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Equestrian Articles, News and Events

Learn Kathy Connelly's System: 5 Ways to Memorize a Dressage Test

Focus your mental energy for success and clarity for you and your horse.

By Kathy Connelly with Sue Weakley


As a dressage competitor, trainer, coach, clinician and "S" level judge, Kathy Connelly knows a thing or two about memorizing a dressage test. She rode for the U.S. internationally, she was Chef d'Equipe for the U.S. Dressage Team, and her students have competed at the Olympic Games, World Cup, World Games, Pan American Games, Canadian World Cup and U.S. Young Rider Teams. Read on to learn Kathy's tips to help you and your students remember dressage tests.

This is a five-step system I used when I was competing internationally. It worked for me and I never went off course. I teach this system to all my riders. Although the first three parts can be used for beginning riders, more advanced competitors can take their skills to the next level with the final two of my system. By combining all the pieces, you can decrease your stress level while competing and increase your chances of never going off course. Remember, it’s not enough to know the test; you have to be the test.

Here are my five tips for memorizing a dressage test:

1. The first step is by the letters, the tried and true method of learning a dressage test.

2. The second way is especially useful for visual and spatial leaners: memorize the test geometrically.

3. The third step of my system is what I call sequence training. First, divide the test into sections by gait and then list the components of the test.

For example, in the Prix St. Georges, there are four sections in the trot work, two sections in the walk work and five sections in the canter work. If you are riding the canter tour, after you canter at K, you do the canter zig-zag, the half pirouette, the four tempis, the three tempis, and the extended canter.

In your own hand writing, list these five essential components in an abbreviated form.

  • Canter zig-zag
  • ½ pirs
  • 4s
  • 3s
  • ext. canter

Now, in your mind picture that hand-written list. Study it. Memorize it backward and forward. Imagine the list and think about what’s before and after the fours. Have friends quiz you by asking what’s before and after the half-pirouette.

Do this with all three gaits. You also have to note in your test which way you turn at C, but you obviously don’t have to write down “A enter X halt salute” — that happens in every test. 

This works. When I was competing, I always knew the test dead cold by letters and geometry but, occasionally when I got in the arena, I’d blank. I wouldn’t panic and go to the letters and wonder what to do – I would rely on my sequence training and I’d “see” that list in my mind. I knew what was next.

4. Manage the test the way your horse thinks. While you are schooling, make note of how the horse thinks or reacts in the test. 

For example, if you enter at a canter, and your horse often does a flying change before X, he is teaching you what he is thinking. So, this knowledge becomes part of you becoming the test. You learn where he might become confused and where he might make a mistake and you make note of where these areas are to address these issues before they happen. You will anticipate and ride better at those points. 

Another example of where you might have problems is at a show venue. At Dressage at Devon, when you go K-X-M on the diagonal, you are aiming at the restrooms in the stands and there are always a lot of people standing around there. If you are riding extended walk across that diagonal, you know your horse is going to be tempted to look there and you ride to be sure you keep your horse’s attention. You plan your aids — that’s riding the test the way the horse might think. 

5. Memorize the test by the preparations you make. That’s when you become the test. You are the test. So knowing what your horse thinks, you make preparations for the preparations. 

When you watch Isabell Werth or Steffen Peters, they are the test. They make the preparations for the preparations so they can be what the horse needs before he needs it. How you ride the corners and short sides is essential in preparations. 

For example, in the canter zig-zag in the Grand Prix, when you watch one of the top riders ride the test, the horse is already positioned and suppled in the corner before he makes the turn down the centerline. That’s the preparation for the preparation. The zig-zag is A to G, so they don’t just turn when they start the zig-zag; they are already in the correct position to make the movements. Not only do they know what the horse is thinking because they have schooled him, but they are making the preparations that the horse can feel so the horse is clear with it. 

Now you have my five-step system of learning a dressage test. My method incorporates sequence training in the third step of the system to give you the freedom to focus your mental energy on the fourth and fifth steps. These can help you develop the ultimate focus so that you are the test. You know you’re not going to forget the test so you’re so much more present for your horse. That’s the secret to focusing your mental energy for success and clarity for you and your horse. 

This simple system helps you to prevent issues, rather than just correct them after they happen. Dressage is not easy but it is simple. 




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