Q: If I have the financial ability to study with an Olympic-level instructor on his Grand Prix schoolmasters once per day and am already riding at Second Level, how long would it take me to ride Grand Prix if I took a lesson five to seven days per week? I am considering moving to a different state to do just this and am trying to collect a few knowledgeable opinions. —Name withheld by request
A: This is quite a general question, which makes it hard to answer. Many factors play a role in a rider’s success. I’ll give you my thoughts on the most important ones. When you say you want to ride the Grand Prix, do you mean to ride at Grand Prix level in a consistently lower score range, such as 58 percent? There are many riders out there who’d qualify for this, but would not make you very competitive. Are you hoping to be good enough to make a team? That would mean you have to score consistently near 70 percent at CDIs. It is very difficult to reach that level even for a top professional rider with a top horse. Most likely, your goal is to be competitive at national shows and be in the mid-60-percent range.
The next big question: Do you plan to buy a trained Grand Prix horse, lease a Grand Prix horse or do you hope to train a talented horse yourself with help from a trainer? Of course, it will take a lot longer to train a young horse up the levels and he might never reach Grand Prix. By riding a well-trained Grand Prix horse, your chances are much better and the learning curve much faster. If you are showing a trained Grand Prix horse, it will still be important for your trainer to keep the horse tuned up.
In my opinion, you should still work your way up the levels in order to really learn to ride. It would also be a big help if you could ride at least two horses a day. I used to ride eight to 10 horses a day in my early professional career, and the horses taught me more than any person ever could. Only the horses can truly develop your feel.
How talented a rider are you? There can be 10 different riders, and nine of them might never reach the Grand Prix level because they don’t have the feel, discipline, patience or persistence.
If you are talented and consistently getting 70 percent at Second Level, you might be able to reach Grand Prix within three years if you are riding a trained schoolmaster. If your scores average around 58 percent at Second Level, you will take a lot longer or not reach Grand Prix at all.
Few people make it to Grand Prix and are able to get consistently high scores. Personally, I advise you to focus on the learning experience you get from each and every horse you ride and not only on the goal of Grand Prix because this will make it difficult to acquire honest skills. I think it would be more gratifying to know you are a good rider rather than a mediocre rider showing Grand Prix. Enjoy the everyday learning process and celebrate every time you get that wonderful feeling of being in total harmony with your horse. Ambition is good, but more important is patience, persistence, talent and discipline. I have ridden almost every day of my life (if in town) and still get a total high whenever I manage to teach a horse something new or when a horse gives me a great feeling of total throughness.
I also advise you to stick with one instructor once you’ve chosen one. If you change instructors frequently, it will only confuse you. Every instructor has different ways of explaining things, using different terminology. You need to have a system and stay with that system. If you start to mix them up, none of them will work. Also, if you stay with the same instructor, he or she will be more excited about you, trying his or her best to help you reach your dreams. The important thing is to really check out the instructor before you make a big commitment. Watch him or her ride or teach so you feel comfortable it will work.
If you always enjoy the journey, you won’t have many disappointments.
Charlotte Bredahl-Baker is a U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) “S” and FEI four-star dressage judge. As a rider, she won a team bronze medal at the 1992 Olympic Games riding Monsieur, and she won team silver at the 1997 North American Championships on Lugano. As an instructor, she was the featured clinician for the USDF Adult Clinic Series (2009–2011) in all nine regions. She is also a member of the USEF High Performance Committee (dressageretreats.com).