(“Fifty-five and stay alive!”)
There’s an expression in football: “They left a lot of points on the field.” It means the team was in a position over and over where it would have been easy to score points but for some egregious and preventable mistakes.
Sitting at C, I see the same thing happen too often in the dressage arena. Here are some examples. In one Third Level test the rider is supposed to turn down the centerline in shoulder-in. Instead, she far overshoots the centerline and scrambles through a disorganized and crooked figure which finds its way eventually to X. It’s enough of a mess that it can only earn a 3. Had she acknowledged the problem and circled in the USEF (and not FEI) tests it would have only cost her two points. Then she could try the movement from the beginning of the centerline and perhaps earn a seven or eight. By my math 7-2 still beats a 3.
In a contrary example a Training Level horse shies out of the corner. Rather than just continuing on and pushing back out to the track, the rider circles. Whether she does that or not, the deduction will be the same for the misbehavior. In the latter case she will also be docked -2 for the error of course without any gain from her detour.
There are numerous examples where having made one mistake and not correcting it makes it impossible for the judge to give you a good score for the next movement as well. Here is an example in Third and Fourth Level. One movement is a canter half pass from the beginning of the centerline to the middle of the long side. At the track there is a flying change. The horse is misbehaving and makes several accidental changes during the half pass ending up on the inside (wrong) lead. That movement is already a disaster. With all that went on, three would be generous. So if she walked and took up the original lead in order to ride into the next movement in counter canter, she could salvage a good score for her change in the corner. You can imagine how difficult it is to give a good score if the horse is already on the lead he is supposed to change to! So instead of a three and seven, she gets a three and a 1.
Another example along the same lines: in Second Level the horse is supposed to make a 20 meter half circle in counter canter and a simple change to the correct lead at the track. The horse swaps on his own out by the centerline, the rider doesn’t correct it, and again there is no simple change to be scored in the next block because there is literally no change.
There are other routine tactical decisions that a rider should make if she knows what to expect of her horse. Back in the day when my wife, Susan, took over the showing of my elder but still ornery FEI horse, Adam, her realistic goal in the first tests was “Fifty-five and stay alive!” From there she worked up to 58, then 60, then higher. She chose to be conservative and find his way through the rides building their mutual confidence rather than going for broke at the start and causing more problems down the road. In a specific example of applied tactics, if your horse is bad about rebalancing after a canter lengthening, it may be better to ride for a six and expect the next several movements to be controllable than to look for a big score on the lengthening and pay for it through the rest of the test.
These are things you can learn through trial and failure, but there is a better way. It’s a great learning tool for a rider to sit with the judge and scribe for a day. That way you can see a number of choices performed first hand and observe which solutions come out the best.