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What Does It Take To Get To Grand Prix in Dressage?

get to grand prix dressage level

There are many ingredients required to reach Grand Prix for both horse and rider, including a healthy dose of luck!

Aside from the obvious – ‘talent’ – read on to see what’s involved.

The Grand Prix horse

To reach the dizzy heights of the top level of dressage competition, a horse will need:

A good temperament

This does not mean docile, as top-level competition horses need that indefinable ‘spark’ that is sometimes considered to be ‘attitude’.

What they must have is the desire to work and to learn, even if they can be a bit hot-headed at times.

A horse that does not want to learn, or is uninterested in working with enthusiasm, is not going to make it.

Luck can play a part

Many injuries are just bad fortune, and the horse that stays sound, or has only minor issues for short periods of time, is more likely to achieve the higher degree of strength and fitness needed to perform at Grand Prix.

Favorable conformation

Horses are surprising animals in terms of what they can produce even when not ideally shaped, but to perform the Grand Prix movements satisfactorily, the closer to ideal in physical shape they are, the easier they will find it.

Physical suppleness

This can be enhanced through training, but there are limits.

The more naturally supple a horse is, the better chance it stands of being able to perform the required movements and to avoid injury.

Talent for the higher movements

Many horses are able to reach Small Tour (Prix St. Georges and Intermediare 1), but few have the natural ability to produce the extra movements required for Grand Prix: piaffe, passage and one-tempi changes.

You can predict fairly early on, soundness permitting, whether a horse is likely to get to Small Tour level, but you cannot tell if it will have that extra ‘something’ needed for Grand Prix until you get nearly there.

The Grand Prix rider

Fortunately for us, riders of more than one physical shape are able to get to GP.

Certain body shapes make it easier – short bodies, long legs, and slim thighs, for example – but like horses, it is sometimes surprising what a rider can overcome if they have the other necessary ingredients, such as:

Good temperament

Just like the horse, it is necessary for a rider to have a suitable temperament – calm under pressure, able to focus on detail, patient, and willing to work hard.

Flexible mentality

With horses, things will go wrong. There is no way around it, horses are fragile animals and there will be setbacks.

A rider must be flexible enough mentally to work their way around such things, altering and re-setting goals to accommodate whatever life (and horse) throws at them, and not be seduced by shortcuts, which never work in the long run.

Physical fitness

While the horse does all the running around, an unfit rider will not have the fine motor control of their own body to be in a position to assist and aid the horse.

There is an aspect of strength involved, though more in core body tone than in the limbs, provided you learn good technique and don’t rely on physicality for controls.

Physical suppleness

This is also necessary for the same reason as fitness.

A clear understanding dressage

The rider must know the building blocks of training – the order of lessons by which a horse is physically and mentally developed. (Related Read: The Scales of Training)

Mental agility

The ability to think quickly and respond instantly, both to the horse and to the circumstances, particularly when riding the test.

A high degree of coordination

In advanced dressage, the tiniest weight change or use of an individual muscle has a huge impact, so riders at this level must be totally in control of their own bodies.

In conclusion

There are many required components for both partners to achieve Grand Prix, and it does not come down solely to that thing we call ‘talent’.

Many of these aspects can be learned, although the more innate they are to both horse and rider, the simpler and faster the journey to the top.

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