Fancy “Prancy” Not Required

Hey, all horses can win in dressage!

The best dressage horse for you is one you can ride” 

By Sally O’Dwyer, Dressage Passionista

I overheard someone at a horse show say, “I can’t win in dressage because I ride a Thoroughbred”.  Not true! You do not have to spend your life savings on a Warmblood or trade-in your sweet mount to succeed in dressage. Don’t think that you can’t move up the levels and earn your medals because your horse wasn’t imported from Europe or lacks a fancy name. Most horses can be trained to be wonderful dressage horses.

You might be surprised at just how many horses in the ring are not Warmbloods. What exactly is a Warmblood you ask?  A Dressage Today article by Karen Brittle explains this well and says Warmbloods are not actually a pure breed. She explains, “In the context of equestrian sports, Warmblood infers horses descended from the deliberate breeding of the European riding horse. Today, a widely accepted definition for “Warmblood” is a horse with at least four generations of documented sport-horse bloodlines that has been inspected and registered by a recognized breeding association with the purpose to excel in the sports of dressage, eventing and show jumping”. For more info, check out: 

Don’t believe me? Look out in the field, where horses of all breeds are frolicking and performing amazing dressage feats like tempis, passage, and levades. My thoroughbred piaffes whenever he sees a cow. So, look your horse right in the eye, whatever the breed, and tell him/her it’s time to take it out of the field and into the arena.

Tiffany Turley rides the beautiful Mia, a Welsh/Thoroughbred cross, performing Second Level

Dressage is good for all horses: Many believe that they are not performing dressage if they are not astride a Warmblood. The word “dressage” is French for training, which, of course, is great for any horse of any breed. For the rider, dressage training gives fabulous tools to better ride. We ride dressage to be more focused, to communicate better with our horses, and to bring out the beauty in our horses. Correct dressage makes your horse fit, supple, lighter on the aids, and more fun to ride. Dressage is good for your horse physically and could actually extend his/her longevity.

What are your goals as an amateur? We get carried away, okay, maybe even a little brainwashed, by the fancy horses splashed across social media and the Warmblood sales pages. Watching some of these horses compete can take our breath away. And we think, if only I had fancy prancer. But is this what we really need? Are you attempting to qualify for the Olympics, or ride at the international level? Our horses can only perform up to the level of our ability as riders no matter how fancy prancy they may be. As amateurs, we should be focusing on improving our personal scores, not winning high point of the day.

The very handsome half Arab cross, Trumpet, ridden by Naomi Perry performing Prix St. Georges.

It is true that modern Warmbloods are selectively bred to excel in dressage. Other breeds are naturally at a physical disadvantage because they are bred for different jobs. Thoroughbreds are bred for the racetrack, Quarter Horses for sprinting, Arabians for endurance, and Draft Horses to pull. A well-bred Warmblood may score higher in movements where the lofty gaits and lovely reach of the horse can be demonstrated, such as the half pass, free walk, and the mediums. However, there are many places in a test where it doesn’t take a big mover to perform well, such as the walk pirouettes, the rein back, the halt, turn on the haunches, and transitions.

Judges go nuts for correct riding and accuracy and will reward you for it. They love to see riders who prepare for movements, use corners, maintain balance, and demonstrate relaxation. Judges want to see a horse that maintains a good rhythm and tempo, is responsive to the aids, relaxed, supple, moving from back to front and into the bridle. The judge is looking for harmony between the horse and rider. Show that and win!

Talented and gorgeous Percy, a Welsh/Quarter Horse Cross, ridden by Julie Burt, performing Grand Prix

A Good Horse is Never a Bad Color Great horses come in many breeds, sizes, shapes, colors, and ages. Gaits on a horse can be improved, but not temperament. You can’t put a price tag on a horse is that is honest, patient, forgiving, willing, and eager to learn. They are, whatever their breed, the gold standard for the dressage amateur. Some of the most naturally talented Warmblood dressage horses can be very sensitive, excitable, or tricky, and best left for the professionals to ride. Most amateurs don’t need a 10 mover. It is challenging to ride a big, strong horse with a huge trot and suspension. For most of us amateurs, it is smarter to spend less on buying a fancy prancer and more on training!

Be an Equal Opportunity Rider. You will be in good company with my personal heroes. Lendon Gray rode Seldom Seen, a Connemara cross to at the highest levels in dressage. Hilda Gurney rode a Thoroughbred in the Olympics. It wasn’t that long ago that Thoroughbreds were all the rage for dressage. Be proud to promote your breed and their ability to compete in the dressage ring. Make sure that you have a trainer that believes in your horse as much as you do, regardless of the breed. Treat your horse, whatever the breed, as the true superstar he/she is. See you in the ring.

The Chestnut wonder horse, George, performing Fourth Level says “Try a Thoroughbred. We work harder for you!”

About Sally O’Dwyer: I am a boomerang rider, like many other amateurs. I began as a kid on backyard ponies. Later, school, family, and work took over, and riding took a back seat.  I attribute, or blame, Megan, my youngest daughter, for getting me back into horses about ten years ago.  She said she wanted to ride, and I jumped all over it.  Turns out, it really wasn’t her thing, but it got me going again and now I am working on earning my USDF Silver Medal with my two horses, an Off the Track Thoroughbred and a young Warmblood. 

Far too many riders lack confidence in themselves. They want to be dressagey badasses and unleash their inner dressage warrior, but they are intimidated, dread what people might think of them, and need some encouragement to just do it.  We ammies gotta lift each other up so that we will take a leap of faith and become the beautiful riders we truly can be.  Check out my blog at


  1. Love this! I’m always telling people there is no reason your horse can’t ride third Lev other than no one has put the time on to teach him/her third level! Of course it’s not going to be easy or we would all already be doing it!

  2. When I was a teen I used to ride whatever was loaned me, as I was poor lol. I also used to regularly win with much better off people’s castoffs, or the auction horse that was getting a second chance. so yeah ditto on not needing that fancy horse, just lots of work and understanding the test as well as what the judges are looking for
    I also had a trainer impress on me early that the flashy ride is not always the best one. A great rider is the one who can make a extremely difficult ride look like a easy hack though the park. Something I sometimes don’t see even at the upper levels.

  3. Loved this, I ride a hairy Highland and do low level dressage on this wee home bred mare. I aim to improve my own scores with the help of my trusted instructor despite my own advancing years! I just want to improve and have fun!

Leave a Reply