A student asked for a timeline for the development of the Grand Prix horse. While there are all sorts of variations and time elements that may get in the way, there is a generally accepted, age-based expectation of the horse’s development.
Editor’s Note: Some photos from this article have been replaced. I am admittedly not a dressage rider and it would appear that certain images I chose to add to the article were not the best representations of training in the right way.
Grand Prix dressage is the Olympic level of dressage training. It is the tip of the iceberg. Not all horses are able to become Grand Prix horses in the competitive sense, though all horses can learn some or all of the components of Grand Prix.
This week, a student asked me to give them a timeline for the development of the Grand Prix horse. While there are all sorts of variations and time elements that may get in the way, there is a generally accepted, age-based expectation of the horse’s development. It is very similar to the same concepts that we use for human education, which is based on cognitive development and physical capability. Just as we have developed our education system for humans around this knowledge, it is essentially the same for horses.
Similar in both species is the fact that there are some incredibly precocious individuals that are able to exceed standard expectations and there are some individuals that lag behind. Also in both species, sometimes life “gets in the way” and their education may get delayed or terminated through no fault of their own. This does not mean that the individual is not smart, talented, or capable. It simply means that they didn’t get to reach the developmental milestones “on time.” Sometimes though, it may also mean that the horse may not progress all the way to Grand Prix. This does not, however, mean that the horse has no value or is inadequate. It just is.
Let’s start with why these milestones are important. In human development, we know that the brain and nervous system is not born completely intact: an infant human does not have the cognitive and physical development of an adult human. We know from observation that if certain developmental milestones aren’t reached by a certain age, there is a loss in the developmental process leading to fulfillment of future expectations. Essentially, if a child does not learn the alphabet by age five, they will have trouble learning to read at age six. And if they cannot read by age six, they will be further delayed in their education going forward based on their limited ability to read. We have seen this to be equally true of our companion animals.
So we know that children cannot learn the alphabet before they can speak, puppies cannot learn to be housebroken until they have the ability to open their eyes, be mobile on their own, and have the brain development to learn to ask to go outside, and horses cannot learn to leg yield before they can be ridden on a nice round consistent circle. And on it goes. Learning must occur in alignment with physiological development and in a logical order.
If an animal (or a human) has not achieved a developmental milestone “on time” then they are going to be “delayed” in their development to reach their full potential. In this case, “delayed” is only in reference to how much time an organism has in its life to achieve full capability of a skill. It only means that every living organism is limited in how long it has to get to its full potential.
So how delayed? It all depends on their genetics and environment. The mind and body of a human (or a horse, in this case) is more supple and malleable earlier in life. As time goes on, both become more rigid.
There is a concept called nature vs. nurture that many of you may be aware of. Developmental precociousness and developmental delay in any species can be due to genetics or environment. When applied to a horse, conformation and intelligence (talent) are genetic, handling and training are environmental (so are injury, neglect, and abuse). All of these factors come in to play when the “what is the timeline for the development of the Grand Prix horse” question is asked.
So, if we are trying to make a Grand Prix horse, we are talking about creating an elite athlete. Which means there needs to be enough physical and mental talent (nature) and it needs to be educated “on time” for the developmental milestones in the horses lifespan to achieve “elite athlete” status (nurture).
This is a very long-winded introduction to the actual timeline because there are a whole bunch of reasons why this timeline is “ideal,” but not always totally realistic. Also, it’s important to understand that a horse who has never been educated can, in fact, start learning these things later in life. They may just not be able to be competitive Grand Prix horses. At the very least, they should be appreciated for what they can do.
A brief aside, and this is fairly key: the terms “started” and “introduced” do NOT mean competent, in full collection, perfect, completely correct, or pressured. They mean that we are just beginning to start laying down the basis for training the exercise. So when I say “introduce the piaffe,” I mean “start to discuss the idea of the reaction that maybe looks something like an idea of a piaffe-like reaction.” It does NOT mean “Olympic level Grand Prix quality piaffe expectation of a baby horse.”
In an ideal world, assuming good breeding, good handling, and good health, a three-year-old horse can be started under saddle. Yes, some need to wait, and others maybe need to be slightly early. Started under saddle means that the horse is being familiarized with wearing tack, carrying a rider, and what it means to be told what to do by that rider.
Training Level: In our ideal world, a horse that is turning four can walk, trot, and canter on circles and straight lines while carrying a human on its back with some understanding and balance. In the US we call this Training Level in competition.
First Level: By the time the horse is turning five years old in this ideal existence, he can lengthen the stride in all three gaits and can leg yield and make smaller circles and change leads through the trot.
Second Level: As our perfect horse turns six, he can do shoulder-in and haunches-in, counter canter, medium gaits, and canter-walk-canter change of leads, as well as rein back. These skills are found in Second Level in the US.
Third and Fourth Levels: When our glorious horse has completed his six-year-old year, he has the ability to perform all of the previous skills, plus walk, trot, and canter 1/2 pass, extended gaits and a flying change. He also will have been INTRODUCED to piaffe, and maybe some baby passage steps. Our perfect seven-year-old may be able to do some canter haunches-in on the circle (pirouettes) as well and should be considering doing more than one flying change on a line (like every fourth stride). This is equivalent to third and fourth levels. Remember, some horses will be delayed and others will be precocious. So, some may be competing at fourth level and schooling piaffe and passage (baby versions) at home. Others will be getting INTRODUCED to these things.
Fourth Level to Intermediaire I: When our horse is eight years old, he can do everything we have previously mentioned as well as flying changes every four, three, and maybe two strides. half and full canter pirouettes, half pass in all three gaits, some piaffe that is starting to look like piaffe, and some passage that is starting to look like passage. Also, if he is precocious, he may be doing some transitions between them. He has fully developed extended and medium gaits and can easily perform canter-halt transitions, and reinback. In competition, this horse would be performing anywhere from Fourth Level to Intermediaire I.
Intermediaire II to Grand Prix: Our nine year old, on track to be an elite athlete Grand Prix horse, can do everything in the Grand Prix test. He may not be strong and balanced enough to DO the Grand Prix test in competition, but he can do all the things in it. So he may be competing at Prix St Georges, or Intermediaire I or II. But at home he is developing the confidence, collection, strength, balance, and muscle to do the Grand Prix from start to finish.
If your horse is not schooling all of the Grand Prix movements by age nine, you are in the majority. And, if your horse is not schooling all the Grand Prix movements by age nine, it does not mean that he will never be a very good Grand Prix horse. This is just a general guideline of the milestones of training a top Grand Prix horse. Flair, the mare that is in the photo at the end of each of my articles, was a 70% Grand Prix horse. She competed in and won multiple Grand Prix. She was started in Holland, at age three. She was ridden until age five and then had three foals. Her “real” dressage training started at age eight. She was competing at Prix St Georges at age 10 and 11, and became a solid Grand Prix horse by age 13. Was she behind schedule? Yes. Did she do it really well anyway? Also, yes.
My student, who asked for the timeline, is interested in finding a horse on a budget to train to do the Grand Prix on. She was asking not to push a horse through the process as fast as possible, but instead to be able to gauge at any given age whether a horse has enough training and enough life left in it to make it to Grand Prix. When looking at these milestones, the main issue is that a horse will lose its natural ability to be supple as it ages. If the suppleness isn’t developed and maintained at an early enough age, the horse cannot achieve that level of suppleness later in life. That’s the main reason for this timeline. Suppleness is the primary necessity to achieve Grand Prix impulsion and collection.
The importance of achieving milestones in dressage training is solely to be in a position of achieving the greatest potential with your horse. Using dressage training to train a horse to be a very good riding horse and training a horse to be a competitive Grand Prix horse are not necessarily the same things. If you are not perfectly “on track” it is not an end-point of instant failure. But, if you are looking for a horse to train to be a Grand Prix horse, age and amount of training are critical factors. Knowing what your milestones are, and why their timing is important is a critical part of being a good trainer.
Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage. She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.
In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.
In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.
Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.