For many dressage enthusiasts, becoming a Grand Prix rider is a title that is as elusive as it is desirable. We spend countless hours studying the sport, perfecting our riding, and training to ascend up the levels on an smooth uphill trajectory. But is there really more to scaling the top of dressage than simply the mechanics? Perhaps we should also examine what goes into making a Grand Prix rider besides just knowledge and skill? And if so, what habits and qualities can aspiring riders adopt to help propel their own talent towards Grand Prix? It's a perplexing question, so we decided to ask.
In a survey of both professional and amateur USDF Gold Medalists, we delved deep into the qualities possessed by these riders and examined how their approach to riding and training fostered Grand Prix success. First, we investigated exactly who are the people that occupy the Grand Prix ranks. As we know bumping into a confirmed Grand Prix rider definitely isn't as easy as stumbling upon a Starbucks - they are few and far between - and the amateur Gold Medalist is even a rarer breed. Interestingly, our research showed that while 66% of respondents were either a YR or AA when they achieved their gold medal, half of them went on to eventually become professionals. Whether this transition was either to tackle a new competitive challenge or achieve their dream career is unknown. The age range of these AA's turned pros is not that of young adults set out on a determined career path, but riders who went pro in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. This transition might indicate that a career change took place, perhaps fueled by the riders' success and confidence in their achievements. In addition, the average age at which the riders polled obtained their gold medals was 34.5 years, yet the total range was from 20-55. As we've seen through the USDF Century Club, dressage is an ageless sport and clearly the same sentiment is reflected by our Gold Medalists.
In terms of a ride "strategy", nearly 90% of respondents answered that they ride five or more times a week, and none less than three to four. In addition,100% of those surveyed said they almost never skipped a ride. Not surprisingly, consistency appears to be key and more time spent in the saddle with one's horse is a catalyst for progress. However, notably none of those surveyed, including amateurs, were in full training, with the majority taking 1-2 lessons per week. In addition, participation in clinics seemed to vary from once per month to hardly ever, suggesting that the quality of lessons and diligent self study may likely have propelled their journey more than the quantity of instruction.
As expected, the process of becoming a Grand Prix rider takes time. Patience is one of the non-negotiables of dressage and our respondents were proof. Over 50% of the riders polled said that they had been involved in the discipline for 10-20 years before earning their Gold Medals, while some cited the journey as taking even longer. In addition, the overwhelming majority revealed having ridden the horse that they earned their Gold Medal on for 6 or more years before reaching Grand Prix. One might surmise that this is because it often takes years to learn how to ride a horse at a high level. Another likely reason is that purchasing a Grand Prix horse can be quite cost prohibitive, therefore many riders often have to put some training on their horses before they reach Grand Prix.
A rider's lifestyle and environment out of the saddle may also contribute to their progress in the ring. Dedication to the sport and honing athletic ability appears to be paramount in the lifestyle of Grand Prix riders, with 89% of all respondents doing some form of physical cross training out of the saddle each week, and the majority citing that they workout 3-4 times per week.
As many riders will tell you, they don't get to the top alone. Another factor to consider is the support that riders receive on their journey to Grand Prix. Riding horses competitively takes a lot of sacrifice from both a financial and time standpoint, and the support of people close to riders can influence their circumstances and ability to make these sacrifices. Understandably, 78% of respondents claimed their immediate family was very supportive of their riding goals, while 22% cited them as somewhat supportive, and no one felt that their family was unsupportive.
Competing at Grand Prix certainly doesn't come without it's challenges. Respondents were honest about the setbacks that they faced, citing finances as a prevailing hurdle, followed by juggling time with family. However, tenacity appeared to be the dominant undertone as they explained how they overcame these challenges with explanations detailing the struggle including one that stated, "Being a full time graduate student and part time horse trainer, finances were tight. I could only afford one lesson per week and only did one day shows to get scores because I couldn't afford multi-day shows". Another respondent wrote candidly, "I'm not all that talented of a rider, so I needed to learn a lot of skills to compensate."
When asked what habits they believe propelled them to Grand Prix the secret seemed to be more embedded in their psychological outlook than anything else. The Gold Medalists demonstrated tunnel vision and unwavering perseverance when it came to their Grand Prix goal. They each described their dedication in different ways - "patience", "determination", "persistence", "optimism" and "drive", but the message of positive resilience was the same. In addition, that perseverance prevented the riders from getting side tracked by negative feedback or falling victim to self doubt. Several riders mentioned the need for "thick skin" and stressed the importance of not getting depressed about bad scores.
Some of the most inspiring firsthand accounts of the Grand Prix journey echoed this tenacious mindset. A respondent wrote of achieving her Gold Medal on her nineteen year old horse saying, "I set a goal, which at the time was a huge reach, and never lost sight of it. I did not let anything get in between me and that goal as long as my horse was happy and healthy in her work. When it came time to actually show the Grand Prix, I "pulled the trigger" so to speak. We weren't 100% ready but we were racing the clock and we knew we had to at least try it. It paid off."
Another rider who made it to Grand Prix on a shoestring, taking just one lesson a week explained, "I believed in myself and my horse a thousand percent. So many people get bogged down feeling like their horse isn't good enough or they aren't good enough. Riding Grand Prix doesn't take a lot of natural talent, it just takes time and work. And a lot of luck."
While it must be acknowledged that what's written in the stars may certainly factor into the Grand Prix journey, these riders' experiences clearly circled back to one resounding message - sometimes you just have to make your own luck.