Dressage on a Dime

Advice on how to progress when you can’t afford a full-time dressage trainer.

Credit: Courtesy, Debra Rankin Debra Rankin and Murphy were showing Third Level.

My story begins with losing Murphy—a wonderful, talented warmblood that I did have in full training and was showing at Third Level. He was sensational. 

Murphy did two tempis with ease and had started canter pirouettes. He was the best horse I have had, and at the time I was not sure I deserved him, as I didn’t know then what I know now. He taught me so much and, if for only a short time, it was worth every minute. I was heartsick when I had to put him down, and I honestly felt I should give up on dressage.

I did not have the funds to purchase a new dressage horse of that same level. But a good friend of mine stuck with me through the hours of online horse-shopping and eventually we found a lovely horse. He was not exactly what I wanted, but he has turned out to be a little gem. 

McConaughey, and yes he does look good with his shirt off, is a Morgan and a Palomino on top of that—not something most dressage riders aspire to ride, let alone train. With a heart of gold, he tries and gives and has developed a love for this work called dressage. 

McConaughey had been a victim of the poor economy. He had been abused before I adopted him, and he was underweight and in need of dental work. Because of his hardships and mine we have come to trust one another. We’ve also learned how to do things on our own, and this is where my tips may be helpful for your training program. 

Here I am 55 years old and for the first time in my life struggling financially. I cautiously watch my funds each month, but giving up on my passion is not an option. So here is my advice for doing dressage on a dime when you can’t afford full-time training. I have found over the past several years that the economy has not truly allowed me to step into this ring of full- or even part-time training. Rather than give up on that dream, I have continued to train my horse myself. It is not always an
easy process and I do not get the results as fast as I would like. But there are many rewards in taking a blank canvas and creating a picture, adding to it step by step.

Credit: Courtesy, Debra Rankin Debra Rankin and McConaughey

Start with a video camera. Being on my horse and on the ground at the same time would solve a lot of my problems, but, of course, isn’t possible. What is possible, however, is the use of a video camera. I have found that by recording my rides on a regular basis I am able to be my own worst critic—I can evaluate all of my mistakes within a matter of minutes. But I am also able to evaluate my progress.

To get the most out of my video, I find a high point in the arena and elevate the camera. Flower boxes work great for this. When that camera is rolling, I find I sit a little taller, ride a little softer and my legs grow a little longer, even for a 28-inch inseam. It is almost like having a trainer in the arena.

Trailer to lessons and clinics. Obviously I cannot do everything myself, so I have enlisted the help of a trainer who will allow me to trailer in to work on my issues. Many trainers will allow you to do this without having to sign up for a training package. Clinics are another option where I can ride with a renowned trainer as well as have a video to review. If the fee is too much for a ride, I have found that many clinics offer free or inexpensive auditing.

Of course a trailer is an expense all its own. If you do not own one or cannot afford to buy one, there are companies that will trailer horses to and from events for a fee that, in the end, won’t equal the cost of buying a truck and trailer. You can also barter with friends who have transportation. 

Ride a test. This is the biggest hurdle for me as the rated shows are expensive. Honestly, I cannot justify going to a rated show for a weekend and tackling the cost of fuel, boarding, meals and coaching. If you’re like me, the best option is attending schooling shows, where I can get feedback from a judge and proceed along the Training Scale. My riding club is currently putting together a schooling-show circuit, and my guess is it will be quite a success. 

Another great option are websites like that allow riders to submit a video of a test and, for a minimal fee, receive feedback and scores from certified dressage judges. 

To do all this, I give up lattes and dining out. I put aside money each month toward my goals. That is my advice for those of you out there struggling. Like me, you read Dressage Today, study the training articles and diligently take notes before heading to the arena to work on shoulder-in, haunches-in, flying changes, etc. It is hard not to get discouraged, but there are always ways to pursue your dream, even if you are not working with a trainer regularly. 

Don’t be discouraged. Bad economy or not, nothing surpasses the feel of throwing a leg over the saddle and taking that first deep breath of horse. Remember, the important thing is to keep dressage in your heart. 






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