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How to Get to Grand Prix in Dressage

get to grand prix dressage

As the highest level a horse and rider can reach in the competitive sport of dressage, Grand Prix is the ultimate goal of many.

But although a standard dressage test is less than 10-minutes, there are a lot of factors that go into making a winning combination that can successfully climb the dressage levels.

So, within this article, we take a look at the individual requirements of both horse and rider, the journey to Grand Prix, and the additional resources that are needed to help you get there.

The Grand Prix horse

Even though it’s true to say that dressage training is beneficial for ALL horses regardless of their breed, size, and type, not every horse has the physical and mental abilities to reach the dizzy heights of top-level competition.

To make the journey as easy as possible, here are six qualities that a potential Grand Prix horse would need to possess.

1 – A good temperament

A horse that is described as having a good temperament, does not mean that the horse is docile. In fact, many dressage superstars could be described as being hot or overly sensitive.

A good temperament means that the horse has a desire to work and learn. In contrast, a horse that does not want to learn, or is uninterested in working with enthusiasm, is not going to make it.

A trainable temperament is crucial!

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2 – Correct paces

To be successful at ANY level within the sport of dressage, it’s important that the horse has three correct and regular paces; a four-beat walk, a two-beat trot, and a three-beat canter.

An active hind leg is also desirable; one that doesn’t trail out behind the horse but energetically picks up and swings forward ready for the next step.

Of particular importance is the natural quality of the canter. This is because many Grand Prix movements are based on this pace. For example, flying changes, canter pirouettes, and canter half-passes all require a good quality canter in order to be executed correctly. The trot can be dramatically improved through correct training, whereas the scale of possible improvement for the canter is more limited, therefore, the natural quality of the canter is important.

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3 – Favorable conformation

Ideally, the horse should have a good shoulder and use his hindquarters to give an uphill impression. If the horse is naturally built downhill, he will find it much harder to execute the higher-level collected movements.

Also, horses with very long backs can find it difficult to take the weight behind and they are often difficult to consistently ride together.

Ultimately, the closer the horse is to the ideal physical shape, then the easier it will be for him to perform the Grand Prix movements to a satisfactory level.

4 – Physical and mental suppleness

Full body and mental suppleness can be enhanced and improved upon through correct and systematic training, but there are limits.

The more naturally supple a horse is to start off with, the better chance he stands of being able to perform the higher-level movements and avoid injury.

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5 – 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 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.

6 – Soundness

Some horses are accident-prone, and although many injuries are just bad fortune, a horse that is able to stay sound is more likely to achieve a higher degree of strength and fitness, which is needed to be able to perform at Grand Prix.

Injuries require time off. And during that time, the horse loses suppleness, strength, and overall fitness, which can set you back on your journey to the top.

The Grand Prix rider

The horse is only half of the partnership, and having a potential Grand Prix horse does not automatically make you a potential Grand Prix rider.

Arguably, more important than the horse is the rider because it is the jockey’s job to ride and train the horse, not the other way around.

So, if you have the potential to be a Grand Prix rider, then you will need to possess the following nine qualities.

1 – Good temperament

Just like the horse, it is necessary for a rider to have a suitable temperament and to be ‘teachable.’

This involves:

  • Staying calm under pressure
  • Managing and regulating your emotions
  • Having the ability to take constructive criticism
  • Always looking for areas of improvement
  • Having patience
  • Maintaining a positive attitude
  • A willingness to work hard

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2 – Flexible mentality

The journey to Grand Prix is not a linear path and you will experience problems and setbacks in your training.

In order to keep progressing, you must have the mental flexibility to work your way around such problems, altering and re-setting goals to accommodate whatever life (and horse) throws at you.

Related Read: How to Improve Mental Suppleness in Both Horse & Rider

3 – Physical fitness and suppleness

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.

Although dressage requires the rider to make it look effortless, there is a lot of strength and balance involved, particularly in the core. If you do not have good core strength and balance then you will struggle to aid the horse effectively and ride the required movements.

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4 – A clear understanding of dressage theory

In order to train and execute dressage movements correctly, you must understand the theory behind each and every one of them, including; the purpose of each exercise, the requirements of each exercise, and the correct aids and positioning for each exercise.

You must also know the building blocks of training and the order of lessons by which a horse is physically and mentally developed.

The Scales of Training should be your dressage bible!

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5 – Mental agility

This involves having the ability to think quickly and respond instantly, both to what the horse is doing and to the circumstances.

This is of particular importance when riding a dressage test and when training new movements.

6 – A high degree of coordination

In advanced dressage, the tiniest weight change or use of an individual muscle has a huge impact on the horse and the communication between the both of you.

To get to the top level of dressage, you must have the ability to coordinate and control your own body.

Similar to being able to pat your head whilst rubbing your stomach, you must be able to do one thing with a leg whilst your opposite hand does something entirely different.

7 – A high degree of feel

This refers to your ability to ‘feel’ what it is that the horse is doing underneath you.

Is the horse tense? Is he straight? Is he leaning to the left or right? Is he equal in the contact? Which hind leg is he moving?

Only by feeling the horse underneath you can you follow his movement without hindering him, time your aids correctly, and influence his overall way of going.

Related Read: How to Develop Feel

8 – Discipline

A dressage rider is not made in a week! It takes several years of dedication and discipline in order to acquire the knowledge and physical skills needed to train and ride a Grand Prix test.

Although you will face many setbacks and may have to go back to the drawing board several times, in light of such difficulties, you must not be seduced by shortcuts, which never work out in the long run.

Also, on cold, wet, and dark days, you need to have the discipline to stick to your plan and train, even though you might not feel like it.

It is only through small correct efforts, repeated consistently over time, that steady improvement is made.

9 – No ego!

Once you start to experience some success and climb the competitive levels, it’s very easy to unknowingly develop an ego. This can stop you in your tracks and cause you to put competitive demands above your own horse’s welfare.

When you have an ego you become blind to constructive criticism and can even blame the horse for your own shortcomings.

A successful dressage rider, at all levels, must have the humility to admit that they always have much to learn from others and from their horse.

Grand Prix resources

Aside from a talented and trainable horse and rider, there are other resources that are needed in order to scale the dressage levels successfully.

Here are the three main ones.

Resource 1 – Financial backing

Alongside the regular care and upkeep of your horse, if you want to compete, you also need to think about the following additional costs:

  • All-year-round training facilities
  • Coaching fees
  • Membership fees
  • Competition entry fees
  • Transportation fees (including vehicle maintenance and insurance)
  • Overnight stabling at events

When you are competing frequently, these costs soon start to compile. And even if you end up winning many of your competitions, including some championships, the prize money you receive will not cover your long-term competition costs.

Resource 2 – Team support

Although you can travel and compete on your own, having a supporting extra pair of hands can make a real difference.

Support can come from a dedicated groom, your trainer, a helpful friend, or even your mum who doesn’t know anything about horses.

Regardless of who it is, someone there in your corner to support and assist you on the day can help things run more smoothly, keeping you stress-free and focused on your test.

Resource 3 – Time

Often overlooked, this resource is critical to your success!

On top of the time it takes you to care for your horse and meet his daily needs, you also need to carve out time in your schedule for:

  • Attending regular lessons and training sessions (at home and away).
  • Expanding your knowledge of dressage theory. For example, reading books, watching videos, attending lectures, taking part in courses, etc.
  • Planning your competition calendar, learning your dressage tests, and reviewing your performances.
  • Traveling, competing, and staying away from home.

When added together, it’s a big time commitment that should not be underestimated.

The journey to Grand Prix

How long does it take?

It usually takes around five years to train a horse to Grand Prix level, assuming that they don’t suffer any setbacks along the way, such as lameness, injuries, or any other training interruption.

This time frame, however, is based on the horse being ridden and trained by a professional. For a novice rider, the journey to Grand Prix is likely to take much longer.

The fast lane

The quickest route for a novice rider to get to Grand Prix is to find an already established Grand Prix horse and trainer who will take you under their wing. You will then be able to learn how to ride all the movements correctly on an already educated horse under the watchful eye of an experienced trainer.

This will result in the learning process being much smoother and prevent you from developing bad habits and making common training mistakes.

Once you understand the aids, how to position the horse correctly, and how each movement feels, you can then think about training your own horse up through the levels.

The slow lane (with a few u-turns)

Of course, not everyone has the fast lane option available to them. In which case, you’re going to have to take the slow lane.

Most likely, when left on your own, you are going to encounter more problems and setbacks, so you must be prepared to make a few u-turns.

Where possible, invest in the best trainer you can afford, even if just for a one-off lesson; you will learn more in 40-minutes with a top trainer than you would in several 1-hour long lessons with a mediocre one.

And to help keep you and your horse progressing along the right track, we highly recommend that you become a good student and learn as much as you can from other credible dressage training resources. The more information that you can absorb, the fewer problems and common faults you are likely to create.

What happens when you get there?

There’s a big difference between riding a Grand Prix dressage test and riding a GOOD Grand Prix dressage test.

So, once you’ve reached the highest level possible in this sport, your focus will be on fine-tuning and perfecting your performance.

It is a never-ending journey because, as of writing this article, no one has yet scored 100% at Grand Prix dressage.

In conclusion

Getting to Grand Prix in competitive dressage is no easy task.

Although many of the qualities that are needed can be learned, the more innate they are to both horse and rider, the simpler and faster the journey to the top will be.

Lastly, remember that dressage has no finish line; you will always be wanting to improve. So, although your overall goal may be to compete Grand Prix, don’t forget to enjoy the process.

You can have just as much fun and sense of achievement competing at the lower levels as you can competing at the higher levels. After all, every dressage test requires you to enter at A, ride a few movements, and then exit on a long rein.

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