I've heard it said many times: "Every horse can be a dressage horse." Is that really true? The answer is yes. And no. And it depends.
Every horse can and should do dressage, no doubt. Dressage is simply the systematic, correct training of the horse, ideally following the training "pyramid." This type of training is the foundation of every discipline and will help every horse improve strength, suppleness, straightness and the quality of the gaits, in the same way that ballet classes can help every person improve their strength, posture and flexibility.
Although ballet training can help every person, not every person is destined to become a prima ballerina, no matter how many classes they take. Body type, conformation issues, injuries, natural talent and work ethic all play a key role. The same is true of horses.
Not every horse has the physical conformation needed to progress to the highest levels of the sport. A physically unsuitable horse is more likely to develop injuries, or hit a wall in the training beyond which they cannot or will not progress. Some horses are simply more naturally gifted than others; some horses have all the talent in the world but lack the mental focus or willingness to work that is required. Forcing such a horse into a job they can't do, or don't enjoy doing, is a recipe for frustration and heartbreak.
Thanks to decades of careful breeding we have built a better dressage horse - one designed specifically to have the physical attributes and temperament to progress to the highest levels of the sport. While you don't NEED a purpose-bred horse to be competitive, and there are still no guarantees of success if you do, starting off with a horse that is suited to the job is a huge advantage.
In the barn where I board we have three amazing draft crosses who were highly competitive at the FEI levels - two made it all the way to Grand Prix and one is currently on his way there. But they are the exceptions, rather than the rule. There's a reason why we see such a wide range of breeds and types enjoying success at Training and First Levels, and predominantly dressage-bred warmbloods and Iberian breeds at the upper levels.
Whether you believe any horse can be successful at dressage depends on your own definition of success. If your goal is to have fun in local shows at the lower levels, absolutely you can be successful and competitive on almost any sound, healthy horse with good training.
If your goal is to represent Canada on the international stage, or to piaffe and passage down centre line in the Grand Prix, your chances of success are greatly improved by having the right horse for the job.
Think outside the box
If your goals don't match your budget, think outside the box. I was lucky enough to buy a high-quality, imported Hanoverian, PSG schoolmaster for less than the cost of the average used saddle. How? I was willing to take a risk that a 22-year-old horse would stay sound and healthy and was able to give her the quality home, training and care her previous owner wanted her to have.
There are several top quality young warmbloods in our barn who were priced very low due to a lack of handling or late start - problems that should be easily addressable by a skilled trainer. And of course we have our FEI draft cross superstars - not traditional dressage horses by any means, but they all have suitable conformation and a first-class work ethic that has been key to their progress.
Bottom line: choose the horse that is right for you - your budget, your personality, and your goals. Find a skilled trainer who can maximize your horse’s potential through correct dressage training and can guide you in setting realistic expectations and goals. Enjoy your horse and enjoy dressage!
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.