if adding in a few more transitions would increase the supposed difficulty of a test. Some additions of transitions or changes of direction might encourage more active forward and accepting horses, and more engagement from riders overall. What do you think?

2. Eventing dressage tests lack a purpose, unlike all USEF dressage tests. A purpose statement in a pure dressage test indicates the training being emphasized in the test. It gives guidelines for how much the horse should be expected to accept the bit, or show bend or collection. Basically, the purpose of a dressage test gives the baseline for what is being evaluated in the test movements.

As these purpose statements are lacking from the eventing tests, I find the expectations for judges and riders to be much more unclear. I wonder if this leads to inconsistency in scoring? Or to a lack to a lack of focus in rider and horse development when it comes to this phase? It definitely makes things difficult to evaluate how the tests relate to each level.
Warm up ring at Surefire Farm during Prelim/Intermediate dressage warm up. Nearly every horse in this shot is behind the vertical in some capacity.
3. Eventing judges do not seem to consistently penalize backwards riding. This is obviously just an observation of mine, but it's a widespread observation. From schooling shows, to national and FEI events, I observe a large portion of riders who have quiet tests on horses who are behind the vertical, downhill, and lacking impulsion. Judges in eventing seem to be more willing to reward a quiet test delivered by a horse evading the bit than they are a test where a horse comes above the bit.
Those eventers aren't alone. I also struggle with a backwards riding.
Now, having scribed for my fair share of events, I know that judges are not all like this. Some of it seems to be built into the way eventing teaches and values specific qualities in dressage (see my above point about purpose statements). I find it odd that a sport valuing a forward and bold jumping horse rewards so much backwards riding in the first phase of the discipline. I can't imagine that backwards flatwork translates to good jumping efforts. In addition, I've often noticed those backwards seeming horses warm up forward and into the bit in jumping. How does that work?

I wonder if the community took a look at how dressage is judged in eventing, and why backwards riding isn't penalized higher if that would help the jumping phases. Some people mentioned in my previous post that a higher emphasis on dressage resulted in the sport becoming less safe. Is this because the dressage being rewarded was backwards and discouraged a more forward horse who accepted the bit? Or was it for other reasons?
I can assure you that behind the vertical is scored much lower in pure dressage than a horse who occasionally pops above the bit to evade. That's how the judging is dictated those scores are awarded. It's weird to me that eventers can't point to why their tests are scored in the way they are done.
4. Correctly ridden average movers are what is most consistently successful at the international level in the sport as a whole. Think Michael Jung's horses, Ingrid Klimke's horses, William Fox Pitt's, Lauren Kieffer's. Many of the more extravagant movers are behind the vertical or more inconsistent in the contact. Acceptance and correct riding seems to relate to more honest and forward jumping efforts as well.

With this in mind, should the tests be written in a way to encourage this sort of riding? Should the sport educate its average rider on what a good test looks like, rather than emphasizing extravagant movers? Is the overall education in the sport when it comes to what correct and forward flatwork looks like as well as how it applies to jumping lacking? What does this education look like in your area?
Bast says he could use more education. Me too, haha.
I don't have the answers to the questions I am putting down here. In fact, I don't think anyone has "the answers." However, I think it's in the best interest of every sport to continue to evaluate itself and for those who ride and work with the sport to question the governing bodies on whether things could be improved. This is a fascinating topic to me, and clearly something many people have feelings about. Let's discuss!


  1. I wish I had gotten time stamps on the badminton dressage commentary, because they actually discussed this A LOT at various points during the two days of testing. They talked about how horses should be expected to do flying lead changes, adjust from extended canter to collected canter, and honestly just be supple to safely and successfully navigate the jumping phases. They also said some shit that pissed me off, about the horses 'head being in the right place' because it was down. That's not dressage.

    At the lower levels I often see 'fancier' horses winning even though they're really obviously not through. And the scoring really wildly vacillates between judges. I've had scores from in the 20's (THANKS BOYD LOL) to the high 40's with the same horse over one show season.

    Mostly I wish they'd reward horses being slighty above the bit more than those that just have their heads down. And I wish they'd make the novice test more rigorous.

    1. This, lol! I feel like this is all I'm saying.

  2. I can't even wrap my head around why a higher emphasis on dressage would make the sport less safe. That makes zero sense in any capacity.

    1. I can see how training a horse not to think for itself as much might make the rest of the sport less safe, but at the same time ... I think that's just a result of bad dressage training. I've never wanted my dressage horses to be robots. Pig was very much encouraged (or more like he demanded the ability) to speak his mind.

  3. 1. Definitely agree that a more complicated pattern helps supple my horse. Even if you're just trotting, doing it on a circle or serpentine sets everyone up for success.

    2. Adding a purpose would be so easy and I know I use them myself when I'm deciding whether to tackle a new level.

    3/4. I think it's really interesting to watch a non-dressage rider once you ask them to do dressage. I've seen time and time again a loose and happy horse become tense and stuck. It's 100% because the rider thinks backwards and is focused on keeping the horse's head down rather than good feel. It's so frustrating and comes back to a lack of understanding what dressage is all about. Adding the purpose to dressage tests would be a good start, but I'm not sure what it would take to overhaul the basic understanding.

    1. Omg your last point is so valid. I don't know either, but I wish I did. Having come from an instruction background that came from eventing trainers who taught all three, not separate trainers for each part of the sport, I had a lot of bad habits and thought processes to try to break. I'm still working on breaking some of my early habits. Maybe we focus more on instructing "dressage"?

    2. I also come from a "fake" dressage background where I was focused on the head and a pretty picture rather than the actual biomechanics. Thankfully I finally got some instructors who showed me the light.

      I definitely think an actual dressage instructor would do wonders. But it would have to be consistent and not just once every six months or before a show or two.

  4. I honestly have no answers but I think your questions are valid

  5. Agree a more "busy" test would benefit the hotter horses, but you know riders would complain it's too hard to memorize!

    1. That's hilarious to me, because I find I forget the test the longer I just trot around aimlessly. HAHA

  6. Ugh, the backwards riding....
    For many I think the dressage is the dreaded necessity that has to be done before the exciting stuff and they have a just get through it mentality. It takes time to develop the feel of a horse being through, and when you have three phases to try to fit into your schedule to school, chances are the one that you like the least will fall by the wayside. Dressage is much easier and less dangerous to "fake" than cross-country!


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