Deciding when to move up

At Corona HT a couple weekends ago I overheard a trainer telling one of his students that you shouldn’t move up to the next level until you’re consistently winning at your current level. I thought about that, chewed on it for a while, and decided I don’t really agree.

I think deciding when to move up is one of the hardest decisions we make, especially those with young and/or inexperienced horses. There’s always the worry that you’ll overface yourself, overface the horse, you’ll both die, and the world will explode. Oh wait, maybe that’s just me. But still, no one ever wants to feel like they’re in over their head.

In talking to other people and thinking about conversations I’ve had in the past, it seems like I’ve mostly heard three different approaches on the “when to move up” question:

1) when you’re winning at your current level

2) after X amount of time

3) when your current level feels easy

I just really wanted to use this meme

My issue with the “consistently winning at your current level” approach is that ribbons don’t really tell the whole story. In eventing, you could have a horse that just isn’t great at dressage so never finishes on a super low score, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t 100% capable of competing at the next level. In jumpers, if you’ve ever tried to show in the low children’s or low adult section you’ll understand that unless you have a really fast horse, you’ll rarely win. Again, that doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of the next level. The same can be said across pretty much all disciplines. This approach just doesn’t hold water with me.

Other people like to plan their move-ups based on a time schedule. One year at X level, the next year at Y level, etc etc. That can all be fine and good too, but sometimes things don’t go as planned (whether that’s for better or for worse). I think trying to hinge move-up decisions purely on time frame isn’t really the best way.

That brings us to – when the current level seems easy. This is the one I like. It’s that sweet spot where you’re rocking around at your current level thinking “these are so tiny!” “that was easy!” and your horse shares the sentiment. When your current level looks small and you’re looking at the next level, wishing you were doing that instead. At that point you’re probably in a good place to contemplate an upward progression. But then the next question is – how long do you stay in the “this is easy” phase before stepping up? That’s a harder one to answer.

Then again, maybe all my rambling doesn’t make any sense and I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. That could be true too.

It’s probably not hard to guess what spurred this topic for me… I switched our entry for Texas Rose from BN to Novice. My reasons, whether you agree with them or not, are as follows:

1) Henry is on a roll right now. We’ve had the benefit of doing 3 shows in a really short time frame, he’s been an absolute XC machine at all 3, and he’s felt like he really gets it. Even Corona, with a few Novice size fences, and Greenwood, with some Novice level technicality, were walks in the park. He ate them up without a second thought. We’re both pretty confident right now, and my gut says now is the time.

2) The dressage and stadium are no problem. He showed in the 3′ jumpers last year, was nonplussed in the 3′-3’3″ at his jumper show a couple weeks ago and he’s really been solid at 3’3″ at home for a while now, so 2’11” ain’t no thang for him at this point. And the N dressage is pretty much the same as BN.

3) The Texas Rose course isn’t easy per se, but it’s well designed. It asks legitimate questions for the level and has some big fences but there won’t be any unfair bogey fences waiting to eat you. Well… he’s never seen a Weldon’s Wall so we’ll see what he thinks about that, but a little bit of unknown is always part of the game in eventing. The XC is in big fields that invite a forward ride, so as long as I sit up and go forward (and isn’t that always the truth) I think it’ll be fine.

4) Nothing hinges on this. We’re already qualified for AEC at BN. I really only wanted to do this event at Texas Rose because it’s the AEC venue, and I thought getting him there once to see the sights before AEC would be an advantage. It’d be an even bigger advantage if he’d already run Novice when we show up for AEC at BN. So since we’re really only there to feel things out anyway, it’s a pretty low pressure situation. If he needs to circle, I’ll circle, if he feels like he’s losing confidence, I’ll retire. No biggie.

5) Trainer says do it. This is super important to some and less important to others, but if she says go for it I’m certainly more inclined to go for it.

That’s not to say that I’m not a tiny bit worried that it’s the wrong decision. That will always be a worry when you’re completely neurotic and overprotective about your horse’s mental state like I am. But I’m hoping that if I ride semi-well and Henry stays in his awesome groove that he’s been in all spring, it’ll be just as easy as everything else has been. Otherwise, I feel like I’ve overthought it quite enough by now, and it’s time to just put up or shut up.

So I’m curious – what are everyone else’s thoughts on knowing when to move up? How do you gauge things for yourself?

25 thoughts on “Deciding when to move up

  1. I’m a big fan of the third, and DEFINITELY like to hear my trainer’s thoughts on it. If I was waiting to win in the 2’6″ with Addy, we would’ve never moved up to 3′! We don’t go to shows for ribbons (though I do love the blue satin….), we go to push ourselves and do fun new things. Waiting to win in a lower level is not a fun new thing.


  2. Definitely, when BN starts getting “boring”ish, it’s time. You don’t want your horse to start getting lazy because it’s getting too easy. That’s when mistakes and worse yet accidents can happen (even at the low low levels). Go and school the novice and even some easier training and see where he and you are mentally. I have always been taught when you are comfortably schooling a level above where you are, it’s time to move up. And then you start schooling the next level. Good luck! PS I love the GoPro helmet cam!


    1. Mine’s been schooling Novice fences since his first XC school, and some Training. 😉 The height isn’t a problem since he had a solid year of doing the jumpers at that height. But we’re also in the unfortunate situation where nothing is really close by to where we can go school on a regular basis, so we don’t get to school xc often.


  3. I absolutely don’t agree with waiting until you’re winning to move up. I ride a fat, arthritic, Quarter Horse at 2nd level dressage. She will NEVER have gaits expressive enough to beat the warmbloods and other types that have natural movement for the sport. It just won’t happen. We could have our best scores to date and still get beaten out by all kinds of questionable riding, strictly based on natural ability alone.

    For me, it comes down to
    1) Can I do all the movements required of me at this level?
    2) Does my horse show a greater degree of collection than she did when showing at previous levels?

    That’s really it. I guess to some degree that makes dressage a hell of a lot easier than anything with jumps. If I ask her for a canter lengthen and it’s not there we just don’t do it. It’s not a matter of her being over faced at a fence she thinks is a little too large. If our half passes aren’t “there” that day they just aren’t, and we’ll just worry about getting to the next letter. No jumps in the way 😉

    On another note I think you and Henry are absolutely ready for a move up to Novice, and it’s a smart decision based on all the things you wrote out. Going back to that same venue at AECs and showing smaller will be a huge advantage.

    Good luck!


  4. I totally agree with your #3 indicator – when your current level is easy (and/or you’re winning everything!) it’s time to move up. Right now 75% of BN XC fences scare the poop out of me, so, even though I know that pony and I have the skills to compete at that level, it’s not time to move up yet! I think you and Henry are more than ready for Novice, and your plan to run at Texas Rose before AEC’s is really solid. You got this!


  5. I have similar thoughts. My game plan was always when I was going double clear xc and stadium consistently. Those were my struggles with Hue though. Dressage we always nailed.

    If you’re feeling ready then go for it! Esp if a trainer you trust and respect supports the idea and also feels like you’re prepared.

    Can’t wait to hear about it!


    1. Should have added and when I am consistently schooling the level abov wherever I want to go to or atleast the move up isn’t my max. Don’t want to overface myself.


  6. I have to admit, I rely a lot on my trainer to help me make this decision, especially since for me moving up means doing something I’ve never done before. I also think that sometimes the questions to ask when referring to moving up a horse vs moving up a rider are ever-so-slightly different.

    For example, I agree that by and large the “when it feels easy” is preferable to winning or a specific time frame. However, I’m a more timid and nervous rider and things rarely truly feel “easy” to me. It can be a delicate balance between wanting to move up and jump higher vs still being nervous about it. And that’s where my trainer comes in. She knows the divisions and what skills I need to be competent. If she thinks I have those skills, then I’m ready to move up.


  7. You make a good point about judging when to move up by whether or not you’re winning consistently–in the low children’s or adult jumpers, sadly winning sometimes means riding more like a barrel racer and hoping your horse gets his legs out of the way, and I am never going to ride like that, so I may not win at every show (although I always secretly wish those crazy people have rails, and they often do). Moving up when something feels easy is a much better gauge, in any discipline, as long as it feels easy consistently, like for more than just one show.


  8. I don’t think it’s just about the ribbons. To me, when a course seems easy and the jumps are NOT intimidating at all annnnnnnd I’m competitive (this doesn’t mean winning, but getting a chunk of it)… it’s time for me to move up.


  9. i agree 100% with your logic here – and think you guys are gonna totally beast it at novice! or, in the unlikely event that it’s not really Henry’s day, you’ve already demonstrated that you’ll act in his best interests.

    most of what you wrote also ran through my mind when deciding to move up to BN this weekend. we had an awesome and confident xc school that included a novice fence, our current level was easy, and 2 different (and unrelated) jumping trainers encouraged me. can’t ask for much more, right?

    imo, waiting until you’re consistently winning is too fine-toothed a comb for the lower levels and typical adult ammy. if you’re riding a sales prospect or trying to go pro or riding for sponsors or something like that, then maybe. but otherwise the dressage game at the lower levels kinda makes it unrealistic.


  10. I like the philosophy of moving up when your current level feels easy. Years ago, when I moved Moe up to Training level, it was because the jumps were feeling easy and fun at Novice. His dressage sucked then and it’s only marginally better now, but I still felt like it was a good move and we enjoyed ourselves. I’m thinking of moving Gina up to First Level dressage because it feels like it will be a challenge- but an enjoyable challenge, which I think is important. No one wants a piss-your-pants challenge.


  11. The third option is always the way to go! Same goes for what’s good for you and your horse. Some horses don’t like the way a dressage test runs in the lower classes, but happy to do “all the fancy stuff” or jumping 1 meter with 16 faults because the pony don’t lifts its legs if it’s to smal, but jumping clear and winning at 130. XC is so so so individual, from daily form to what kind of venue. Will ride 1* on one course and EI100 on another. Just depending on the track and my own mental state 🙂


  12. Good question! I generally look to my trainer. I really trust his opinion and if he thinks we’re ready, then I’ll go for it. I also don’t agree with the winning theory. There are plenty of people winning in the adult jumpers that have no business in the AO jumpers. I like the idea of moving up when your current level seems easy and the thought of moving up is an exciting one. The most important question when moving up in my opinion, is whether the horse is ready and capable, which Henry seems to have answered! 🙂


  13. I definitely agree that #3 is the best of the choices, but in itself still doesn’t tell the whole story. Moving up between BN and Novice is mostly about height, especially for you guys who have ridden the most technical BN course I’ve ever seen. But the jump from Novice to Training means there are a whole bunch of technical implications that he needs to be schooled in… so basically, we could be bored at Novice, but shouldn’t move up until all those new questions have been reviewed.

    The jump from Training to Prelim is supposed to be so gigantic its been proposed to have a level in between… yikes!

    I think you and Henry are more than capable of moving up to Novice! Get ‘er done!


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