DresssageDaily reporter Kelly Sanchez presents this in depth article of the program, its challenges, and strengths.
Get Scott Hassler talking about young horses, and his passion and enthusiasm practically spills out of him. He’ll tell you how young horses are just like school kids, how trainers need a good support system and how, despite its critics, the U.S. young horse program is a success. The USEF National Young Dressage Horse coach has been on hand for the Markel/USEF Central, Western, and Eastern Selection Trials for Young Horses offering support and guidance to the combinations competing in the 5- and 6-year-old classes. “I think the Young Horse Program is in a very healthy place,” says Hassler, who joined the program as coach in 2005. “It’s far from perfect, but I think we can keep tweaking it.
In the first two Selection Trials, we qualified two horses for the FEI World Breeding Championships in Verden [Emily Wagner and Wakeup and Sabine Schut-Kery and Sanceo], which is great. But I get a lot of criticism that these classes are a joke and that we’re never going to see these horses again. My comment back is that’s a pretty harsh statement. I see it as an issue of maturity—the program’s only been around 10 years. But if we’re going to push things and be critical, then please show me the Pan American Games horses that are going Grand Prix on our teams—that’s an even closer step. We are seeing the Young Horses going to the Developing Horses—believe me, I’m looking at those numbers. Success to me is not a score achieved in a 5- and 6-year-old class. Success is that we’re seeing horses go down the pipeline and be successful on our future teams.
“I also get a lot of questions, like ‘Why aren’t we seeing more horses in the program?’” he continues. “For the last couple of years, on the national ranking list for Young Horses, about 150 of them have scored 7.2 or higher, and that doesn’t include all those who tried and didn’t get a 7.2, and I’m guessing that’s between 50 and 100 horses. The program is bigger than it appears. The goal is to bring out these horses and develop them properly. It’s a very good sign that we’re seeing that number of horses. It could always be better—we’ll continue to strive to be better.”
Launched in 2001, the program was designed in part to “encourage the properly structured development of young dressage prospects through the training scale; to identify and recognize outstanding talent and the training of international-caliber horses; and to prepare these horses for future careers at the FEI level and participation on U.S. High Performance teams.”
The program had been existence for several years when Hassler came on board, and there was a lot of buzz surrounding it. He admits that there were bigger numbers of horses competing in the selection trials in those early days, but he points out that the National Young Horse Dressage Championships are now a serious goal for many. “The World Breeding Championships [in Verden] is not the main theme on people’s minds—it’s kind of special and suited to unique combinations,” he says. “I see so many horses in my training sessions that I advise not to do these Young Horse classes—the best route for that horse is to give it more time. Our goal is that we get horses developed properly—that’s the most important thing.”
Guidance Is Key
For Hassler, the key to the program is bringing horses into the show ring. “Last year at the Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championships, which is also the Developing Horse Championships, 50 percent of the horses on the ranking list were graduates of the Young Horse program.” He envisions a thriving national network of what he calls “trainers/advisors.” As he puts it, “It’s important that we can pass these horses along from guidance to guidance—I don’t want to say trainer to trainer, because we’re really guiders as much as trainers. As an example here, it was such a pleasure to be with Sabine and Christine [Schut-Kery’s coach, Christine Traurig]. It’s about teamwork. Christine’s a fabulous trainer, and she can turn to me and say, ‘What do you think?’ It’s fun—that’s the way it should be.”
In Hassler’s mind, there are three options for owners of young horses: the Markel/USEF Young Horse program; no shows at all; and regular classes. “There’s not one of those three that’s more prestigious than the other,” he emphasizes. “It’s what’s the right choice for the horse.”
Young horses require specialized skill, patience and maturity on the part of their handlers and trainers. “Finding the right balance is critical,” Hassler says. “You see people who are too loving and too forgiving and people who take it too far, who want to control every single step they take. It’s about the middle ground, where there are boundaries but the horses don’t feel restricted, they don’t feel told what to do all the time, they are ridden forward and free, but they can still be playful and enthusiastic. This is an age where they’re going through a lot, and it can be a claustrophobic moment when they’re learning compression and connection and how to bend and use their bodies. If it’s done right early, it’s so much easier later. Horses are like kids in a classroom, and I think the most beautiful teachers are those who can recognize that Timmy over there is pretty shy and needs to be drawn out a little. And Eric over there is pretty aggressive—he cuts in the lunch line, he pushes others around, he’s the ringleader. He needs a little bit of a half halt; he needs more boundaries. That’s what we’re doing with these horses: We’re recognizing their strengths and weaknesses. Young horses need boundaries and clarity, or it can get dangerous. I love trying to read them and guessing what they’re going to do and learning from it—every day is a learning day.”
The Young Dressage Horse Trainers Symposium
For the past six years, Hassler has organized the Young Dressage Horse Trainers Symposium, which started when he and his wife, Susanne, were head trainers at Hilltop Farm in Maryland. It’s now hosted every November at the couple’s Hassler Dressage at Riveredge, in Chesapeake City, MD. “It’s something we love doing,” he says. “In Europe you know where the good young horse riders are, so we decided to find a few talented trainers around the country to whom we could recommend our breeders send their horses. We thought we’d take three or four riders, and they’d come and ride our horses and we’d work with them for four or five days. We got 340 applicants in year one—we were blown away!”
The training content is a critical piece to the Symposium, but Hassler says there’s more to it than training horses. “It’s about community and camaraderie and knowing that we’re all in this game together. A lot of these trainers are younger trainers, and when you’re in your barn day to day with your group around you, it can be a lonely, frustrating, sometimes isolating place, so it’s great to get to a group where you truly feel you’re not being judged, where you can talk about something you’re facing with a client, how to get through a situation, how to stay positive and focus when it seems like half your barn is going lame. This is an emotional business, there’s no way around it, and I believe that the more balanced the trainers are in their lives, the more it benefits the horses.”
The Challenge of the Young Horse Classes
When it comes to emotions, one of the trickier parts to the Young Horse Classes are the public comments by the judges, which are announced at the conclusion of the test for the rider and spectators to hear. “It’s probably the hardest part of the Young Horse Program,” Hassler notes. “It has upset people enough that they won’t do it again, and that’s unfortunate. The judges, of course, feel that they have a responsibility, and if it’s all sugar-coated, then it’s not meaningful. I think we have judges who are really, really gifted at commenting, and people who are not so gifted at commenting. Sometimes I think it would be easier to just announce the score; on the other hand, people want to hear the comments. It’s a Catch-22. We have to be careful about using the sensitive words, the life-threatening words, like ‘lateral walk,’ and also very, very careful not to come across like the judges are giving a riding lesson—anything related to the rider, like ‘your hands were blocking this’ or somehow suggesting that the rider caused something that was going on, is not appropriate. Some people can say the most negative thing in a positive way, and some people can’t.”
A Judge’s Perspective
Natalie Lamping, who judged the Young Horse Selection Trial at Flintridge as well as in Illinois and will travel to Virginia for the third and final trial in June, says she loves the opportunity to officiate at the Young Horse Classes but agrees that the public comments in the Young Horse Classes often strike a nerve with riders. “But you have to be fair to the rider and be really real in your scoring,” she says. “It seems in the sport of dressage that most people have a hard time hearing the truth. We judge what they show us at that moment in time. We all hope for the best. There’s a kind way to say something, and there’s bad luck too—the horse shies, the horse is naughty—but that’s life.”
A Competitor’s Perspective
Sherry Van’t Riet competed in the Selection Trial for 6-year-olds with her Oldenburg Sir Deauville, but fell short of the 7.2 score required to qualify for the National Championships (the World Breeding Championships require a minimum score of 8.2) in part when her horse missed their first lead change and leaped into the air. Despite her disappointment, she said she was grateful for the experience. “I’m really open to any suggestions. Any of this information I take to heart, and I appreciate it. It’s like when I go to a clinic: I go to learn. I don’t go to show off. What’s the point of that? How can you learn if you’re only showing the stuff that you do really well? When the judges were telling me about my horse, I was nodding my head. He did what he did!”