Gray explains why she launched her show, saying that even at international level competitions, “I would see riders who had wonderful horses and could ride half passes and pirouettes, but who had incorrect positions and underdeveloped seats. I was also very concerned that more and more riders were not developing knowledge of stable management and theory.”
“Above all I wanted to encourage correct riding, good position, and knowledge of all aspects of horse care. My goal was to have a competition for youth riders only and one where the playing field was fairly level.” Gray explains. “The winners would not necessarily be the riders with the fanciest horses.”
To do this Gray created a three-phase competition that features a written test and an equitation ride plus a dressage test. All three phases are weighted evenly in calculating the final score for each rider. The written exam covers a different theory book and stable management book each year. The equitation phase, conducted as a group ride, evaluates the correctness of the rider’s position and effective use of the rider’s seat and aids.
In the dressage phase, riders compete in Introductory through Fourth Level and in the FEI Pony, Junior and Young Rider levels. To further even out the playing field, competitors in all ability levels are divided by age. Two ParaEquestrian Divisions are also offered.
Gray’s long-held belief is that “Dressage is good for any horse and rider combination, no matter which discipline they ride.” So, the Youth Dressage Festival offers classes appealing to all types of riders, such as the Prix Caprilli (a dressage test incorporating jumps), a dressage trail class, a pleasure class, and the Musical Freestyle. Not surprisingly, the Festival routinely attracts riders from the ranks of Pony Club and the Eventing, Hunter and Jumper disciplines. For the youngest aspiring riders, there are a Leadline class and a horseless Dressage class.
The Festival had humble but hopeful beginnings. Gray recalls, “The year that I started the Festival (then called the Northeast Junior/Young Rider Dressage Championships) we wondered, ‘Will anyone want to do this?’ We had hoped for maybe 50 riders and were thrilled that we had nearly three times that number! That made me realize that we were on to something.” Since then the show has attracted on average 250 riders aged 4 to 21 hailing from 26 of the United States and one dozen countries on four continents.
The weekend is scheduled specifically to achieve the goal of giving the riders a total education . At the Saturday evening banquet the S. Braley Gray Award in given to honor an individual who has contributed to the growth of dressage in the U.S. A detailed introduction of the honoree traces the development of the sport and that person’s role in it. During the closing ceremony, sports psychologist and adult amateur dressage rider Leslie Weiss, Ph.D. awards the Poise under Pressure award to the rider demonstrating poise and sportsmanship under adverse circumstances.
Community service and education are important components of the Youth Dressage Festival. All riders provide two hours of volunteer service during the show, to better appreciate the effort required to stage competitions. Riders also donate gently used books that are then distributed to clients of a local social service agency. A charitable organization is designated each year to receive a grant generated from proceeds of the event. This year’s recipient is the Equestrian Aid Foundation, founded by Olympic dressage rider Robert Dover to assist equestrians coping with serious injury or disease.
Through the imagination and generosity of Bates Saddlery there is a new competition at the Youth Dressage Festival. For the Bates Stable Management Challenge, the top 5 scorers in each age group in the Written Test will be eligible to participate in the practical test. In this part the competitors may be asked to fit a saddle, fit a bridle, take temperature, pulse, and/or respiration, put on a stable or shipping bandage or a polo wrap, identify types of feed, and there will also be an unannounced check of their stall.
Role models for volunteerism abound at the Festival. Olympic dressage riders such as Robert Dover, Hilda Gurney and Michael Poulin have volunteered their expertise, serving as officials and clinicians, and have been joined over the years by luminaries of the Jumping and Eventing disciplines as well.
Demo rides and exhibitions have delighted appreciative audiences each year. They have included rare breeds, Native American horsemanship, dressage driving, Bettina Drummond’s famed Baroque horses, and most notably, Gray’s former long-time assistant trainer and Olympic team member, Courtney King, who combined Grand Prix dressage riding with jumping on her famous partner, Idocus.
There is an international flavor to the event. One hears several foreign languages spoken on the show grounds while the flags of their countries fly overhead. Each year Gray invites a team and individual riders from around the world, especially from places where dressage is not a well developed sport. Riders have hailed from South Africa, Alaska, Lithuania, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Oklahoma to name a few. This year teams from Guatemala and Canada will be competing along with individuals from Bermuda and France.Thanks to the sportsmanship and generosity of area riders and trainers, these competitors are loaned horses and like all Festival competitors, can avail themselves of complimentary coaching provided by young professionals who competed in the Festival in the pas. They join forces with the American riders to form teams and vie for the USDF Region 8 Youth Team Championships. In the process, they form lasting friendships that endure across miles and over the years.
Reflecting on the development of the Festival in its first decade, Gray admits, “I am proud that there have been some riders who have been brought up in the show who have gone on to be successful.” Over one dozen Festival competitors have represented their region at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. Of them, Jessica Rizzi, a USEF National Junior Dressage champion, and two time Brentina Cup winner Elisabeth Austin earned the NAYRC Individual Silver Medal and Lauren Sprieser the NAYRC Team Bronze.
Festival veterans Laura Noyes and Mica Mabragaña have represented their countries at the prestigious FEI Young Rider Dressage World Cup championships. Long-time Festival competitors Colleen Akin, Isabelle Leibler and Ana DiGeronimo were each Reserve Champion at the USEF Dressage Seat Medal Finals, developed largely by Gray and inaugurated in 2003 to promote and reward excellence in equitation.
But Gray is equally as proud of the far-reaching effects felt by the vast majority of riders who participate in the event. “Even if they never become so-called big time competitors, I know that the experience of preparing for and competing at the Festival has provided them with a solid, long-term foundation of theoretical knowledge and riding ability to use throughout their riding careers,” she explained. “I am so pleased to see that trainers and youth riders have risen to the challenge of improving their equitation and considering a firm basis of theoretical knowledge to be important.”
After 10 years, is Gray tired of running the event? “Oh no, not at all!” is the immediate response. “I love the excitement the show has created amongst the kids,” she observed. “And what excites me most is that the show has also created a year-round activity for many groups. Trainers run study sessions in the winter, organize schooling shows to help riders qualify, and conduct equitation and test riding clinics. And, riders are developing teamwork long before the show.”
Despite the success of her event, Gray is puzzled by the fact that there aren’t more like it, even though she reports, “people contact me from around the U.S. and even other countries, wanting to run shows that are similar.” While Gray’s Youth Dressage Festival runs on a grand scale, it doesn’t have to be a big production. She is quick to point out that her first show was a one-day event. “I think we’ve proven the success of our formula,” she contends. All you really need is to have the three-part format and you can do it at your home stable.” In fact, Gray has run a version of the Festival at her own training facility in Bedford, New York, with a large percentage of her adult clients participating.
Once again, Gray has thrown down the gauntlet, doing what she does best, challenging horses, trainers and riders to be the best they can be. See them all rise to the occasion, and join in the festivities as the Youth Dressage Festival turns ten, July 18 to 20, 2008 at the HITS on the Hudson show grounds in Saugerties, New York.
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