Before You Enter at A: Smart Tips From a Scribe

Photo by Holly Covey.

Whenever I scribe, I find out more stuff about dressage that makes just darn good sense, and helps me improve my own competitive riding.

My last scribing job got me thinking about one of the most important components of your day at an event, and the thing that starts off your competition. This is how you utilize the moments you have to trot around the dressage arena before you start your test. It seems kind of simple: You go around the ring and trot a little and then go in to be judged, but there are a few things to do, and not to do, that can really affect the quality (and score) of your judged test.

Be on time (= early).

The scourge of my life is to be on time, but in dressage, they really mean it. When it comes time for your dressage test, you must be on time. What does that mean? I think it means plan your warmup, bit check, and last minute fixes so that you are ready to approach your designated arena and do your familiarization round around the arena at least two minutes PRIOR to your ride time. This is so important. Judges have to keep things as fair as possible for everyone they judge. They try to give each rider the same amount of “around the ring” familiarization as possible, but if one rider runs late, then that pushes everything a bit behind. So if you are ready to ride at least two minutes before your scheduled time, you will not run the risk of being late.

Make a plan. 

Warmup procedures vary from event to event. Some warmup areas are close to the competition ring; others are further away and harder to estimate how much time it takes, so it makes sense to get up to dressage warmup in plenty of time to get all that figured out, check out the proper ring for your test, etc. Plan for what you will do when you enter and start your warmup circle. Will you go right, or left? Which side do you think your whip should be? What looks spooky and likely to draw a shy?

Head out there. 

It’s proper to wait until the rider before you has done their final salute before starting your warmup circle. The judge stops judging at the salute, so if the rider prior to you takes their time wandering out of the ring, you can keep warming up, just stay out of the exiting horse’s path.

Many times events have multiple arenas running at once. Do be mindful as you enter for your warmup circuit that the horse next to you might be in their test, or that a horse could be acting up next to your ring. If that is the case, it may be best to go the other way, turn the opposite direction, or go to the end or other side — tension tends to excite neighboring horses — to keep your horse focused and away from potential trouble!

Don’t hover around the end of the arena, waiting for the bell. Trot beside the boards up to the judge so she knows you are the next horse in her ring. When you “claim” the warmup circuit around your ring, the judge can relax knowing she doesn’t have to worry that the next rider hasn’t shown up, or guess which rider hovering at the end is the next one in her ring.

Pass the judge like a pro. 

If you are not sure how your horse will be with the judge and scribe at C (whether they are in a car, booth, or at a table, etc.) make sure you trot past it and let him see it. Even with an experienced horse, it’s always a good idea to approach the car and speak. Then your horse is aware there is something there. It’s OK to walk or trot past the car (pass in the front), and, in my experience from scribing, I think most judges don’t care how you go past — as I explain below, sometimes they are busy anyhow — but the important thing is don’t make a bad impression by stopping for a long time to chat or halting and expecting to be addressed. You’re just using up your warmup time, and making yourself late. The polite thing to do is keep moving, smile, and go on about your warmup loop. We can see you; we’re just busy.

It is a nice courtesy to put a horse’s head number on the side where the scribe can see it on your first circuit. (That goes back to the planning which way you will turn.) It’s OK by most judges to say hello, but do remember to put a happy expression on your face! Don’t worry if the scribe or judge doesn’t respond, often they are busy writing the collective remarks down from the previous rider, checking they did not forget a score or keeping up with the judge’s comments, and can’t always respond. They are aware of you, don’t think they don’t know you are there, because they do, but they aren’t ready to give you their full attention until you hear that bell.

Listen for the bell. 

Know that you have 45 seconds from the bell (or other signal) to get into the ring. Please be aware that you CANNOT TROT ALL THE WAY AROUND even the short ring in 45 seconds. That is not that long, but many think they can make it, and you would be surprised to know quite a few just squeak in the ring with no more than a second or two to spare! It’s a -2 deduction if you are late, so don’t chance it! Try this at home: set your timer on your phone for 45 seconds, pick up a trot, hit the button, and see how far around your ring you can get before it sounds. Now you know how far you can go in the time you have.

So when you hear the bell, immediately begin to plan the track of your entrance. If you happen to be on the long side, going towards A, keep going and plan your turn to enter; if you are going away from A, gently halt, but turn around in a workmanlike manner. You don’t have to hurry, but if you are going away from A and hear the bell and then turn around to enter, the judge knows you have heard the bell and are paying attention, which is always a good thing. If she sounds the bell and you keep going away from the entrance at A, the judge might not think you heard it.

Make a good first impression. 

From scribing, I’ve heard a few remarks over the years from judges — as the warmup rounds are the first impression a rider will make, even though not judged — and here are some common observations:

Go forward. Trot in, and keep that forward trot as you go around next to the boards. Do some transitions if time permits, just to check to see your horse is still in front of your leg and that your half halt is working. Adjust your reins and position your whip. Most judges like to see your horse on your aids and hopefully focusing on the job at hand as you trot in to start your test, and keeping him forward and regular to start with goes a long way toward showing a judge you are there to do the job well.

Know your horse. 

Not every horse will warmup the same: some need quieter steady work, others need more, etc. The important thing is to know your horse, and what will work and what makes him anxious — and avoid riding him in a way that doesn’t help your test score. This takes practice and feel!

Do you have a horse that reacts to the sand from their feet hitting the plastic boards? You may want to warmup right next to the plastic bar type arenas, so you get an idea of whether your horse will be OK with that noise or if you may need to adjust your riding in the ring when it happens. Another reason to ride close to the ring is if you aren’t sure you will hear the bell; keeping close insures you will be close enough to hear it.

Every horse is different. Some might need to walk a bit to relax and focus just before going in the ring. If that is the case for you, just be sure you plan for the time that takes. If you use up most of your warmup around the ring to walk, you won’t be able to establish a good trot rhythm in time to enter, ready to be judged. You may need to take the first two or three movements into the test to establish the trot, and therefore you’ll be throwing away a few points.

Troubleshooting tips. 

Sometimes if your horse is unfocused and looking around, the best way to proceed is not to let him do as he pleases, but to put him to work and ask him to behave. Judges I have scribed for always are dismayed when they watch a rider waste warmup time letting the horse look around until the bell, without making an effort to get him on the aids before going in the ring.

The warmup around the ring isn’t the time to do a lot of schooling or training, either. If you try a transition and mess it up, let it go. You may not have time to fix it before the bell rings; so make sure that if you plan on a transition or two, that you keep them simple and clear.

Perhaps you are on time but you haven’t heard the bell (or whistle, etc.), and keep warming up. If you aren’t sure, or it seems like a long time, check with the judge, don’t just keep circling. They are much happier being asked by the rider who is unsure, than left sitting in the car wondering what the heck you are doing circling around and around. If you didn’t hear the bell, make sure they know you didn’t hear it but be nice about it. Remember, you are responsible for riding at the correct time regardless of whether you heard the bell to enter, or not. And don’t enter until you hear it, as the judge isn’t ready to give you their full attention until they ring the bell.

And finally … enter at A!

Plan how you will enter at A. Don’t make a wiggle around the letter; make a curve that takes you past the letter onto the center line, from either side. If you wiggle around A, that makes your horse look like he is wandering down center line, and the judge is seated where she can clearly see that. When it is time to go in, enter like you mean it! Put a pleasant expression on your face, take a breath, and go for it!

Go Eventing.