4 Areas Riders Lose Marks at Dressage Shows


It can be disappointing to ride what you felt was a good test at a show, and receive a score that doesn’t reflect your horse’s way of going. Sometimes, lower scores might be due to obvious mistakes or a lack of preparation for the show, and it’s always important to be objective about your ride for this reason.

Other times though, you’re right in thinking that you could have scored higher. In these instances, throwing away a few small marks here and there might be the difference between an average score and a good one. Or a good one and a great one!

Here are some of the most common places that riders lose marks in dressage tests, and how to avoid throwing those extra marks away.

The Halt

The halt is not going away. Not ever. You could be riding internationally and you’d still have to show two halts in each test, and that’s not even including the need for rein back in some tests. Even so, a huge percentage of riders don’t ever bother schooling it properly. So next time you’re out there working on improving your shoulder-in or trying to get your horse to reach his toes a little further in the medium trot, think about your halts.

The positive thing is that literally any horse, no matter the size or conformation, can do a good halt. Learning how to reliably ride into and out of a square and straight halt with fluidity and ease should be high on your list of priorities – if both of your 5 or 6 halts go to 7 or 8, you’ve already got a couple of extra percent in the bag.

horse and rider in square halt in dressage ring


It’s been said time and time again, but one type of mistake seen often at shows occurs when riders lose points due to a lack of accuracy. The nature of dressage shows mean that you’re judged on being able to execute things precisely. Your horse might be incredibly responsive and react to your aids as soon as you apply them, but that still won’t translate into good marks if you’re asking for your canter transition two strides after the marker or making your circles the wrong size. Unfortunately, the judges can only mark what they’re seeing in front of them.

To avoid throwing away marks due to a simple lack of accuracy, make sure that you know how big a 15m circle at R needs to be, or how large each loop of a serpentine should be, and ride accordingly. Ride your transitions or movements exactly at the marker (i.e. when your body is in line with the marker), even if this means you need to prepare five meters before!

Not Knowing Your Test Properly

Even if you have someone to read your test for you on the day of the show, it is imperative that you know your test inside out. Aside from the possibility of you actually having an error of course if your caller gets something wrong or doesn’t show up, relying on a test that is only 50% committed to memory will have a knock-on effect on your riding. 

If you’re thinking about the test rather than about the ride, you won’t be able to focus entirely on your horse and his way of going. Read it, recite it, write it down, draw it, walk it in your living room, ride it on more than one horse, run around the dressage arena on foot if needs be – but make sure that you know the test by heart. You’ll be grateful when it means you can fully focus on the quality of your horse’s work rather than on remembering what movement comes after the 10m circle. 

A Lack of Clear Transitions in the Medium Paces

This is a common error especially at the mid-levels of dressage. Either there’s no real difference shown in the upwards, or the transition from medium to working/collected isn’t shown clearly. The lack of a clear upward transition from working or collected trot/canter to medium is normally either because the horse is behind the leg and isn’t going into a medium trot or canter willingly, or takes too long to build to a good medium trot or canter. Even though the last 40% of the medium might be good in this case, there’s still no clear moment where the transition to medium has taken place, and this will be penalized. 

On the other side of things, a lack of clear downward transition is usually because the horse has been allowed to run onto the forehand and is out of balance, the horse is too strong, or the rider is trying to ride the downward transition on the hand instead of the seat. Occasionally, a behind-the-leg horse may also not show a good downward transition as they don’t maintain engagement into the downward and may break pace. 

Make sure to show a clear lengthened frame and stride with more reach, before riding with more energy into the downward transition. It is important to remember that the upward and downward transitions have to happen at the marker, so you need to prepare for these sufficiently. For more advice and information about transitions, read our guide here!


Keeping these tips in mind, you should be able to up your score by a few marks easily. Remember when you go to your next show to ride as accurately as you can and nail that halt! 

Are you guilty of any of these ‘thrown away’ marks? Or have you lost marks doing something else silly; like saluting with a whip in hand or using your voice accidentally? Let us know in the comments!

Leave your comment