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Learning Dressage for recreation or a career

In this post we’re going to talk about dressage. The post is in two parts; the first part is an account, by a contributor, of their experiences learning dressage, and the second part discusses potential careers in dressage riding.

Part One – My Experiences Learning Dressage

The first time I witnessed dressage was at the yearly event held at a local race course. At the time, I already owned two horses. I had always ridden English, and we did groundwork, and went for trail rides. But what I saw in dressage fascinated and terrified me at the same time.

The music, the idea of creating a dance between equine and human being, combined with the formal attire, and the way it all looked so easy, too easy – I wanted to try it! It seemed magical, almost spiritual, when you were lucky enough to observe a really good partnership in action.

For the rider to give cues that you can’t even see, and the horse responds in such a relaxed and giving way, I wanted to have the same experience with my own horses. I know they get bored sometimes, so it would definitely be a challenge for them as well. But where to start?

My daughter participated in a riding club at the time, so I started there. At our next meeting, I asked if anyone could recommend a good dressage trainer who would teach at a private home, not just a training barn. I got a couple of leads, but nothing seemed to pan out.

The more people I talked to, the more one trainer in particular kept coming up. She was a woman in her 80s, but still rides every day. People made her out to be some kind of a dressage guru. But she only trains at her own barn, and I don’t own a trailer, so working with my own horses was out. Her barn was almost an hour away from me, so lessons during the week were out, too because I work during the day.

She was also extremely expensive, but everyone who had taken lessons with her swore that she was worth it. I went back and forth, weighing the pros and cons, so many times. I finally decided to call and find out if she was taking on new students.

In my first dressage lesson, you would think I had not ridden a horse in ten years. The saddle and leg position were totally different than what I was used to. I was embarrassed, but my new trainer was patient and extremely gracious.

She taught me how to experience a completely different sense of balance. My leg strength improved. I looked forward to my weekend lesson all week, and tried to teach my own horses during the week what I had learned.

My trainer has taught me that you are never done learning dressage. Every time you master something, you then set about refining it, making the cues more subtle. As a result, my horses have learned to be extremely responsive to my requests.

I love to see the wheels turning in their heads when I ask them for something they know a little more lightly. Our relationship and communication has deepened. Indeed, dressage is an ambition worth pursuing.

Part Two – Careers in Dressage Riding

learning dressageDressage is a specific type of equestrian showmanship where a controlled horse will respond quickly and smoothly to commands given in a subtle manner. At the basic level the horse must show a particular relaxed carriage, response to the bit and obedience at a walk and trot.

At the highest levels, dressage becomes what is often called “horse ballet.” It not only is a method of riding and instruction, but is characterized by the use of warmblood horses, where riders dress in a prescribed, formal manner, use a specific saddle (similar to English), and hold themselves in a certain seat.

Equestrians with a background in English riding may have an advantage at the beginning levels because of similarities in style. However, anyone with an understanding of horses, and some natural ability in riding should be able to adapt and learn dressage.

Most professional dressage riders begin working as grooms. In the UK, there is an apprenticeship scheme to provide structured training for hopeful dressage riders. Riders are accepted as positions become available.

To become a professional full-time rider is a challenge. At the Spanish Riding School of Vienna one new pupil is taken each year, and the fastest rise from beginner to Chief Rider was 20 years. It is more likely that a dressage rider may find part-time employment at a large stable where additional skills such as horse training, instruction of riders, and showing of horses for sale will be incorporated into the responsibilities. Positions may include room and board, flex time, and benefits. Experience in other styles of riding such as hunting and jumping is a great advantage.

To obtain employment as a dressage rider, even in a part-time capacity, usually a minimum Third Level experience is required. To reach this level, a rider can begin at local competition levels, or take advantage of training clinics. A beginner might offer to work at a horse barn in exchange for dressage lessons.

Any activities which give a person more dressage experience can help him or her advance. These will certainly include showing and might include coaching, or judging. Dedication and persistence will be required to become a professional dressage rider.