Dressage is a sport of perfection & precision. The small details really DO count! Here are some details that can help you get extra points and nail your test. I am a dressage instructor, competitor, and I also spend a lot of time scribing. I have received a lot of tips from several top judges.
Ride your figures and your centerline precisely. Sloppy geometry and lack of straightness on the centerlines will cost you points. I find the easiest way to maintain a straight centerline is to start well in front of A on entry. I always enter on the rein that my test will begin. Most of my tests start to the left, so I will enter my centerline on the left rein. Really focus on C. I see a lot of horses spook coming down the centerline. Do not look at the judge. Look where you want to go. So focus on C and do not pay attention to the judge at all. If you seem concerned about the judge & the judge's box, your horse may think that you have a good reason to be concerned and they could spook or misbehave. Don't forget to breathe and relax. Watch for hindquarters swinging to the outside on the halt. That tells your judge that your outside aids are not strong.Make sure that your 20 meter, 15 meter, and 10 meter circles and half circles are precise. If you have to circle at A or C, make sure that you do not go into the corners.
Familiarize yourself with the letters that correspond to the size of your circle and focus on hitting those marks. (I will post exercises to help with circles at a later time.) If you are riding back to back half circles, it is very important to make sure that your circles are the same size. A lot of people lose points on uneven circles.When riding across the diagonal line, change your diagonal exactly at X. Also, make sure you are focusing on the letter you will end your line at and ride all the way to that letter. Go all the way into your corners after the diagonal line.
Well-ridden transitions can literally mean the difference between placing in the class and ending up at the bottom. You really need to focus and work hard on the transitions. I hear a lot of confusion from students over where you are supposed to start each movement. I have always advised riders to start applying the aids about 2 strides out from the letter, so that once your shoulder is at the letter you are performing the appropriate movement. If you can't see a stride (some people just can't) you can use 1-2 horse lengths as a guide. Basically every time your shoulder is at a letter you should be performing the new gait or movement.
Ride Without a Caller!
At schooling shows, and some USDF recognized shows a caller is allowed to read your test for you. Personally, I don't ride as well with a caller. I get too focused on what they are saying, the wind carries their voice away, they are reading too slow or too fast. It makes me ride sloppy and less accurate. I am less focused on my horse and preparing each movement properly. I am less likely to be able to fix behavior quirks or spooks before they happen. I memorize each test while I am warming up. This works for me as I typically ride several different tests. I have noticed while scribing, the riders who ride their test without a caller tend to score much better than those who had a caller. I definitely recommend learning to ride without a caller. It will make things much simpler in the arena, and you will be able to focus much better.
If I am riding First Level Test 2, First Level Test 3, and Second Level Test 1 I will not memorize them all at once. Remember, one at a time. After you have finished one test, than memorize the next one.
Don't Use Your Voice!
Speaking or clucking to your horse is not allowed. If the judge catches you doing it, it will be -2 off your points for every occasion. The judge may or may not blow their whistle. Get in the practice at home of not using your voice or clucking. Your aids should be effective enough without your voice.
Know the Rules of Your Test!
Are you required to sit all trot movements, or can you post? Are you exiting on a loose rein? Make sure you know all the details before entering the arena.
The most important thing to remember is.....HAVE FUN! Relax and enjoy yourself. Don't forget to breathe! We are all doing this because we love it, right???