Before embarking on a competition career with your dressage horse, it is primarily important to take off the stable blindness glasses and be inwardly open about the conformation and build of your horse.
There is no such thing as the perfect horse, as there is no perfect human model, and the look that you want to achieve is one that is in keeping with the overall picture that the judges want to see.
The judges do not see the model in the makeup room… the judges do not see the naked person… the dressage judge doesn’t see the horse in the paddock or in training. Judges simply look at the overall finished product on the catwalk, i.e. the dressage arena, and give marks for the overall impression that fits the guidelines for the competition!
First and foremost, your horse must be extremely well trained; no matter the makeover, nothing will cover up poor training. So it’s of the utmost importance to train well and be competent at the level you are competing. Try to be training at the level above the one in which you are competing, so the test you ride will be easy to ride — stress-free and harmonious.
If you don’t know the end result and the look that the judges are looking for, then you need to research national and international winners and look at the overall picture of those combinations and try to see what accentuates the picture.
The most important thing with any dressage horse is to give an impression of an uphill way of going and a good frame; the shoulders and neck should be held proudly and show a lightness in the bridle and a free forehand and lower hind end. Stand back and look at your horse as if it’s someone else’s. Be honest about what the conformation tends towards. If the horse is built a little downhill — that is, a lower wither than the rump — then you have to look at ways to improve this.
Of course, condition is important and sometimes horses put on weight in different places, like humans. You can condition horses fatter or slimmer depending on the look you require, but remember they are equine athletes and nothing looks worse than a fat dressage horse. A well-muscled horse is important and, as with humans, there are exercises and ways in which to improve shapes by developing certain muscles. Again, this is where good training and honesty helps build horses’ muscles to show their best athletic look. If a horse has a long back and an upside down neck, then you need to work on defining the topline. There are many, many specific frames that help to develop these areas and a good trainer or equine physio will design exercises to improve this.
To give an uphill impression at the competition, the way that you braid your horse’s mane is very important and there are many alternatives. The English type plaits give a lovely, more plump neck. The number that you use can help make a short neck look longer, and remember that the poll should always be the highest point. Be wary not to make the plaits behind the ears too flat and pulled down, with the plaits in the middle of the neck too plump, as this will give an incorrect balance to the frame you need. Take a photo of the neck unplaited when you are working, and then visualize the shape that plaiting will aid to give a better look.
Another problem is to be careful with the plait about 30-odd centimetres down from the poll, as a fault in a dressage horse is what’s called a “broken neck” where the neck bends incorrectly. A badly placed plait can give this impression and if your horse, for whatever reason, has this tendency, then a correctly placed plait will help hide it. If you have a horse with a large and cresty neck — as some breeds do — then do not put big plaits on top of the neck, but instead flat ones that sit on the side.