Why Do Gifted Dressage Horses Progress at a Faster Rate?

Two reasons why the guideline for the training of young, gifted dressage horses differs slightly from average horses.
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Q: I ride dressage because it is so very interesting and because it seems to have a built-in formula of progression through the testing levels. I am surprised, however, to hear top trainers say that a good horse can do Prix St. Georges as a 7-year-old and Grand Prix as an 8-year-old. I have seen the same trend when I look at expensive sale horses in this same age bracket. They are advertised as being shown First Level one year and ready for Fourth Level or beyond the very next year. Please explain why Second, Third and sometimes Fourth are being skipped? Is this wise? Is it not important to show at Second and Third Level? Are these levels only for "mediocre" horse and rider teams? What are these "good" horses that progress so fast, doing when they are 15 or 20 years old? —Name withheld by request

A: Let me first say that we are talking about horses that are equine elite athletes—gifted horses that are going to be team horses to represent our country. The guideline for their training differs slightly from average horses for two reasons. 

To develop an elite athlete, you must have a good breeding program, good veterinarians, nutritionists and farriers to take a horse to these high levels this rapidly. (Credit: Marta_Kent) 

To develop an elite athlete, you must have a good breeding program, good veterinarians, nutritionists and farriers to take a horse to these high levels this rapidly. (Credit: Marta_Kent) 

First, these horses have a tremendous amount of natural balance. With such horses it doesn't take as many years to develop their musculature to be able to do high-level movements. Modern breeding lines facilitate this, producing longer front legs with a less massive heart girth as opposed to big bodies and shorter front legs which makes dressage training difficult.

Some horses are very slow maturing. For example, they go through phases where their croups are higher than their withers—they grow like teeter totters—which slows down the training process. Such horses are not good candidates to become team horses because they take longer in their training.

Second, these elite athletes are trained by expert riders (professionals) who have ridden horses to high levels before. These riders are better able to balance the horses they ride, causing fewer injuries and resulting in less overuse. Their training approach is extremely focused and effective. The training period may be long but it is not all hard work. These trainers give their horses a lot of rest and breaks to reduce stress mentally and physically. They are able to reward the horse quickly, eliminating the need for over-practicing movements or drilling. Their clear-cut approach causes their horses to learn and develop faster. It's not the number of hours spent under saddle, but the quality time.

I also want to point out that professional trainers who are training equine elite athletes don't skip levels. Rather, they combine levels. When training a gifted horse, at age 5, they're showing First and Second Level. At age 6, they're showing Third and Fourth Level and at age 7, they're showing Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I. At age 8, they show Intermediaire I and a little bit of Intermediaire II by the end of the year.

When the horse is 9, they start to show at Grand Prix level. But this doesn't mean the horse is proficient at Grand Prix at that time. Rather, the horse's development is viewed as a process that takes years. The first year of Grand Prix they're just doing the movements. This means they're teaching their horses all the required movements for the test. The second year they're starting to perfect the movements and get more quality and consistency. Only then—at age 11—are they starting to get a smooth and dependable Grand Prix horse. If the Olympics happen to come three years later, the horse could be 14 before they even start to qualify for the first Olympics. Also, we would hope a horse has more than one opportunity to show at the Olympic level as they become more and more dependable and consistent in the process. By then, they could be 18 years old at their second Olympics.

Safeguards are built in the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) and Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) rules. According to the USEF rulebook, horses competing in the following tests and levels must meet the following minimum age requirements per FEI rules: 

•FEI Children/Pony/Junior and Fourth level tests: minimum six (6) years; 

•Young Riders/Prix St. Georges/Intermediate I: minimum seven (7) years; 

•Tests above Intermediate I: minimum eight (8) years. 

The horse’s age is to be counted from January 1 of the year of birth to January 1 of the current competition year. (Effective 12/1/18)

There are two relatively new USEF divisions trying to accommodate the process of training elite athletes. The USEF Young Horse Dressage Program is for the 4-, 5- and 6-year-old developing horse. Beginning in 2011, a new division called the "Developing Horse Grand Prix," was created for 8- to 10-year-old horses. The goal of these programs is to find horse- and-rider talents for high performance, as well as match up horse-rider combinations, by showcasing them in front of a panel.

When these equine elite athletes are 20, they're starting to give back. They become our schoolmasters and may teach three amateurs how to ride at the upper level. They also may be a Young Rider horse, starting a young person on her or his career to become a professional trainer.

And, of course, to develop an elite athlete, you must have a good breeding program, good veterinarians, nutritionists and farriers to take a horse to these high levels this rapidly. It takes a whole team to monitor everything that's going on.

Bill Solyntjes is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze, silver and gold medalist, a USDF "S" judge, "R" Sport Horse judge and has been recently invited to join the "L" faculty. He also chairs the USDF test writing committee and is a member of the Sport Horse committee. He has trained and shown several horses to Grand Prix. Based in Hamel, Minn., he operates Brandywine Farm, a dressage training and breeding facility that has produced many year-end award winners both in hand and under saddle.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Dressage Today and has been updated to reflect rule changes. 

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