I love dressage tests. It's the Type-A, German Dressage Queen in me: I love the patterns, the repetition, the details. Prepare, allow, push, gather. Over and over. It's a beautiful thing, horse and rider and pattern, the breath before each movement, the power of expanded gaits, the crisp transitions, the sigh after final salute.
When I can't sleep, which is often, I run through tests. Not just A enter, X halt. I think about the feel of the reins in my hands, the twitch of a calf muscle, the quiet hold in my core that makes the distinction between collected and medium paces, piaffe and passage, canter and halt. One of my favorite tests is the Young Rider Grand Prix test, because if you can get through that without crying or setting your hair on fire, you can do pretty much anything.
I dream of taking Ella around the ring. I prefer to go around the ring at canter—I've always been a canter person. It's the gait that feels the most organic to me. I pause at C, tell the judge, “Good morning and number 216, thank you.” I proceed around, hear the bell, and make one more big half-halt as I round the corner.
"Stay with me, Princess," I whisper. "Here we go."
A enter, collected canter. Right lead—we have to turn right at C, and I can keep an eye on that sometimes—slow right hind leg better this way. Out of the corner of my eye, we pass L. Three strides out, gather, gather, leg on, allow. A halt like breathing, not like an anchor being dropped off the back of the ship. Reins in one hand, arm down and back, palm flat. Nod, but keeping eye contact with C. Hang on to your socks—this is going to make your day.
Light seat, a flick of leg. Like a pounce, crisp and precise. Energy, tempo. C, track right. A little right flexion in the corner, watch the right hind. Coil, turn, spring—stay up in my body, fingers around the reins but not pulling, just enough to keep a boundary so Ella can't take off on her front legs. Not driving, just releasing the energy we built up in the turn. Allowing the extension, not creating. Giving permission.
A moment of rebalance at X—in schooling, I always ride come back to collection over X for a few strides in the extensions, so she doesn't get away from me. Here in the test, it's autopilot; she half-halts herself. I close my calf one electron more, and her hind leg gets a second wind. The transition back is like putting the spring back in the box, back to front. More uphill. Give in the corner. Turn.
A, down centerline. Four half-passes of 5 meters, beginning to the left, ending to the right. Flexion, balance, go. Straighten, new flexion, rebalance go. Rinse, repeat. A moment of perfect straightness at the end. Then flexion; C, track right.
The passage is coming. Use this corner, especially since it's a right turn. You there, right hind leg? Come along—I want you under in the first step. Watch the timing; ask as the left front is about to come forward. Sit, hard. Now. Good girl. Turn right, a half 10-meter circle. Right hind, right hind, right hind. Gather. Gather. Sit light. Lighter. Rhythm. Piaffe, 8-10 steps. One, two, quick, quick. Can I risk giving a stride, make the neck one bit longer? Ahh. Good girl. Seven. Eight. Sitting. More. Bigger. Rhythm. Out. Turn left. Where's my right hind? Good girl. Straight.
Medium trot from the passage. Rhythm. Rhythm. Elasticity. Carriage. Rhythm. Bring the spring back. Rhythm. Clarity. No pulling. Another right turn. This is a nice test for Ella—lots of right turns. Gather again for the piaffe. Rhythm, quick, under. Expression. Giving. Allow the neck to grow, a little up, mostly out. Sit, sit, out. Right turn.
Walk. Hmm, tricky for Ella, who likes to get tight. Err a little to free walk, just a little too long, a little too loose. But not too low—neck out. Swing. Clarity. That's my girl. Gather, but not too much. Like extended walk with shorter reins. Rhythm, always rhythm. Not too small—better too open than too closed, too pacey. Freedom, always. Gather, canter, the tiniest suggestion. No need to shout.
Rock back in the corner, diagonal, pounce! Airborne and uphill in the extension, climbing, like through deep snow. Gather with just the back, no tightness, no pulling, reins like marshmallows. One bounce, pop! Change.
The long moment, all the way around the short side to P. Set up for the judge—this gift, this moment to just sit there and look good. Corners like a textbook, prepare, bend, leg. Ready? Ready? A steep half-pass, like the thought just occurred to me, but prepared and practiced. Straight at X, forward and free, then gather, gather, left thigh, left flexion, left pirouette. Six to seven strides, small and up, small and up, small and up, bigger, climbing, release, float. C, track left.
Diagonal. A little bigger now, just slightly, same rhythm. The tiniest suggestion of right flexion. Change, wait. Change, wait. Nine twos.
Another scoreless short side. Test the giving. Test the expression. Free, loose, uphill, easy. Like breathing.
The right half-pass. A little extra bend. A little less preparation for the pirouette—too much collection shuts her down this way. Float, float, out.
Test the hind legs in the corner before the diagonal. Quick, but not too quick? The tiniest right flexion, but still straight in the body? Ready, set, change, change, change, up, giving, quick, breathe, quiet leg, easy. Confidence, ground-covering. 15 ones.
The littlest pat before the corner. "Good girl," under my breath. We're almost home.
D, collected trot. Not too much prep—hind legs too under make for launchy canter-trot transitions. L, passage. Now. Like flipping a switch. Rhythm, clarity, right hind leg. One, two, one, two. Sitting lighter, lighter, 8-10 steps piaffe. Watch that right leg—almost the suggestion of left leg yield. She's a little tired now, wants to lean. Just a few more steps, honey, then you can lean right all you want. Good girl.
Sit, sit, out. Right leg. Straight, parallel, uphill, soft in the bridle. Self-carriage. Smile. Gather, gather, allow the halt. Crisp and neat. Halt, salute.
"Good girl," and a rub, not a pat. Ella prefers rubs.
Sleep usually comes by the end, but if not, I like the Prix St. Georges, too. Lots of diagonal lines. Does my little Type-A heart good.