I admit to having severe fancy horse and rider education envy at times. When I see online coverage of all the money dressage amateurs competing with super fancy horses at the national level with big name trainers it's hard not to feel I missed the boat somehow. Should I have kept one horse in a training barn, been a working student into perpetuity, lived in a condo, and given up the whole farm experience to get closer to my riding goals? Is it worth having my horses literally in my backyard for all the riding and training opportunities I have given up? This is tough one for me, especially when I am doing the endless maintenance and work that a small horse farm requires while riding my $800 pony on a grass dressage court.
In the same thought stream is the mental argument about how horses that are built and bred to do dressage make dressage so much easier. I do have personal experience of this with my 25 year old American bred Hanoverian Oreo. She's always been nuts and super sensitive, but many things from extensions to lead changes came very easily to her even when I wasn't riding particularly well. Not so much to my current sport pony Jet Set. The interesting thing though, is that I've gotten stuck at just about the same place with both horses. Oreo had better extensions and changes, but fundamentally I could never get truly correct collection with her. Jet does not have the fancy extensions or lead changes but again we are hitting the wall at true collection. Every time we get close, he starts evading by rolling behind the bit, getting crooked, or tensing up. We go back to connection and straightness for a while and then try again. The books read and videos watched get us a little closer each try. Every try gets a little closer also, as I solve my position flaws and use my timing, core, and half-halts more effectively. Once in a while we have that ride where we get "it" and amazing isn't the word, but what I find most interesting is that the catch point is always my timing and position. Something that is really, really hard to teach.
So, I can hear you saying to yourself, "Why doesn't she just buy a nice horse, get a trainer, get some intensive help, and fix this collection thing once and for all?" My answer is found on YouTube. Just start searching amateur dressage tests at all levels and view the carnage. How many riders with fancy horses, taking lessons continually, tuned by their trainers in full training, do you see riding incorrectly? How many really nice horses with great gaits going slightly over bent, slightly crooked, tail wringing, with a not quite in harmony rider? These amateurs win because they are the best of the field with by far the nicest horse but none of them look like the really good pro riders. Money only buys so much.
Now don't get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an amateur, buying a nice, appropriate horse for yourself, and having your trainer keep it tuned while taking lessons to try and learn how to ride correctly and work through the levels. In fact, it is ethical to the horse because he gets many good rides from the trainer to keep him on track and the amateur is kept mostly on the rails by the trainer. It seems like progress is SLOW though and a lot of the gains and competitive success are down to not great riding masked by trainer rides and a bred for dressage horse.
Having been on the receiving end of many many lessons by naturally talented riders/trainers which somewhat improved my riding but never gave me the keys to the kingdom, I guess I respect how truly hard becoming a correct dressage rider is for the average "non-talented" rider. I totally get the people who go the fancy horse, in full training, lessons route and ride it to competitive success. Ultimately there are many different ways to get to competence, but I guess I am more inclined towards the riders that take an OTTB, an Arab, or any of the non-traditional dressage breeds and use education, lessons, and elbow grease to turn a duckling into a swan. Money can buy the move through the levels but it does tend to mask some not so great riding. This is pretty much impossible with a so-so horse and no or not many trainer rides. You as a rider have to learn and earn your progress. Step by sometimes difficult step. Jet will never be a competitive dressage horse at the rated level but the lessons learned and the small improvements in my riding are enough for now, for me, I think.