There Are Many Paths to the Top Level of Dressage

In this article, Grand Prix rider Kim McGrath shares her journey to the upper levels and the lessons that she learned during her unorthodox climb to the top.

There are many paths to becoming a professional rider, and while some are more traditional than others, there is no one right way. 

I was your typical horse crazy girl growing up and always loved spending time in the equine world. However, I spent some time as a working student under someone who I felt didn’t seem to really like their job that much anymore, and it made me question if I wanted to make it my full-time career. It seemed as if this person’s job had become a burden to them and I never wanted to feel that way about the horse, the sport or the industry. At the time, I was in college with plans to become an attorney, and I ended up moving my horse to another barn and began riding with a new trainer. She was incredibly passionate about her riding, coaching and horse management, and that really changed the way I looked at the profession. It was amazing how contagious her passion was, and it is now something I try to remember daily with my own students.

Kim McGrath (Photo by Terri Miller)

I didn’t just hang a sign on my barn that said, “trainer for hire.” For me, my business was something that evolved. It began with people asking me for help with their horses and riding, and eventually it turned into something more. My way into it was different than a lot of young professionals. Most young professionals know that’s what they want to do early on; they try to get a foot in the door and hang onto a trainer’s coat tails for a while. Of course, this is a tried-and-true way to learn, gain valuable experience and build your résumé, but I didn’t do that. I think that was a little bit tricky for me in the beginning, because my approach to the business was not necessarily intentional. It just evolved, and with that came people telling me that this was not the right way to become a professional. The industry norm is that you must apprentice with someone for a certain number of years and the fact that I didn’t go about it that way was upsetting to some.

You for sure want to listen to and learn from the people around you who have become successful. I had a clinician once tell me that if I wanted to be a successful rider, I needed to find someone who had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish and copy every single thing they did to find that success. It is scary to lead the trail and do your own thing because that doesn’t always work either but I think everybody finds a path that works for their lifestyle and is unique. If you grow up in the sport with different trainers, you learn from each trainer what you like about them and their program, and what you don’t. So, as you grow in this sport, these influential people will educate you and help give you an idea of the type of program you hope to run, and with time you figure out the best way to do that.

While there is no wrong path to success, I have noticed a few key characteristics that are consistent among the very best of the sport: hard work, passion and an eagerness to learn. You must have the utmost respect for the horse and a hunger to always keep learning or you will not make it. Even the very top riders still learn from someone and they never stop wanting to get better. I think that is incredibly important to recognize.

At my very first competition as a professional, I was surrounded by really accomplished riders, including Olympians. I thought What the heck am I doing? I was admittedly freaked out for a little bit and thought that I in no way belonged in a class with these riders. However, I came to the realization that I can’t control if I ever beat these people in competition, but the one thing that I did know is that I could work harder than anyone else. That is the mentality that I have always stuck to.

I always tell people to set a goal and then figure out what the steps are to get there. From that point on it will still be a bit of trial and error. The biggest thing I can stress is that you are not going to get there alone, and you can never stop working toward bettering yourself. Be open to understanding everyones’ path. It is not going to be the same as yours. Most of all, if you have a burning passion for riding, do not close yourself out from the possibilities of what it might be. I could be sitting in a law office rather than on horses every day, but I followed my heart and it took me in a different direction.

Kim McGrath
is a USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist. She is a Grand Prix rider and founder of Sunset Hills Dressage, located in Redlands, California, with a program focused on making equestrians better horsemen, not just better riders. Visit






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