Stable Solutions: Tips for Learning Courses, Patterns and Tests

March 2008
Just about any type of competition that you enter will have some classes where you have
to ride a specific pattern for the judge, and sometimes that pattern will include obstacles.

I talked to six experienced instructors in several different disciplines to find out how they helped their students to learn a pattern/course/test and then be able to perform it skillfully.

General Words of Advice

All of us learn things differently, and it’s important to know how you learn best. Marcia Kulak asks, “Are you a visual learner? Do you need to watch riders jump a course first before it’s your turn? Or does listening to instructions and then articulating them back help you best?”

Suzi Gornall says that, “Some of my students learn a dressage test by what to do at the letters and jump a course by following the numbers. Other students will learn their dressage test by remembering the patterns that they have to ride in the arena and learn their jumping course by the fence colors.” So as long as you can remember the “route,” learn it in whatever style is best for you.

Visualization is an important skill that will improve your performance in competition. Robert Johnson has mirrors in his indoor arena to help with this. “I want my students to understand what things are supposed to look like when they are done correctly. And then I want them to think about exactly what they are doing and what the horse is doing. After the lesson, they can ‘free practice’ their reining pattern over and over in their mind. This way, when they actually ride the pattern ‘for real’ at the show, it comes easily because they’ve done it before.”

Suzi advises students to visualize how they want to ride at the show. “This is especially helpful if it’s at a venue that they are familiar with so that they can picture exactly how the arena, the judge’s booth and the surroundings look,” she says.

Marcia works with her students at home to help them be able to patternize in general. “Too often I see riders just trotting aimlessly around the arena. It’s important to establish a good sense of planning and riding patterns at home. I want to see accurate geometry, like round circles of the appropriate size for their test and deep, balanced corners. Riders need to pay attention to their track so that they are actually controlling where the horse is going (and how) in a very precise manner.” These skills are clearly necessary in the show ring.

Similarly, Robert reminds his riders that they must “Learn how to practice perfect at home.” So don’t get in the habit of making transitions when you feel like it, but instead look ahead to find a “marker” (jump standard, specific fence post, etc.) for your transition. Set your horse up properly beforehand with half-halts and then make a smooth, balanced transition right on the mark.

When training at home, be sure to practice everything that you need to do at the show so that it becomes second nature. In general, most instructors want to have their students schooling at home at a level above what they will be showing. This way, at the show the dressage test will feel “easy” and the jumps will look “small.” This makes the riders relaxed and confident so that they are more likely to remember their pattern and ride it effectively.

It’s a good idea to practice full tests/courses at home. Maggie Jeffrey tells riders, “When you are schooling a test at home, never stop and start over (or partly over) if you have a bad movement. You have to learn to fix the situation as best you can and just keep on riding the test as if it were at a show.” Similarly, if you have an awkward jump in the middle of your course, just re-balance your horse and carry on. No do-overs!

You also need to learn how to remember things on the spot, as you might have to do if the judge decides to ask the top equitation riders for a “test” to determine the winner. After getting their students warmed up over a few fences, Cookie DeSimone, Sarah Summers and Suzi will often tell their students an entire course of 8-10 fences to jump next. The student must locate all of the jumps and repeat the course out loud to the instructor, and then ride the course in its entirety. After completing the course, they talk about what went well, and what went wrong, and why. Only then does the student repeat the “bad parts” and improve them.

Reining and Dressage Competitions

For these types of shows, riders have the advantage of knowing exactly what they have to do on their horse months before the show date. Show prize lists indicate which reining patterns and dressage tests will be used. (This includes the dressage phase at events.) It is critical that you memorize and ride the most recently written tests, as they are revised every few years.

When you start to study a test, it’s easiest to do so by sitting down with a clipboard containing a labeled arena diagram. Trace the test out with your finger as you initially read, and then eventually try to recall the movements and gaits.

Robert says that, “The eleven reining patterns are all about equal in difficulty and have the same required moves. Most of the patterns are symmetrical, meaning that you do the same things in both directions. What is different between the patterns is the location of the movements.”

Robert will have his beginner students practice the entire pattern as if they were in a show. However, more experienced students focus mainly on schooling the separate movements and rarely ride a full pattern. “I teach my students to have a ‘focal point’—something that they can look for in the ring that will jump-start their memory and get the game plan started off in the right direction. Nervous riders tend to forget their patterns, and if they can find their focal point in the arena, it will help them click back into reality.”

Like reining patterns, dressage tests often have sections that are mirror images of each other. This can be used as a memory tool—what you do to the left is followed by a change in direction, and then you do it to the right. Maggie says that this test design helps build equal muscling and suppleness in the horse.

After you have a basic idea of your test on paper, many riders find it helpful to do the test on their own two feet on the lawn or in the living room. Although you may feel a little silly trotting and cantering around like a child, it does give you a better feel for the flow of the test.

However, Marcia reminds riders that “Practicing on paper or on foot is not a replacement [for] riding in a real dressage arena. The geometry is very important, such as making your 20-meter circle round by touching four points. The judge is looking for accuracy in movements and transitions.”

Be sure to find out, in advance, if you will be doing your test in the small arena, which is 20m by 40m, or the standard (large) arena, which is 20m by 60m. It’s disconcerting to show in an arena that is not the same size as the one that you have practiced your test in.

If you do not have a dressage arena at your farm, it’s imperative that you trailer your horse to a farm that does have one. Not only do you need to get a feel for the size and how the movements fit in, but your horse needs to get used to working close to—but not stepping over!—that very tiny white fence or chain.

Once you have memorized your test(s), do practice them at home occasionally. Marcia says, “It will make both you and your horse feel comfortable with the test. If you are familiar with the routine, you are more likely to be successful and less likely to make errors.” That said, Maggie reminds riders not to drill their test over and over and over. “Once my horse and I are familiar with the test, I take it apart and practice the sections separately, and not necessarily in the test order.”

Now it’s show day, and it’s important to allow ample time for your warm-up. When you arrive at the schooling area, get your bit checked by the steward so that you don’t have to worry about it later on just before your ride time. Ask the steward if your ring is running on time, early or late, and time your work accordingly. You can volunteer to ride early, if that’s the case, but you are not required to.

Marcia plans her warm-up so that she has about 5-7 minutes for grooming touch-ups before it’s her turn to go. “I go over my test in my mind and visualize the ride just before I go in. As a general rule, if the rider is mentally relaxed and focused on the task at hand, he’s likely to ride well. If the rider is rushed, flustered or nervous, he’ll be more likely to forget the test or make other errors.”

It could happen that you enter at A, make a nice square halt, continue forward again towards the judge, and then blank out, thinking “Which way do I turn at C?” In order to avoid this problem, I always enter the arena at A by turning onto the centerline from the same direction that I will be turning at C. So if the test calls for “Proceed working trot, track right at C,” I will enter the arena with a right turn at A. Not only does that help me to remember which way to turn at C, but it also gets both me and my horse thinking “right bend” for the start of our test.

When Maggie is riding a test in the show ring, she says, “I think about the ‘next section’ of movements as I am about three-quarters done with the section that I am on. If I am riding multiple tests at a show, I just go over one test and ride it before reviewing the next test for my second ride.”

Competition Over Fences

Event riders have the opportunity to walk their cross-country and stadium jumping courses before they ride them. Competitors should plan to walk each one at least twice. Occasionally hunter/jumper show management will allow you to walk your courses, and competitors should definitely take advantage of this opportunity.

When walking cross-country, be sure to take a map! You don’t want to miss anything. Marcia says that on your first walk, “Find where the warm-up area and start box are. Then familiarize yourself with the course, finding all of the fences in numbered order and seeing where the track goes for your division. Be sure to read the notices on the jumps, such as ‘top log will be removed for Novice’ or ‘Preliminary #6 will be removed after that division is complete.’ The latter might affect the line that you choose to take to one of your jumps.

“For the second cross-country walk, try to go at the same time of day that you will be riding so that you can see what the lighting situation will be like. I expect riders to focus on HOW they will ride each obstacle—where will you set up your horse, what pace do you need, what line will you take, etc. It helps some riders to make notes for later reference.

“After the second walk, articulate the course out loud, saying what the jumps are and how you plan to ride them. The more you keep rehearsing this, the better. Just keep imagining exactly where you are going and how you are going to do it.” This mental prep may keep you awake in bed the night before cross-country, but it will give you the confidence to ride cross-country well.

Walk your stadium jumping course the same way, with the first walk for orientation (including in-gate, out-gate, start and finish flags, judge’s stand for your salute) and the second walk for planning how you will ride each fence. Be sure to check the course map posted by the in-gate for course alterations between divisions (such as “the triple combination will be changed to an in-and-out,” etc.).

Cross-country fences usually come with a name that helps you to remember them, but not so for fences in an arena. Cookie has her riders make up a name for each jump—diamond gate, roll top, blue oxer, red flowers. “The name should describe that jump in terms of type and/or color. Then I have my students repeat the jump names in order several times. The most important jumps to remember are the first two and the last two, and then the rest tends to fall into place.

“For some riders, it helps them to divide up the course by lines or sections—outside line, bending five-stride line, diagonal to skinny.” When riding over a given fence, Sarah reminds riders to “Pick a landmark to head for rather than just thinking ‘towards home’. This is a more accurate riding plan and it also helps keep the rider’s eyes focused up and ahead.”

If you blank out and forget where to go next, look quickly around you to see what makes sense. Remember that oxers are usually set up to be jumped from only one direction. And if you are on an event or jumper course, the fences will be numbered.

Cookie reminds riders, “Whether or not the fence has a number sign on it, you should know if fences that are close together are numbered separately (6, 7) or as a combination (6a, 6b). This will be important in case of a work-off test, jump-off or refusal.”

If the judge does ask the top riders to do an additional test, Sarah says, “The announcer will read the test at least twice. The first time, just listen so that you make sure to hear everything. Is there a trot or counter-canter fence? Is there a halt at the end? When the test is read the second time, that’s when you should look for the specific jumps that you are to do. If you know the entire course well and the numbers of the first, last and a middle jump, then you can ‘count up’ to whatever fence you need to do.”

Suzi has a reminder for riders in all disciplines: “Don’t let any of this scare you! Always equate your training at home with what you meet up with at the show. You and your horse have seen it before, and done it before, and you can do it again now!”

Sue Perry is a Certified Veterinary Technician and equine massage therapist. She lives in Upton, Mass., with three event horses and runs “Muscle Magic,” an equine massage service.

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