My horse works really well on the flat at home, he is such a little superstar but the minute I enter a dressage arena (he is fine in the warm up) he gets very tense and really starts acting up - spooking, bolting, refusing to work on the bit, won't go round in a circle etc etc. Its not that he can't do it, he just isn't listening. Have you any tips to make this better? We have now done 4 tests and they are all as bad as each other, time doesn't seem to be the answer! He works in a better outline in a jumping arena than in a dressage one.
I know this is probably not the answer you were hoping to hear, but 4 tests or even shows is not really a lot if your horse is tense and fearful in a Dressage arena. It is going to take a few months and many shows to make him understand what you would like from him and get him to relax. Your own reaction to his nerves will also play a huge role in dictating how quickly he is going to learn to relax and enjoy his test.
What I would suggest is that you take him to as many training shows as possible in order to make him understand what you expect of him. At a training show, the judge will be a little more forgiving and really, there will be no pressure on your to perform and get a place.
Once at the show, be very sure that you are clam, relaxed and allow yourself plenty of time to warm up properly and even have a little extra minute or two before you have to enter the arena.
Your warm up should conclude with your horse active and listening to your aids. The idea is to warm up the muscles, stretch and supple the horse and get him between your hand and leg, ready to take his test.
If possible, try to walk your horse around the very outside of the arena and riding areas, giving him time to look at the judge's box, the flowers and the other objects that are so scary to him! Of course you should not go into the riding area, but even viewing these objects from a distance will help him see that there is nothing to be afraid of. Once you have done this, you can proceed to the gate and wait to go in - you should plan to be at the gate just as the previous competitor is performing the last movement on the test. A good helper can wait at the gate for you and make sure that you are there right on time. Waiting around too long will make your horse impatient and will confirm his suspicion that the whole process is exhausting and unpleasant! Once you go in, walk him out confidently and strongly to the judge's box to announce yourself - he will probably be looking at everything and this is fine. Do not react with sharp kicks or punish him for looking - you will make the fear even worse.
As you enter the arena at A, he may look at the judge's box, wobble a bit on teh centre line and do a horrid halt! That is ok. How YOU react to all of this will help change his mind or confirm his mistrust! A common problem I notice with riders in a Dessage show is that the warm up and preparation work is great - they are relaxed, riding in the usual way they would ride at home and so on, but as soon as they enter the arena, they seem to start rushing. The test becomes a mad rush from one movement to the next and the rider almost tries too hard - using more leg, using more rein or tensing to the point where nothing is happening and the horse is just running along through the test. The rider often does not notice this and even thought they don't FEEL too nervous or worried, their bodies are telling a different story. As you ride your test, you should not ride any differently from how you ride at home or in the warm up. Slow your test down and take deep breaths. This will help relax you and your horse. I often imagine I am at home in my own arena while I ride a test - it helps relax me and I ignore the people, the judges and everything around me. I simply focus on the feel of my horse and the movement I am busy with. If your horse does feel tense and rushed or spooky, just stay perfectly still, take a breath and do not react other than to drive him on a little. If you tense up, shout or get cross, things will get worse. Pretend nothing is happening and keep riding the movement! (Easier said than done!)
What you are looking for is a slow improvement and a sign that your horse is starting to learn that it is ok to be in a Dressage arena at a show. What is vital is that you stay clam and focused and let him relax.
I would give him at least 10 shows to see if he will relax! Remember the long way round is often the best way! Good luck and let us know how he is doing!