Horse & Hound’s guide to starting a professional career in dressage

  • Getting started with a professional career in dressage can be challenging and may sometimes feel like an impossible dream. There is no one set pathway to a successful career in the industry, and those we aspire to follow have all got to where they are in different ways.

    However, if you’re a young person looking to start progressing towards a career in dressage, there are now more pathways available to you than ever before.

    As dressage has evolved, so too has the employment opportunities around it. Consider the last show you went to, there will have been several people working in administrative roles to run that show, alongside photographers, content creators, commentators, brand owners and many more.

    If you’re passionate about the sport there will be opportunities to be involved in it – but they may not be the ones you had initially envisaged.

    “I always thought I’d be a dressage rider, but by 18 I was doing some work with young horses for Sandra Biddlecombe and I realised around that time that not everyone can be a rider,” recalls Lucy Scudamore, Carl Hester’s now award-winning groom, who also runs her own business.

    “It was hard to let go of my dream to be a professional rider, but when I realised being a groom would involve travelling around the world to shows, I knew it was perfect. This job was made for me without me even knowing it.”

    To help get you started on your dressage journey we’ve rounded up a selection of the opportunities available to you. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and if there’s something you’re interested in that isn’t mentioned here, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t training opportunities available in that area.


    British Dressage (BD) has partnered with the apprenticeship training provider Sport Structures to offer a range of qualifications, from working hands-on with horses to business development roles.

    They currently offer six apprenticeships: equine groom (level 2), senior equine groom (level 3), business administrator (level 3), digital marketing (level 3), team leader/supervisor (level 3) and operations/departmental manager (level 5).

    Their apprenticeships are real salaried jobs, paying at least minimum wage, that offer the opportunity to train at the same time as working. Around 20% of your apprenticeship must be spent in off-the-job training or additional added-value activities, such as yard or competition visits.

    BD advertise apprentice jobs on their website but if you’re already in employment your employer can register with the programme if they’re a BD member. Employers who register also receive a financial incentive per apprentice hired.

    Apprenticeships are currently 95% funded by the government and 5% by the employer.

    Level 2 (intermediate) apprenticeships are equivalent to 5 GCSE passes and are a good entry point for those starting out. The BD level 2 equine groom apprenticeship takes 13 months to complete, predominantly consists of on-the-job practical training, and you can start when you’re 16. Riding can also be included as part of the course.

    There can sometimes be a misconception that qualifications for grooming are not valued at professional yards, but as grand prix rider and owner of Elite Dressage Anna Ross explains, that isn’t the case: “I’m a fully qualified BHSI myself, and I like it if people who work for me have done their BHS exams or an apprenticeship because it shows they have stable management skills, know how to care for the horse and are passionate and committed enough to further their skills.”

    Level 3 (advanced) apprenticeships are more advanced and typically require you to have completed either a level 2 apprenticeship or to have five passes at GCSE. They’re considered to be the equivalent of two passes at A-Level.

    BD’s four level 3 apprenticeships take between 13 and 18 months to complete but upon completion will offer you the chance to be permanently employed by the company you’re working at.

    Level 5 (higher) apprenticeships are equivalent to a degree, and require you to have completed a level 3/4 apprenticeship, A-Levels, BTEC or an NVQ. BD’s level 5 operational and departmental manager apprenticeship is the longest at 18 to 22 months.

    Scholarships, academies and riding careers

    Outside of apprenticeships, there are several other opportunities to train towards a career in dressage.

    Students enrolled on one of Hartpury College’s programmes can apply for their equine academy on their own horse. There are three levels within the academy: the elite squad, the elite development squad and the development squad.

    To be invited to the ridden trials for the development squad combinations must have a minimum of 15 points at BD elementary. For the elite squad and elite development squad, combinations must have points at advanced medium.

    For para riders, it is over 60% at a CPEDI3* at any grade for the elite squads and over 60% at a CPEDI2* or BD national para class.

    The elite squad benefit from weekly training sessions – with Carl Hester previously being an invited coach – tailored gym programmes, sports psychology sessions and assistance in planning competition schedules.

    Three scholarships are also made available to outstanding candidates each year.

    BD also offers a young professionals programme that is funded by Sport England and runs over 12 months. It includes eight core sessions presented by industry experts and covers topics such as personal development, business management, insurance and finance and media awareness.

    To be eligible applicants must be aged between 19 and 28, not in full-time education and have demonstrated a commitment to a professional future in the equine industry.

    For those looking to go into riding careers, qualifications aren’t necessary but they do ground you in the industry and demonstrate a commitment to professional development.

    “Talent is entry-level in this industry, everyone is talented,” explains Anna, who has seen riders such as Beth Bainbridge, Alex Baker and Tom Carter move onto professional riding careers. “It’s not always the most talented that go on to succeed, it’s going to be the ones that people want to spend time with and work hard.

    “Versatility is also huge for young riders looking to make it. We breed horses and I can’t breed horses that they specifically like or don’t like. What I’m looking for is whether they can ride nearly all of the horses and get a good tune out of them.

    “It’s also important to be humble, there’s a lot of competition and these all elusive riding jobs where they literally ride all day are very few and far between, and those riders have worked quite a long time to get to that point.”

    Other routes to a career in dressage

    If you’re over 18 and a BD member you can apply to take your British Dressage Coaching Certificate (BDCC) qualifications, which is a government-recognised qualification. You have to pay for the workshops and assessments yourself but they can help further your coaching career by demonstrating your technical knowledge. They also enable you to access further support and development opportunities offered through BD.

    Likewise, if you’re 18 you can begin to start training to become a dressage judge. Being a dressage judge is, in most cases, not an alternative to full-time employment, but it does make you a much more well-rounded and appealing coach and rider.

    “Being a judge doesn’t make you money, so you need to do it alongside other things,” explains Alex Harrison-West, currently the youngest person ever to become a List 1 judge. 

    “I’ve found it very helpful in terms of training my clients because judging gives you a more in-depth knowledge of the sport and where the marks are coming from.

    “You learn to evaluate horses quickly which helps when you’re training clients as it trains your eye to hone in on the bigger issue.”

    Adding as many strings to your bow as possible, as well as being open to opportunities to learn new skills, will certainly stand you in good stead in a dressage career. But also don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask questions – you never know where their advice could lead you.

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