How To Ride Dressage Without An Instructor And Excel!

Unknown Rider Sitting On A Dressage HorseEvery rider’s dream is to have unlimited funds to spend on horses and lessons.  Unfortunately, the real world can present many challenges and riding may be the lower priority.  Some individuals just don’t have the time or funds to support weekly lessons, but have the passion of riding.  The good news is there is lots of information, from reputable sources, that is free and easily accessible.  There also local dressage clubs that would love volunteers to serve on boards or just help with shows.  The opportunities are endless if you investigate.

There is no doubt that the title of this article may strike fear into some, but it really shouldn’t.  Dressage can be scary, but a little preparation and knowledge can ease anxiety.  I have experience in both worlds.  Right now I am fortunate enough to take weekly lessons with a — USEF “r” dressage judge.  However, for 12 years, I went at it alone due to lameness issues with my horse.  He sustained a career ending injury after one show season which led me to make the painful decision to move him to a retirement home.  During his retirement, he had good days where we would do small bits of dressage training.  This kept me sane and made him feel like he was still a show horse.   On the side, I began scribing at local dressage shows to continue my dressage “education”.  You can learn a great deal from sitting with judges.  I recommend it to anyone who rides dressage.  You will be surprised at what you learn.

In the simplest term, dressage means “training” and it is broken down into six levels.  Figure 1 illustrates the different levels beginning with basic rhythm and working up to collection.  This is also called the “pyramid of training”.  

Pyramid of Training as defined by the United States Dressage Federation (
Pyramid of Training as defined by the United States Dressage Federation (

The purpose of the diagram is to show that you cannot have collection without any of the others below.   Each part of the training pyramid corresponds to a dressage level.  Each level within dressage consists of three tests.  The USDF defines the levels as Intro, Training, First, Second, Third and Fourth Levels. There are also the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) upper levels that many of us dream to be able to ride someday:  Prix St. Georges, Intermediate and Grand Prix.  Reading through each test will give you the overview of what is expected at that level.  For each level, there is a purpose to the test which goes back to Figure 1 or the pyramid of training.    Within each test, there is a pattern or series of movements.  For each movement, there is a directive that identifies the criteria judged.   In addition, reading the — USEF Dressage rule book is like having an instructor!  It provides definitions and illustrations of all of the required dressage movements within the tests.  Who knew?  Additionally, technology allows us to take the tests anywhere on our smartphones or tablets.  No more hauling paper books around and flipping to find your test.  Most apps show the dressage arena and illustrate the diagram of any figure.  Super helpful!

Now that you are educated and know where to find all the information, it’s time to take the knowledge and apply it while in the saddle.  Basic flatwork includes walk, trot and canter and every ride should begin with a warm-up on a long rein.  First and foremost, the horse should move freely forward and maintain consistent rhythm.  In addition, good transitions between all gaits, and lots of them, are a great foundation and essential.  Also important are lengthening and shortening of the stride within each gait.   Look to incorporate movements from whichever level and test you desire to show.  Perfecting makes perfect.  It is also a good idea to ride the entire test to see where the rough spots are and to determine what needs work.  Remember, the idea is to master each movement, not the whole test.  Riding the test over and over can make the horse sour and potentially allow the horse to learn to anticipate the movements.  Concentrate on good foundation riding first, then the test.  

In every riding session, always pick one movement to master for that particular ride.  You can usually tell the first five minutes of basic flat work what the focus of the ride will be.  Maybe he’s not giving to rein pressure on one side or is stiff, maybe he is refusing to stretch down or maybe he won’t stay on the bit.  Take cues from your horse on what he is capable of that day mentally and physically.  Every ride must always end on a “good note” with praise or reward.  Fighting is not fun for you or the horse and does nothing for training.  

Riding dressage movements in a flat field or incorporating ground poles can add interest and keep your horse happy and engaged with you. It’s no fun to dread riding.  There is no set rule that you have to do the same thing every day.  Who would enjoy that?  There will be struggles, but there will also be successes.  On-line publications make it easier than ever to access information. What did we ever do without Google?  I also recommend having someone video your ride.  This helps immensely and identifies issues with your seat and aids and allows you to see the horse from someone else’s perspective.

Riding without a dressage instructor is possible.  It may take a bit longer to reach your personal goals but it’s all about the “ride” to get there!  

Written By, Heather Benedict. Share this on Facebook if you love Dressage!

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