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The sport of dressage tests rider and horse, with millions of dollars on the line

Annie Heeder

The highest levels of this popular equine sport lead to pro competitions and the Olympics. But the road to get to the top requires a lot of money, patience and luck.

Dressage is a sport that requires a unique type of concentration between a rider and horse. It is said to be “ballet for horses” and its competitions include memorizing a test where in a rectangle area, the horse performs different movements at each level.

It’s a roll of the dice and millions of dollars.

Most athletes just need a ball and a playing surface to chase their pro dreams. In dressage, riders need an equal equine partner and millions of dollars, to fund a horse, show fees, vet care, farrier (horse shoer), equipment, horse dentist, a training facility, horse athletic trainer, a rider coach (trainer), transportation for the horse, an horse passport, and more.

Anna Buffini, 28-year-old California native, knew she wanted to ride horses since she was small.

Most top riders start early, around age 5. Buffini started later, as she did competitive gymnastics until 9. Gymnastics was her first love, and she competed until her body couldn’t anymore, but she always knew she wanted horses to be in her life.

She turned to riding at 10.

“I always knew I wanted to ride horses, but I didn’t know what discipline. I just happened to walk into a dressage barn first and it was perfect for me because it’s basically the horse version of gymnastics with the perfection and the scoring, it was meant to be,” Buffini said.

Fast forward to 2023, Buffini competed for Team USA at the FEI World Cup in Omaha, Nebraska. This was the second time Buffini competed for the national team and is the youngest rider in history to compete in an FEI World Cup.

Buffini said she doesn’t have the most talented horse in the FEI World Cup, but she’s grateful for the experience to be able to see how she fares against the top in the world.

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“I think being in the atmosphere with the best riders in the world, in general, is so inspiring and exciting and competitive,” she said. “Also, I don't have the fanciest horse here, so we're not going for the top spot but to see what it takes to be at the top and to chase after it, that's incredible. And being around great riders raises your game. I want to be better. I want to be the best one day and I won't stop working till I can hopefully compete with the top riders.”

Bring money - a lot of it

The road to riding on a national team is long and challenging. Riders need some form of outcome income, whether that is from a career, family funds, or having a sponsor. Companies and individuals will sometimes sponsor riders; this means that an individual company or person (ie, Lego, Google, Betsy Juliano, Glock) will buy a rider and a horse, and fund all aspects to be successful.

Simply owning a competition horse is expensive. At any moment, a horse could get injured, during training, to being turned out in a field, to competition.

Hope Cooper, 26-year-old Grand Prix rider, resides on her family farm in Concord, Massachussetts. She has been riding horses since she was six. She knows what it takes to get to the Grand Prix (the highest level in dressage), but she also knows how much money it costs to keep them there.

“I think what it takes is a lot of grit, first of all, it’s such a unique sport. There are a lot of ups and downs and things that don't go well and you have to bounce back from them. I also think, sadly, in this sport, it takes a lot of funds. Which is a little bit unfortunate, and that is something that makes it different from other sports,” Cooper said.

Having the funds to have a Grand Prix horse doesn’t guarantee success in the world of dressage. Grand Prix riders understand how to overcome and survive the highs and lows, and keep competing.

“Funds definitely whether it's your own funds or you find a sponsor or you find a way to make doing what you want to do work,” Cooper said. “ It's kind of stupidly an expensive sport, which is unfortunate. It involves a lot of luck too. A lot of hard work and a lot of luck.

“Because even if you have all the funds and you have the best horses and you have the most talent and you get to, even we just saw it at Omaha, you get to a World Cup and your horse has to have colic surgery, it's horrible. So it's luck, timing, all of those things and then because of those things, you know, trying over and over and over again and having the stamina to do that.”

Cooper is referring Hermes, an 11-year-old stallion who qualified for the World Cup with his rider Dinja Van Liere. Upon landing in Omaha, Hermes got sick and was not fit for competition.

Keeping the horses strong is an ongoing process

Buffini describes her horses as equivalent to NBA or NFL athletes. They work just as hard, if not harder than their riders. to perform all the necessary movements and tests be at the highest level of dressage.

Buffini’s horse, Diva, requires specific recovery protocols to maintain top competitive form.

“Diva has an extreme recovery schedule,” she said. “...So anything you see in an NFL training room is basically what my horse gets. She gets massage therapy, acupuncture, laser treatment, magnetic blankets, she gets the game-ready ice system, she gets iced. She doesn't do this because she's a little crazy about it. But they have treadmills, aqua treadmills, swimming, anything and everything you can think of.

“Recovery is twice as important as the work I think. And a healthy horse is a successful horse. It doesn't matter how fancy they are if they can't work.”

Buffini learned some horses react to treatments better than others, meaning riders have to tailor schedules to the things they enjoy and react to the most. Buffini said that Diva loves acupuncture and laser treatment, while her other horses prefer the icing and magnetic blankets.

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“You just get very specific with what they need and when you're riding them, you can feel where they're tight, where they need a little bit of help,” she said. “And then you pinpoint where they need to be loosened up or get the soreness out of and be very specific.”

For Cooper, ensuring her horses are set up for success in staying healthy is something she takes seriously. She has taken the time to come up with the best recipe for her horses.

“I ice all four legs after every ride,” she said. ”I think the biggest thing is just constantly moving around. I think we run into problems with our horses when we have them in one place for too long. I do a lot of massage therapy. We have a guy named Salve; he was a human masseuse for a long time. And now he does the horses and he is physically like a really big guy so he can almost lift the horses up if he gets underneath him and push their backs up.

“We do a lot of massages like for Flynn (Cooper’s Grand Prix horse). He gets two massages a day during a CDI. For me, it's just the walking around, like a lot of hand walking, a lot of turnout, a lot of icing. We do some lasering too.”

Katie Foster, owner of Canterworks Dressage, in Mason, Michigan takes a different approach to care for her horses. She knows some things work well for her horses, such as having a vet focusing on keeping the horse sound.

When a horse is “lame” that means they walk with a limp and that is usually an indicator that there is an issue with a horse's feet. When a horse isn’t lame they are called “sound”.

“Mine go five days a week, they always get two days off,” Foster said. “I usually have a standing appointment with my lameness vet every month. I have that booked out and I know that I can always cancel it if I have to, but more often than not somebody needs something, even if it's chiropractic or acupuncture. Then we do a lot of things like some of the horses get iced after they're worked. I like the magnetic massage blanket.”

The challenge never stops

Buffin’s background in gymnastics helped prepare her for the difficulty of dressage. The rider is never just passively sitting on the horse, they are athletically working with core strength and balance to maintain effective form.

“People don't think this because we look like we're sitting up there doing nothing, which is actually a compliment,” Buffini said. “It's extremely hard, and for me, in some ways, more physical than gymnastics was in the length of time you have to hold your strength for. Gymnastics is an insane amount of power for 30 seconds to a minute and a half. And then horse riding is an insane amount of strength for about 45 minutes straight with a couple of walk breaks.

“In other sports, you can shoot a basketball a thousand times a day, you can go to the golf course and swing a thousand clubs. You can only ride your horse for 45 minutes a day. We get less practice and we have to be just as good as the top athletes in the world.”

Alice Tarjan, 44-year-old Grand Prix rider from New Jersey, also knows that it's unrealistic to aim for a perfect score on every test. Instead of aiming for perfection, she focuses on the goals of the rider and horse.

“You know, it's dressage; it's hard. It's [the score] never, good enough of course. Like nobody ever gets a hundred percent and for sure it's taken a lot of hard work. I think if you wanna excel at anything in life, you have to work hard and you also have to work smart. And you have to be really realistic about what your abilities are and what your horse's abilities are,” Tarjan said.

The decision: train or buy a Grand Prix horse?

Riders have two options to get to the Grand Prix level. One is to buy a lower-level horse and train it up to Grand Prix. Or skip the training, and buy a horse already at Grand Prix level. Buying is usually only an option for sponsors or people who can afford it. Currently on the low end Grand Prix horses are selling for the mid 5 figures, international horses reach in the millions to tens of millions of dollars.

Maryal Barnett, an FEI C Judge and a riding instructor in Michigan, knows what it costs to be able to afford to buy a Grand Prix horse.

“And if you're gonna get the very best, [horse] it's millions,” Barnett said.

Cooper has had to find creative ways in order to be able to find her upper-level horses, one of the strategies she has found is by trading some of her younger horses for the higher-level horses she currently has in her barn.

“As much as my family is super comfortable financially in the real world; in the horse world, it's not really the case. We've had to get really creative about trading horses. For one of the horses I have now, that's from Isabel Werth; we had to trade two young horses that I got. I had two young horses that were really not what I wanted. And then I found this one. So we traded two horses, plus we had to find a co-owner. We've over time always had to trade horses, which it sounds so sad, to talk about horses that way, but we've often had to trade one horse for another if it doesn't work out,” Cooper said.

Isabel Werth, a German dressage rider who is the most decorated in history, has ridden in six Olympics and has over 10 Olympic medals. For Tarjan, she has found her own way to produce Grand Prix horses, and that is by buying them as foals (babies) and training them herself from Training Level to Grand Prix. This way of training horses offers many advantages because it allows the rider to build an incredibly strong relationship with their horse.

“For me, I wanted to do dressage and the only way for me to do that was the cheapest way I could. For me to get quality [horses] is to go buy a foal and raise it and then put the training on it because I could train it for free,” Tarjan said. “ The training was “free” because it was my work rather than paying somebody else for their training. I think the whole system in the U.S. pushes everybody to try and go buy a trained horse.

“I think it's a little unfortunate and I certainly hope to talk to young trainers out there and kids coming up and say, ‘There's another way to do it. You can go and train your own horses and you can be successful that way, too.’ And it gives you independence and it helps you fund it a little bit because if you can make a horse you can be solid and, and make a good living off doing that.”

Tarjan said if she tried to buy her current Grand Prix horse, Shrimp, at the level she is at now, she wouldn’t be able to afford her. For Tarjan, training horses is the only way she knows she can be successful in the world of dressage.

“I would never be able to afford the horses I have in my barn right now. There's no way I could afford the Grand Prix horses that I got in the barn right now, not even close. So it's the only way that I have of getting my hands right on them is to produce them myself,” Tarjan said.

One of Buffini’s career goals is to offset the cost of riding dressage for rising younger riders. She already started this initiative by donating her top horses to other riders that need them.

“I think first of all a passion I have for this sport is to help figure out ways to do more fundraising, add more programs, add more funding for good riders who need good horses,” Buffini said. “So that's actually a huge passion project of mine for the rest of my career. So hopefully we can start changing that and it will come from the trainers. I've already in my own world led the charge by donating my top horses to good riders and they've become Grand Prix riders and started their own business because of that.

“I think you have to be, you have to do it for other people and you have to start somewhere. It is a very expensive sport and it takes a lot of hard work and you can spend all the money in the world and never make it, which is the hardest part,.”

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