Do the Math

(“. . . the difference between primary colors and an insipid pastel ribbon.”)

I started out with a great premise— if event riders would just improve their dressage score by four or five points (presumably by concentrating on it and taking more lessons), they would place higher at the end of the (Sun)day. Obviously standing near the top of your division after the first phase makes everyone else have to play catch-up, and you don’t have to hope others will falter.

So I went on line to research past results to see how various scenarios had actually played out. I was less concerned with riders who had completed their dressage near the top and either maintained their standing or moved down with jumping or time faults. More to the point were riders in the bottom 2/3 after dressage who had jumped clean but had moved up “only so far,” their dressage shortcomings keeping them out of the ribbons.

I searched primarily in the “Rider” divisions thinking they would be less experienced at the level at which they were competing but also did general searches across the board at all levels. I did find individual anecdotal evidence that supported my original contention, and for each of those the message should be obvious.

However, more generally, particularly at the lower levels riders who placed well in dressage tended to go clean and maintain their standing. But clearly if they had been first after dressage and not fourth by a couple of points, their outcome would have been different. Farther down the bracket often if they had a weak dressage, jumping problems had followed as well. At the more advance levels time faults on the cross country came more into play, again a few fractions which could have been made up in the dressage phase rearranging the placings.

So my earth shattering discovery has been more or less left on the cutting room floor. That said, it stands to reason that every point you accrue is equal to every other one, and every way you can avoid or minimize them, the better you are in the long run. There are the great overriding issues that come down to how sophisticated a rider you are: Is your horse really round and through and energetic? While lively, is he soft and permeable, and does he carry himself or brace against you and drag you around? Is he honestly on the aids, or is he posing? As a judge the two words which I least like to use to describe a test are “coasting” or “cruising.” They imply a passivity on the rider’s part— an abdication of your duty to present your horse in his best possible light. These are all qualities in your riding which take a long time to master.

Meanwhile, there are lots of ways not to throw away points that could mean the difference between primary colors and an insipid pastel ribbon. Here’s a quick short list:
Straightness on centerlines.
Accurate figures including circles which have no accidental corners.
Movements which happen when they are called for: If the test says “Canter at K and proceed on the long side,” it doesn’t mean do it somewhere in the corner while the horse is still bending. That’s missing the difficulty that the movement is asking for.
Likewise, unless otherwise stated, transitions happen at the letters—that means when your shoulder is at the mark. They need to be smooth and prompt. You give away points if you trickle into the trot In an aimless jog.

Remember: it’s really not rocket science. Look at the good riders. Study the good videos of horses at your level. And do your homework. Put those extra points in your back pocket, and be sure to feed your horse lots of carrots while you’re sipping the bubbly after your victory lap.

                Thanks to Kem Barbosa (USEF “S”) for suggesting this topic.