Author’s Bio: This post is brought to you by Esther Morgan from Schneider’s Saddlery. Serving riders since 1948, Schneiders (sstack.com) is committed to offering value priced quality equestrian merchandise.
You’ve spent countless hours training, riding, and getting to know your horse inside and out. You spent days pouring over the tests and regulations and you finally feel like you’re ready for your first dressage show. This is new territory for you and your horse, so it’s natural to be a little nervous about deciding what to wear and how to fit in.
Finding an Event
If you haven’t done so already, it’s a great idea to join your local dressage organization. The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) provides a list of Group Member Organizations (GMO), along with helpful guides about what tests you can expect to perform at their competitions. Joining an organization will gain you access to the competitions in your area. Be sure to send your entry forms and fees in early so that if you miss anything, you have time to resubmit it before the deadline.
A dressage show will often feature several levels of tests, so be sure to consult your trainer so that they can recommend the best tests for you to compete in. A good rule of thumb for your first dressage show outing is to choose to compete at a level below what you’re used to riding at home.
Remember, the goal here is to get your feet wet in dressage and get your horse used to being in a dressage arena. Don’t push yourself to compete in everything. Two or three tests over the course of the show should be more than enough for your first outing.
Dress to Impress
The dressage dress code is all about conservative attire. Your formal wear will take the focus off of you and allow your horse to shine. The appropriate attire is listed in the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) rule book, but here are the basics to know for your first dressage show:
Headgear: Your hair has to be neat, either contained under the helmet, in a hairnet, or fashioned into a bun. Your helmet should be ASTM/SEI certified, conservative, and dark in color. If your current helmet has a little more personality, you can use a dark helmet cover to have it adhere to the rules.
Coat: Look for a black or navy dressage coat. A quality coat will help to minimize any imperfections in the rest of your outfit, so don’t be afraid to spend a little more to get something that makes you shine.
Shirt: Wear a clean white competition shirt, of which there are several materials that have sweat wicking properties and UV protection. A basic white stock tie is required; you can get them already tied or tie them yourself.
Gloves: The dress code for gloves will change depending on the regional regulations and riding level. Check with your trainer or local riders to find what is appropriate, but typically white gloves are used.
Breeches: Either white or light color breeches (jodhpurs are allowed on young children). If your breeches have loops for a belt, pick out something conservative. While not an official part of the dress code, it shows a desirable attention to detail.
Footwear: Choose tall black boots made specifically for dressage that are available in pull-on or zipper styles.
In addition to the required dress code items, there are a few things you should consider bringing along. A clear rain coat and waterproof helmet cover are inexpensive ways to protect your pristine clothing in the event of rain. You’ll also want to remember extra hair nets (if required), safety pins, and conservative earrings.
Preparing Your Horse
If your horse is due for a clipping, you’ll want to have it done a few days to a week in advance to allow any mistakes or rough lines time to grow out. While some events may have grooming stalls, space might be limited so you’ll want to make sure your horse is clean and show ready before you arrive. If you’re not comfortable braiding their mane yourself, be sure to find and schedule someone in advance, as braiders will likely be quite busy the day of the event.
The tack your horse should wear is tightly regulated, so you’ll want to make sure you have it ready well before the event. Take the time to polish everything and make sure any worn pieces are replaced. Your horse should look just as good, or better, than you do. Consult the USEF rule book for lists of all currently accepted tack, but some of the basics include:
Saddle: An English saddle is required, and a Dressage saddle is preferred. A white pad is ideal.
Bridle: For training through second level tests, you’ll want a basic, unornamented snaffle bridle.
Bits: Permitted bits are strictly regulated and your bit will probably be checked by officials after each test you compete in. The number of permitted bits has increased in recent years, but it is always important to check the most recent USEF rule book to find the most up to date list of permitted bits. Bit guards are not allowed.
Other equipment: Whips and spurs are allowed, but strictly regulated, be sure to consult the USEF rule book. Horses are not allowed to wear boots or wraps during competition. Ear plugs, nose covers, or any other equipment is not permitted as well.
Traveling to the Show
Pack anything you think you might need but don’t go overboard. Your tack should be clean and spotless as should your grooming materials. Make sure you bring your whip and spurs even if you don’t think you’ll need them. Even though your equipment should already be spotless, be sure to bring along cleaning materials and a patch kit for any last minute preparation.
Don’t forget to bring along a test booklet. The information is available for free online, but you can also download the official tests and rules in the app store (iOS or Android) if you want quicker access to it.
Arrive at the show as early as possible and remember to bring help. It might be tempting to go in alone but you’ll want at least one other person with you to help you set up and keep the calm. Your horse is likely to be on high alert once you unload so spend some time with them to get them relaxed. Get the hay net set up to give your horse something to do while you, or your helper, head to the show office to sign in, get your number, and ride times.
This also allows you the opportunity to take a look around and figure out where everything is and understand the rules regarding where you’re allowed and what areas to avoid. Observe others riding their test and remember to stay quiet and avoid undue movements during the ride. Of course, clapping and well wishes are fine once the ride has completed!
Wear loose clothing, or your rainwear, over your show clothes to keep them clean and try to avoid puddles and muddy areas as much as possible. Find the rings in which you’ll be riding your tests and find the practice areas. Keep in mind that those who are about to ride a test have priority in the practice areas and they’re likely to be very busy.
If you need to lunge your horse, find out where the appropriate areas are and do not use the practice ring. Even if your horse is friendly, be mindful of other riders and give them plenty of room.
Be friendly to other riders, but don’t be offended if someone doesn’t respond or respond well. Chances are good they’re just as nervous as you are and are very focused on their own horse and the test they’re about to ride. If you see someone that appears to need help, ask first. They may have the situation under control, even if it doesn’t look like it. To that end, keep your hands to yourself. Many people prefer that others don’t touch their horses or give them treats. Again, ask first and respect the owner, rider, trainer, groomer, or helper’s wishes.
By the same token, decide what is best for your own horse and be respectful when others approach. Some may not ask so be firm but polite in turning down treat offerings or attempts at petting if that’s not what you want.
You know your horse best but you’ll want to get tacked and ready at least thirty minutes or more prior to your first test. While you may be warmed up well within that time, the extra minutes can be spent watching and letting your horse observe the organized chaos around you. Just don’t be out there too early as that can increase the jitters and nerves if you have to wait too long.
Your helper is invaluable at this point! He or she should have a bottle of water, fly spray, the test booklet and a few clean towels to wipe down your boots, tack, and horse prior to entering the ring. Even if you know your tests, you’ll want a reader (preferably your helper). Remember, there is to be no verbal communication between you (or your helper) and your horse during your ride.
Once your test is done, leave the ring on a long rein and praise your horse even if you think you didn’t do well. It’s a nice gesture to walk past the judge’s stand and offer a quick thank you but don’t stop and try to have a chat. Just because your ride is over doesn’t mean their job is! Once you’re done for the day, give your horse a good rubdown and a treat (even if it’s just grazing on a nice patch of grass) for being such a trooper.
Congratulations! You’ve survived your first dressage show. If you and your horse are dressed for the event, respectful of others and confident, no one will even have to know it’s your first dressage show.
Above all, have fun, enjoy your horse, and get ready for your next outing!
Note from Susan: Photo credit to Bob Haarmans for Lamplight Dressage image via fotor.com.
Special thank you to Jodi from the blog Racing to Ride for sharing her lovely show picture on her chestnut.
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