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Writing Dressage Tests For Children

The Demi Dressage test calendar has grown again, with the introduction of our "Spring Rabbit" dressage tests to run alongside the "Spring Into Action" Prix Caprilli tests!

I thought I'd give you some insight into the thought and process that goes into writing each and every test... I don't think BD is going to give me a job any time soon, but here's some of the points that are considered when writing the Demi Dressage tests:

- First, every test has a theme. Actually, it has two themes - the fun 'title theme', and the hidden 'what the rider is learning' theme. Over Christmas, it was short diagonals to make “Christmas Stocking” shapes. Over the course of the year, we cover most of the key school movements, including circles, shallow loops and various changes of rein. Having tests with different themes and movements is more engaging for the younger riders - at the end of the day, we want to foster the idea that dressage in interesting and fun!

- Writing tests with a theme isn't always as easy as it may seem – the theme needs to work consistently across all five levels: the tests are 'layered up' in a way that hopefully makes sense as the child progresses from level to level. Moving the rider around the arena whilst sticking to the theme is one of the hardest elements (have you any idea how long it takes a small pony and MiniD to walk around the entire arena. It's like watching paint dry - only cuter ;) ) and it’s also important to give the young rider time to prepare and ride each part of the test.

- Once the theme is decided, the movements are written to put the theme into practise. “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” is about accuracy and circles. Although the props are partly to make it fun for the children and help them ‘see’ the snowman, it's surprising how giving the rider a focus - to walk between something, over something, around something... to halt at something... - it improves the accuracy without the child thinking about it. I also went a bit ‘dressage-meets-mounted-games’ for this one - it is the end of a long old winter after all! Props are kept to a minimum to accommodate those who do not have a lot of equipment.

- The ‘degree of difficulty’ of the tests increases as the rider steps up through each level. Green and Yellow are our entry level tests. Yellow Plus and Blue ask more of the rider – movements will start to come up quicker, the quality and presentation expected is higher. Red is our hardest level, and the tests are written to challenge the rider in a similar way to PC and BD tests. The degree of difficulty also increases over the course of the year. The early tests on the calendar have a lot more transitions ‘between markers’. By the August “Back To School Squares” test, we are expecting the rider to perform some or all of their transitions AT the markers – requiring increased preparation and accuracy in their riding.

- Breaking down the movements into a list that can be marked fairly is the next tricky bit. A BD test will typically have between 10 and 20 movements - the entry level Demi Dressage tests are a bit shorter so have less, but it is also important to allow the rider the best possible chance of gaining marks. So, for example, transitions up and transitions down are generally scored as two separate movements in Demi Dressage tests – this is something Susy and I felt was particularly important for children on ponies. You might have some very forward-thinking ponies whose upwards transitions are brilliant. Those ponies might drop marks on their more 'agricultural' downwards transitions! At the opposite end, you have some ponies who are a little less off the leg going forwards, but very responsive to little people's 'slowing down' aids. By giving separate marks for 'going faster' and 'slowing down', it keeps everything fairer for the many different types of ponies children are learning on and competing on with Demi, and means there's always scope to improve for those higher marks!

- To also keep things fair, where the Free Walk On A Long Rein appears in the tests (Yellow Plus, Blue and Red levels only) varies. It’s not uncommon for some ponies to get really buzzy after a canter, affecting their free walk. As well as allowing more time/space between transitions than you might find in BD tests so that the rider has time to establish the new gait, some tests have been written to have the FW near the beginning, before any canter work. Some tests have the FW at the end, and some have it in the middle. This means that over the course of the year, a pony/rider combination will get their chance to ride a test that plays to their strengths, and they can also challenge themselves if the design of a test is not so suitable for their pony.

- Finally, our collectives have been slightly amended from the Pony Club and British Dressage collectives to be fairer and more achievable for children. At the lower levels we are looking at the very basics – rhythm and activity in the pony’s paces, and the beginnings of a secure seat and independent aids (including accuracy in the movements) from the rider. We look for the rider starting to communicate effectively and develop a partnership with their pony. As riders progress up the levels, the collectives become closer to those seen at PC and BD.

I ride through each test myself to check how it rides, but more importantly, every single one of the Demi Dressage tests has been ridden through by a child, on an ‘average’ pony, before it is finalised and included in the yearly calendar. They genuinely are tests ‘by children, for children’ <3

child learning dressage test arena diagram
MiniD helping in the design phase of the Snowman test!

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