FAQ Riding

7 Ways to Wow Judges & Improve Your Dressage Scores

Stephany Fish Dressage Halt

Every Percentage Point Counts

“How can I improve my dressage score?” This age-old question that has plagued riders of all levels for decades, and there’s no shortage of advice tossed around.

While some people will tell you to simply “buy a fancier horse,” the reality is that if you had the means to do that, you probably already would have.

So what are more productive and practical ways to boost your dressage score?

  1. Master Your Geometry
  2. Practice “Non-Movement” Movements
  3. School Transitions Within Gaits
  4. Breathe and Relax
  5. Ride the Right Level
  6. Take Lessons
  7. Know Your Test

This article helps you focus on low-hanging fruit other riders ignore and bring your best performance to the dressage arena.

1. Master Your Geometry

Understanding the geometry of a dressage arena — and of each figure within the test — is the foundation of a top score.

While the judge’s expectations of what a “good corner” looks like differs from Training to Second Level (and above), all riders are expected to execute each movement with accuracy and precision.

Focus on these easy wins:

  1. Go down the centerline straight — without wavering — especially as you go in and out of the halt.
  2. Show a visible difference between your corners and your circles.
  3. Use your diagonals appropriately by leaving the rail slightly before the departure letter and returning slightly before the arrival letter. (This helps you prepare for the movement after the diagonal, whatever it may be.)
  4. KNOW THE SIZE OF YOUR CIRCLE! Judges dread the “squircle,” a square/wavy/oval that’s wildly inconsistent.
  5. Be precise about where each movement starts and stops so that you don’t look like you accidentally missed the mark.

Check out this video about the geometry of circles to see what I mean:


Less experienced riders with less fancy horses often out-score seasoned competitors on expensive mounts simply by being precise and accurate about each movement.

New to the sport? Check out our 27-Page Horse Rookie’s Guide to Dressage.

2. Practice “Non-Movement” Movements

It’s easy to get frustrated if your horse doesn’t have natural Grand Prix movement. Most dressage horses don’t move like Totilas, and that’s okay. 

If your horse is a bit stiff, short strided, or lacks natural suspension, don’t throw in the towel.

Instead, work on improving your scores on the specific test movements that don’t depend on “natural brilliance.”

Focus on developing your:  

  • Square, crisp halt: This movement it is seen at least twice in every dressage test, and it has its own score. Nail this move, and you’ll help offset potentially lower collective marks for things like gaits.
  • Rein back: Even if it isn’t yet part of your level’s test, schooling your rein back will help improve a lot of other maneuvers. It’s a great way to test your horse’s suppleness, straightness, and obedience.
  • Turn on the haunches: While it might be in tests above your current level, developing this movement helps you school shoulder control, leg aid responsiveness, and “load” weight on the haunches. All of these benefits will improve the rest of your test. 

Most of all, try to focus on your horse’s unique strengths and how you can showcase them to the judges. Every horse has something special to offer. 

dressage halt

Source: Emily Harris

online horse courses

3. School Transitions Within Gaits

From Training Level onward, the walk movements all have a double coefficient (i.e. they count double).

Hey, judges, are you trying to tell us something?

The walk has a tremendous effect on your score, so give it the training time and attention it deserves.

Work on improving not only the free walk, but also the transitions in and out of the free walk. Many potentially high free walk scores have been lowered thanks to a sloppy transition back to working walk.

This video shows different types of walks:

The same lesson holds true with the “stretchy trot circle” — it’s a double coefficient for a reason!

Practice getting the horse to stretch into the rein in the trot circle. But don’t forget to polish your transitions in and out of the circle with suppleness and grace.

4. Prioritize Relaxation

I’ve had many clients who rode, shall we say, average movers — yet they consistently scored in the low 70s thanks to harmony and relaxation.

Working your horse regularly, practicing all the movements that you’ll need to perform, and improving your mount’s strength and confidence help develop a more harmonious pair.

Harmony is something that judges LOVE to see!

Stephany Fish Dressage Happy

Putting human-horse harmony on display helps raise your score!

Consider what particular things make you (and your horse) tense. Then work diligently to improve the reaction to those things through practice and mindfulness.

When it comes time to compete, you and your horse will know how to deal with the environment (and your own nerves) so you can perform at your best in the test.

New to the sport? Check out our 27-Page Horse Rookie’s Guide to Dressage.

5. Ride the Right Level

This is a tough one, and sometimes it’s a heartbreaker — ride the level at which you and your horse are competent.

The truth of the matter is that it’s HARD to advance beyond Training Level.

Training Level is hard. It is one of the most fundamental levels we have in our discipline, so perfecting it can take a long time.

Don’t fret about staying at Training Level, or First Level (or whatever level you’re at) until you’re truly ready to advance. Oftentimes, that means training at a Level above where you compete. 

Dressage is about the journey — not the arrival.

6. Take Lessons

Taking lessons really CAN help you improve your scores, as long as your trainer is the right fit for you and your horse. 

Take as many lessons as you can — and make the most of every moment.

If you love to compete, but your scores aren’t showing it, you likely need more lessons — not more shows.

See the types of movements I practice in my lessons (and those with my students):

Make sure you ride through full tests with your trainer from time to time (vs. separate movements out of context). This helps you get valuable feedback about how you perform in a “real life scenario” without the pressure of competition.

Don’t get me wrong; you should still compete, as every show is an opportunity to practice and improve. Just remember that it’s your practice at home that helps you succeed as a team in the show ring.

7. KNOW YOUR TEST!

I cannot stress enough how important it is to know your test forwards and backwards, especially to achieve relaxation and harmony from tip #4.

Being confident about what happens when within your dressage test is imperative. 

When you know your test, it can feel like you’re riding a fun little scavenger hunt. Your accurate 20 meter trot circle leads you to the engaged canter depart, and that excellent leg yield leads you to the balanced 10 meter circle. You get the idea.

Here’s a Grand Prix rider talking about how she learns her tests:

Dressage tests are designed to help you succeed. (I promise!) So pay attention, understand why movements connect the way they do, and it’ll be much easier to remember where you are going.

Remember, it’s fine to have another person call (i.e. read) your test at the show. But don’t rely solely on someone else to tell you what to do next.

online horse courses

It’s All About the Journey

It’s easy to become obsessed with your scoresheet instead of appreciating all the progress reflected within.

We ride for the love of horses, so enjoy the journey!

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:

Love it? Share it!

About the author

mm

Stephany Fish Crossman

Stephany Fish Crossman blends years of classical dressage training and a deep knowledge of biomechanics to produce horse and rider partnerships that are confident, competitive, athletic, and happy to do their jobs day-in, day-out. She runs Serendipity Dressage from her home in Brooksville, Florida.