Grand Prix for the Rest of Us: An Adult Amateurs’ Survival Guide to your first year at Grand Prix


We’ve all watch countless professionals ride Grand Prix tests seamlessly guiding their equine partners through intricate maneuvers culminating in a perfectly square halt, salute of immobility. But what about we Adult Amateurs with piaffe, passage and tempi changes on the brain? I’m here to tell you, upper level competition isn’t just for hard to pronounce celebrity names.

As a country gal growing up on the Gulf Coast of Texas, my first taste of dressage was set to music through the late night illumination of our television. My world of rodeo queens and barrel racers knew nothing of such refinements. How this horse and rider could be so elegant and flawlessly move to music left me awestruck. It was from that time on I dreamt of dressage at Grand Prix. Here we are several decades removed and I have arrived! Now wait. Where was I going again? It’s been a long trail ride but not one without a plan. Goal, get my USDF Gold Medal.

Grand Prix sounds so ominous and unattainable to most of us and without a clearly defined path, it is. Apart from the sports psychology behind it, defacto our unnerving nerves, there was much I needed to prepare before entering at “A” and gliding into a well timed halt, salute. We have a training plan for our weekly rides but why do so few of us have a competition plan? As an A type personality it’s been my custom to create lists so I wrote down my goal. “Successfully complete Grand Prix, Test B across several competitions culminating in my earning a USDF Gold Medal award.” You see, I already had the Intermediate scores necessary. Hmfp, well that was simple I thought to myself but then I had to plan the steps leading up to that goal! Whether it’s Training Level or Grand Prix, if you want to successfully compete, you need to actualize the goal by designing the steps to it. “Angelea, you need to have a plan.” The simple yet genius words from Kathy Everman still ring in my ears.

How have I gotten through the season? I follow the path to my goal and I keep to a simple list on show days.

Look sharp.
I’ve always felt better when I was confident in my appearance and the dressage ring is no different. Make sure your hair is pulled back underneath a net in a nicely coiffed bun. Next, put on your best face. How do you expect a judge sitting at C to see your beautiful smile coming down the centerline if you don’t have a decent amount of lipstick? No matter how hot it is, I have made tasteful make-up a ritual in my preparations. Try wearing something over your sparkling white breeches until just before the moment you mount your noble stead. And lastly, double check your shadbelly for loose threads, dirt, etc and wipe off the top hat as horse shows are known to be dusty!

Make a schedule.
Most all of us have some sort of written agenda or Smartphone these days. So why should we arrive at a show without a plan? It’s not like we’re at a hunter show waiting outside the ring to pick up the next go. You know if you’re going to ride at 11:04 or 11:12 and, barring any scratches or schedule changes, it’s fairly set in stone. To keep it simple say you ride at noon and you warm-up 30 minutes. In this case you’d mount at 11:25. I usually take an hour to prepare not only my horse but myself and I like to use an extra 10 minutes or so just to hang out and check the gear I cleaned and organized the night previous. This clocks me in for a noon ride time about 10:15. The key is never be rushed or deviate from your schedule.

Hydrate and munch.
It’s hot at most shows, REAL hot! So keep your self hydrated. Hydration is more than simply drinking water prior to your class. Most people don’t know it starts a full 24 hours in advance. So keep plenty of water around for the duration of the show and keep on drinking. There’s no excuse for you to collapse during your warm-up. It’s also crucial to keep healthy snacks around and eat a light breakfast or lunch. You can survive in the most desert like conditions of horse showing as long as you drink water and consume food.

The Friendswood, Texas, native started riding horses when she was 5 and entered her first 4-H competition when she was 10. She earned a United States Dressage Federation silver medal in 2004 and a gold medal in 2006.

Avoid mouthwash. I learnt this one the hard way. Your breath does not need to be perfect for the judges as the closest you’ll really get is passing C and breath is the least of your worries in those moments. So don’t use antiseptic mouthwash before your class as it acts like a sponge and turns the inside of your mouth into one great big cotton ball.

Know your warm-up. We’re dressage gals. We’re schooled in rituals. Circles, and halts, and transitions. Serpentines, and diagonals and changes. Lions, and tigers and bears. Oh my! While I’m not saying choreograph your warm-up just know yourself and your horse well enough that you know what will help you physically and mentally during your test. Warm it up enough so you’re ready to peak when your ride time has come.

Mentally warm-up. We know how to physically ask for an extended trot. We know where our core is. We are prepared for that thrust in the extended canter but how many of us prepare mentally for our test? We need to be like that little train at the top of the hill saying “I know I can. I know I can. I know I can!” Ride your test in your mind. Ride it how you see it and see it perfect. Ride that just right rhythmical, elastic and unfaultable piaffe passage transition. Nothing is as powerful as your mind.

Enjoy it!
Whether you’re entering at A in a collected canter for your first Grand Prix or trotting in at Training Level, it’s all too often that the fun and enjoyment of riding is lost with showing. Shows are there simply to ‘show’ us what we need to work on and while blue ribbons are nice it’s about learning while having a good time.

The bottom line; set your goals. Write them down. Begin your plan to achieve them and the next thing you know you’ll be walking out of the arena on a loose rein patting your lovely partner for a job well done!