I get asked some form of this question 50 times a year, in lessons, at clinics, via email or Facebook: how do I rise up the levels? What’s the best plan to get from being a lower-level rider to FEI? What path should I follow?
There are, for all intents and purposes, two options: to find a schoolmaster, a horse trained to the upper levels, from whom to learn; or to bring along a green horse, to teach him and yourself together along the way.
There’s some variety in those two paths, and neither option is perfect. Here’s a look at what I feel are the pros and cons to both situations.
If you go the schoolmaster route, you’ve got yourself a horse that knows the work, and can teach you. This is very cool, and certainly on the right schoolmaster, I’ve seen riders make tremendous progress in a short period of time, not just in learning how to execute the upper level movements, but also in riding with an honest connection from hind legs to bridle, truly sitting the trot instead of trying to figure out how on a horse who’s not always through, and so on, and so on. A horse that’s trained to do not just the things but to do the things right is an incredible teacher.
However, they have their challenges. In any horse purchase, but particularly purchasing an older horse who’s been managed in one fashion, chemistry is a crucial factor, and sometimes hard to gauge in just a few trial rides. More than once have I gone shopping with clients, tried a horse several times, brought it home and had it be a mess because the chemistry just isn’t there. Trying horses for sale is like speed dating, but with a wedding at the end, for better or worse.
Even if the chemistry is great, at some point, the honeymoon ends and things get a little messy for a while. It’s been said it takes a year to learn a new horse, and especially if that horse has made it to age 10, 12, 14, whatever, living within a specific system, having that system changed is jarring. A horse has to adjust to his person, just as a person needs to adjust to his horse. The more things the horse knows, and the more comfortable a horse is within his one specific program, the more complex it is to change that program.
And because training takes time, and horses are mortal, a schoolmaster will be older. There aren’t very many 8-year-olds who can guide a novice dressage rider through the FEI work; that character usually doesn’t show up much before 10 or 11, if not more like 13 or 15. Barring calamity, I tell my students that 17 or 18 is usually the mean on when horses need to back down from international-level work, and yes, of course there are many exceptions to that rule—I own one, as Bellinger did his last FEI test at 22—but 18 is all anyone can reasonably count on.
A trained horse is also usually an expensive proposition, particularly if he’s not on the older side of that scale. A 12-year-old Prix St. Georges horse with competitive gaits? That’s a six-figure endeavor, easily, with very little possibility of recouping that investment.
And of course there are exceptions; we hear of them all the time. Older FEI horses owned by a trainer who doesn’t want to sell get leased to their amateur students. FEI horses of more “normal” breeds and types don’t cost as much as warmbloods with big gaits and pedigrees. And there are horses out there with calamitous x-rays who never develop symptoms, or who can be managed, available for much less than something with a clear pre-purchase exam.
But some people choose to go the young horse route instead. That path has its pros and cons as well.
As someone who brings young horses up the levels for a living, I know that the best thing about them is that by the time they’re trained to do the upper level work, I’ve got their management and style down to a science. I know what’s normal for Ella, or Fender, or Midge. I know that Ella hates hand-walking at horse shows, and that Fender always looks angry in his stall away from home, and that Midge needs to school his tempi changes in the warm-up but Ella doesn’t; I know the best way to shoe them, to feed them, to approach the ramp up to competition, all for the greatest chance of success in the end.
And I also know how I got there. When I get on a horse someone else has made, I don’t necessarily know what he’s going to do when I hit the wrong button, when I drive too hard or come into a pirouette or piaffe in a way that he doesn’t know or like.
But it takes time. For a student with FEI ambitions, if their horse is parked in my barn from 4 years old, and they’re a competent rider, and I get to sit on the horse regularly to check their work, and the horse never gets hurt or has any kind of setback, 8 is the earliest I can reasonably get them to Prix St. Georges, and 10 is the earliest I can reasonably even think about Grand Prix. I know there are those who get it done faster, but those are pretty rare.
And along the way, many, many young horses go through some naughty teenage stages. Certainly not every young horse is going to pose grave bodily harm to his rider, but youngsters can buck, balk and bolt under the best of circumstances, the same way that bright and well-parented teenage humans still sometimes smoke cigarettes, drink beer, miss curfew and sneak out of class.
Just as how the response to stupid teenage human behavior is a firm sense of discipline by a confident and clear parent, the response to stupid teenage horse behavior needs to be equally clear and swift, and not every amateur rider will feel confident in delivering that justice. Any lower level rider looking to get to be an upper level rider by bringing a young horse along needs to accept that their horse may advance faster than they do, and/or may need to spend time being ridden exclusively by their qualified, competent coach
Many of my students keep their horses at home or at a boarding stable, and trailer in to my farm for lessons. Every single one of these riders who’s made it up the levels has left their young horses with me for at least a week at a time, at least three or four times, over the course of their path to FEI.
That is not because my riders aren’t extremely capable, or because they’ve made a mistake. They do this to have me, their experienced coach, help them to the other side of a training hurdle. Anyone, amateur or professional, bringing a horse up the levels should have access to a coach who will help them overcome any training obstacle along the way—Michael had Ella for months, and he’s ridden Danny for me when things got a little tough for me last year.
And temperament is a crucial factor: unfortunately, most of the horses that piaffe and passage at 10 or 12 or 15 are not so amateur-friendly at 4 and 5 and 6. And the wonderful, kind, sweet and tolerant baby horses rarely grow up to be FEI rockstars.
So I answer those 50-questions-a-year like this: If you are that rider looking for the wisest way to ascend the levels of dressage, only you can decide which is the best path for you. You might buy a cheap older FEI horse and keep him going through his mid-20s; you might buy a rockstar young horse that might fulfill your dreams.
There’s no right or wrong answer, and luck is a major factor. Work with an exceptional coach who’s got a track record of students doing what you want to do, cross your fingers, and go for it!