Growing U.S. Para Dressage: Show Organizers and the Need for U.S. Para Dressage Judges

Hanneke Gerritsen (NED) at the 2011 Dressage Affaire. (Photo © 2011 Lindsay McCall for USPEA)
Hanneke Gerritsen (NED) at the 2011 Dressage Affaire. (Photo © 2011 Lindsay McCall for USPEA)

"I take my heart out of my chest, put it on the table and put it back in after the ride because it's so amazing what these riders do - I'd give them all 10s." Hanneke Gerritsen
The growing presence of U.S. Para Dressage is evident with more venues running CPEDI3* in tandem with their CDIs, along with the rising number of entries that reflect new rider interest and talent. However, the cost of importing accredited FEI PE judges is an added burden for show organizers making the need for approved U.S. PE judges acute. To that end, USEF has scheduled an FEI PE Dressage Judges’ Course to be held March 9-11 2012 at The Dressage Affaire in Del Mar, CA led by FEI 5* judge Hanneke Gerritsen from the Netherlands.

The course will be for promotion to FEI 3* and 4* judge. To fulfill the FEI criteria, participants must be a Prix St. George judge (Able-Bodied) in their own country. It is also possible to ask to sit in. USEF is hoping to add a Para Steward segment as well. Info to be posted online shortly at: www.usef.org/newsletterLicensedOfficials/2012schedule.html

Widely acknowledged as a top authority on Para, Gerritsen judges worldwide and served as Technical Delegate for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, as well as for the upcoming 2012 Paralympics in London. She coached the Dutch Para-Equestrian Team from 2000 to 2004. In addition, she is a Grand Prix judge and a selector/trainer for new dressage judges at all levels. Speaking to the particular demands of scoring para dressage, she emphasizes the judges cannot be swayed by the disability factor.

"I take my heart out of my chest, put it on the table and put it back in after the ride because it's so amazing what these riders do - I'd give them all 10s."

Defining New Judges

Kristi Wysocki recently passed the FEI Para judging course in Mexico City to be approved as an FEI Para 3* judge. (photo: phelpsphotos.com)
Kristi Wysocki recently passed the FEI Para judging course in Mexico City to be approved as an FEI Para 3* judge. (photo: phelpsphotos.com)

"Para Dressage is the only discipline growing right now," believes S judge Kristi Wysocki, Elbert, CO. She recently passed the FEI Para judging course in Mexico City to be approved as an FEI Para 3* judge. For 2012, the rules are slightly altered with the star status replacing the past terminology: 2* (new), 3* (was Candidate), 4* (was International) and 5* (was Official). "You need a solid dressage background," advised Wysocki who found the course conducted by 5* judge Carlos Lopez of Portugal and Ann Prain from France outstanding but intensive. Part of her exam consisted of judging orally at the CPEDI3* competition. "Just like you have to ignore that it's Steffan Peters, you can't get too focused on the rider," she noted. But observing the nuts-and-bolts dedication of all the Para riders in Mexico hooked Wysocki. "These riders impressed me beyond belief with their courage and determination diving head first into international competition on borrowed horses. Not many dressage riders would do it. Imagine riding your freestyle on a horse you just met!" While she noted that this is a group used to problem solving and adapting, she found the spirit of camaraderie and shared ambition very refreshing.

Ultimately, for Wysocki, judging and riding dressage highlights the profound communication between horse and rider. "It's the part of horses I love the most. Its really interesting with Para how that communication goes on. Para solidifies for me the magic people can have with horses."

Streamlining the PE Judge Process
While any judge can judge a PE class below the CDI level, a clearer path of accreditation and promotions for U.S. National Para judges would benefit many judges who have expressed interest but contend with heavy schedules. As a large R judge, David Schmutz, Glendale, CA attended an IPEC clinic run by Anita Owen and came away amazed by what these riders can do. But also that the judging remains true to able-bodied dressage.

"Para still utilizes the training pyramid. Scoring reflects correct gaits, required movements, effectiveness of aids and the how horse goes," he says. Schmutz has volunteered in Europe and apprentice judged for free but stresses the need for courses such as the one in Del Mar to prepare for the exam.

The FEI has a well-defined, active way of approving PE judges and stewards through courses, clinics and forums. Worldwide 50-60 judges hold FEI 4* cards or above. The U.S. and Canada total 12 FEI 3* judges but not all are current. For PE National accredited judges an IPEC or PE refresher course now lasts five years, up from three. Applying for courses and all licensing for FEI goes through USEF.

Para Appeal For Show Organizers CDI to Local

Kim Keenan Stordahl organizer of The Dressage Affaire in Del Mar (photo: phelpsphotos.com)
Kim Keenan Stordahl organizer of The Dressage Affaire in Del Mar (photo: phelpsphotos.com)

Show organizer Kim Keenan-Stordahl of The Dressage Affaire in Del Mar heeded the call for CDI status in 2010, adding a CPEDI3*, which continued in 2011. Keenan admits she felt slightly apprehensive at first because it was an unknown but said working with the USPEA.org made it easy to get answers to questions.

“I was not at all familiar with Para Dressage but it felt right immediately to include it in the show. It does require additional consideration to manage it safely and well but I think it most definitely enhances our show." She concurs that Para attracts a new audience for dressage, making it less elitist (and dare say, boring). Headset commentary that can explain a rider’s physical challenge (not always readily apparent in the saddle), along with the test helps enlighten and broaden dressage’s audience appeal.

“It’s always been my mission to connect the Equestrian Community with the community at large and this accomplishes that and then some. It’s a perfect fit for Dressage Affaire.” It also creates a connection between the disciplines as both Para and able-bodied riders inspire each other.

Response from elite riders at Del Mar and at the CDI/CPEDI3* at NEDA/Saugerties, NY was overwhelmingly positive. Rider/trainer Mette Rosencranz was impressed and enthusiastic. "It’s great to have para here together with us and to see the Canadian and Mexican teams. We draw energy off each other!”

“The important thing is to find a safe way to blend the two competitions, not keep them separate,” says Keenan-Stordahl. Designated warm up times in the same area works. She tries to make sure that the competition feels important and special with great prizes and goes the extra distance to help the riders with whatever they might need. NEDA show organizer, Beth Jenkins at Saugerties, NY, designated four golf carts as rider shuttles from the stables to the rings or anywhere on the large show grounds and made sure riders had parking permits to get close to the barns, which the riders and their entourage much appreciated. Para should be embraced as a boon for the dressage community as a whole. It’s uplifting to root for the riders and powerful to see how horses transform mere mortals into picture of grace, elegance and skill in the sport.

By Popular Demand For Any Show
As the organizer of Dressage at Saratoga, Regina Cristo asks why not offer PE classes? “Any show can do it, it’s easy for smaller shows to add FEI TOC classes. It doesn't cost anything.” For local shows, to make PE classes more attractive to offer as Grades I through III use the 20 x 40 ring size, it can be as simple as moving a chain inside the larger ring to shorten the arena or scheduling with intro or quadrille classes.

For DAS, having a $1500 PE high point sponsor is huge to attract entries. Cristo has found that like the freestyles, PE attracts spectators and brings in people new to the sport. However, she stresses the need for PR to let people know. Put it in the local papers, advertise it, it interests people. “There are lots of people dealing with handicaps and it’s very encouraging to other people. There’s untapped support out there.”




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