The Price of Progress in Dressage

DT’s managing editor discovers big learning opportunities at a small cost.
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Credit: Amy K. Dragoo In terms of dressage, how many times do you find yourself using the phrase “If only I could afford to…?”

Credit: Amy K. Dragoo In terms of dressage, how many times do you find yourself using the phrase “If only I could afford to…?”

If you’re like me, your financial resources probably play a large role in the decisions you make regarding your horse and your riding career. I was very lucky growing up—my family was incredibly supportive of my riding habit in every way possible. My parents, bless them, always made sure we were able to give my horse a happy and comfortable life and afforded me the opportunity to get a solid riding education. While I was always so thankful that I had no shortage of learning opportunities, I also couldn’t help but be envious of the kids who were given fancy imported horses, who missed school to show every weekend and who could afford expensive training with Grand Prix trainers and trips down to Florida. 

I am painfully aware of the amount of wealth circulating in the dressage world and because of that, it often feels as though my future success as a dressage rider rests completely upon the state of my financial resources. While the American dream suggests that hard work and determination alone can help you achieve your goals, it doesn’t seem like that necessarily holds true in the dressage industry. In our world, it feels like great riding opportunities always seem to come at a price—and a costly one at that. For those of us without unlimited resources, it can be easy to feel stuck in a rut. When discussing your own progress in dressage, how many times do you find yourself using the phrase “If only I could afford to…?” 

One day, I felt like I had reached the end of my rope. I was doing the best I could with the resources that I had, but I just wasn’t progressing at the rate I wanted. So I immediately started crunching numbers. The fact of the matter is that to make the progress I wanted, I needed more time in the saddle, which equated to riding more horses more often. Determinedly riding the eager 23-year-old horse I’ve owned for the past nine years, for five to six days a week was certainly helpful, but wasn’t doing much to expand my skill set. I owned just one horse and rode at a very small barn with two other retired horses on the property, so I didn’t have many options for riding different horses there. I couldn’t afford to buy or lease a second horse. Lessons at another barn on a school horse seemed like a good option, but it was impossible to find a lesson program that had the quality horses or instruction that would help me make real progress toward the goal of earning my USDF bronze medal. I’ve never been afraid of some good old-fashioned stall cleaning, but doing barn work in exchange for the chance to ride while already working a full-time job and maintaining my own horse seemed to leave little time for actual riding.

Sometime in the midst of the number-crunching, I decided to take a different approach completely. I started looking for free riding opportunities. Anyone who knows horses knows that “dressage” and “free” are often mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, the phrase “free riding opportunity” practically sounds like an oxymoron. Was I being wildly optimistic? Maybe a little. But in the back of my head, I thought that there surely must be someone near me who just needed help giving her horse a bit more exercise on a regular basis. Even if it wasn’t a fancy horse or one that was particularly fun to ride, I knew added time in the saddle could be educational.

I decided that I had nothing to lose, so I posted on our local dressage association Facebook page. I was in search of any relatively safe horse within reasonable driving distance that needed regular exercise. I explained my experience level and my desire to get more ride time on a greater variety of horses. And I needed it to be free. I nearly expected a snarky response from some snooty dressage queen telling me I could ride her unicorn for free, so I nervously monitored the post. 

In the first couple of hours, I received one response. It was from someone about two hours away. And while I immensely appreciated the offer, it wasn’t a realistic option for someone like me who works a 9 a.m.–to–5 p.m. desk job five days a week. After checking Facebook on my phone one last time before I went to bed that night, I switched it off, set it on my nightstand and closed my eyes. Maybe I was being wildly optimistic.

The next morning I awoke to find that I had more than 10 offers from various local dressage-horse owners. And, miraculously, the majority of them sounded like they were all viable options. Before I knew it, I had appointments to try horses every evening the following week. I figured that some of the horses might be beyond my ability level or at least might not be a good match, so I decided to investigate each opportunity and pick from what seemed to be the best.

After some exploring, I got the chance to work with two other lovely horses in addition to my own mare on a weekly basis. It certainly made for some late nights and early mornings and a lot of extra driving, but it was a very small price to pay for the amazing opportunities I found. 

Not only did I feel like my skills improved exponentially from ride to ride, but I also met new barnmates, including a particularly cute Corgi puppy, was introduced to top-notch trainers and discovered some fantastic dressage barns in the area. 

Some of these riding opportunities, which I expected to last only a few months, turned into more long-term projects as well. I was even offered the chance to free-lease one of my favorite horses and I couldn’t have been more thankful for the chance to get to know him better. 

I’m still trying to take this journey one day at a time, but I’ve already learned one important lesson: Sometimes you just have to knock and the door shall be opened—even in the dressage world.

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