Dressage: What Judges Look For



In each dressage event, judges look for precision and control. The horse should be supple and attentive to the rider’s next command. Competition classes begin at introductory and training levels where the basics of walk, trot, and canter are performed with circles, transitions between the gaits, and rein changes across the diagonal. The classes advance to first, second, third, and fourth levels and finally the FEI levels which include Prix St. George, Intermediate I, Intermediate II, and finally, Grand Prix.

Judging and Scoring

The standard dressage ring is 20m x 60m and is lined with letters A-K-V-E-S-H-C-M-R-B-P-F. These letters are positioned around the arena to specify where movements are to be performed. Each movement in the class is scored on a 0-10 scale. Judges sit at the side opposite of the entrance and usually have scribe. Scribes write down scores and comments that the judge gives for each movement performed. Once the rider’s test is complete the judge will tally up the marks and give the rider a final percentage score, 65% and above are usually a clear indicator that the horse and rider should consider moving up a level.

What to Aim For

According to an article written in Dressage Today

Remember that accuracy is always secondary to good basics. Your training is finished when you arrive at the show grounds. You are there to demonstrate your training.”

Judges ultimately look for consistency in rhythm, relaxation or “looseness” of the horse, straightness, impulsion and contact. Rhythm refers to the sequence of footfalls, which should have regularity and consistency. Looseness is seen as the evenness of the horse’s stride that swings through the back, and causes the tail to swing much like that of a pendulum. Straightness is exactly what it denotes: where the horse’s body is straight and his hind end follows the same path as the front. Impulsion is the power exerted by the horse when he moves. Impulsion is created by storing the energy of engagement (the forward reaching of the hind legs under the body). At the apex of the training scale is collection, which is the shortening of the gait. It requires a sufficient amount of muscular strength from the horse and collection is used for advanced movements such as flying lead changes.


Each level of dressage competition varies in its required movements. The beginning levels require only the basic gaits including the free walk, changing rein across the diagonal, and 20 meter circles. First level incorporates these movements and adds the leg yield, which is the movement of the horse sideways from the quarter-line of the arena. First level also includes serpentines. These consist of three equal loops, width of the arena, that follows the path of three 20-meter half circles connected by straight lines. Dressage Today characterizes first level:

Although many movements in First Level build on those ridden at Training Level, now the circle size decreases and the difficulty increases. You will be expected to go deeper into the corners, and judges will be stricter about accuracy.

Second level incorporates movements such as shoulder ins, where the horse is bent around the rider’s inside leg so that the horse’s inside hind leg and outside foreleg travel on the same line. Simple changes of direction through the walk and/or trot are also demonstrated, as well as turns on the haunches, and the medium trot and canter. 

Third level and above begin to add more technical movements. These include pirouettes, flying changes, tempi changes, and half passes. Pirouettes show the ability to shorten the canter stride and put more weight on the hind legs. The horse pivots laterally in a 360 degree circle. Flying changes switch the leading front and hind legs at the canter when changing direction. Tempi changes are multiple flying changes in a row. Its a very difficult movement that is usually exclusively used in the upper levels.

California Equestrian Properties

Every year we help find dressage properties for our clients, and each year we join with those who love horses at the Del Mar National Horse Show. If you are at the show this year, come look us up to talk horses and the equestrian lifestyle, properties, ranches and equestrian facilities and resources.


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