Last year, the U.S. Equestrian Federation's Dressage Committee ignited a firestorm when it proposed a rule change that would have required that riders competing in dressage competitions at Third Level and above meet certain qualification criteria. The exact criteria for moving up the levels was much in flux, but the initial proposal was to create some form of point system in which riders would earn points based on their scores in recognized competitions.
Throughout this past year, supporters and opponents have battled over the issue of performance standards and opponents seem to have won the battle. At this year's Adequan/USDF Annual Convention, held this past week in Denver, the USEF Dressage Committee voted to withdraw the performance standards proposal following an open forum on this issue on December 4.
Supporters of the initial performance standards proposal had argued that performance standards were necessary for the good of horses – essentially to prevent riders and horses from competing in levels at which neither was qualified. Opponents, while not disagreeing with the need to protect horses, felt the proposal not only set the bar too high but also argued that meeting that standard would be very costly for riders because they would have to attend many more shows to earn the points needed to move up.
That concern over the financial cost was clearly evident during the open forum at the 2008 USDF convention. "The cost was really a big issue for riders," said Gil Merrick, USEF managing director for Dressage Sport Programs. Throughout this past year, the USEF Dressage Committee solicited comments from the dressage community on the performance standards issue, including holding an online survey in early 2008. The committee said the results of that survey and comments received indicate clear support for some form of performance standards, but serious concerns were expressed about how a system of standards would be set up and the cost for riders to meet those standards.
"People agree there is a need for this, but the biggest concern is financial," Merrick said. The December 4 forum was more cordial than many had expected, particularly after it became clear that the Dressage Committee was listening to the concerns of USDF members. Although the latest performance standards proposal has been withdrawn, the issue is still being considered for the future. A joint USDF/USEF task force is being created to continue to study the issue of performance standards.
What is closer to becoming a reality are rider tests. The Dressage Committee had already begun developing riders tests for Fourth Level and up, but after receiving positive feedback from USDF members for the concept of rider tests, the committee is now looking to develop tests starting at Training Level. Merrick said the rider tests will be just that – an assessment of a rider's knowledge and skill. "You can go in with any breed, age or quality of horse. The horse will not be judged, only the rider," he said.
These rider tests would be used to evaluate whether or not riders qualify to move up the levels, but they would not count as qualifying scores for any award programs or competitions. Merrick said USEF hopes that dressage shows will offer the rider tests as early as the 2009 show season. As part of the process to develop rider tests, the USEF and USDF are now working on some program of training for judges to ensure that all of them understand how to judge the rider tests. "We want to make sure that judges are all on the same page," Merrick said.